Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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July 31, 2009

FRIDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* More bloodshed in Baghdad: "Bombs exploded near five Shiite mosques around Baghdad within 45 minutes on Friday as worshipers attended prayer services, killing at least 29 people in what appeared to be a coordinated attack against followers of the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr, Iraqi officials and a Sadr aide said."

* "Cash for clunkers" received a strong enough reception that it started to run out of money. The House voted today, with plenty of Republican votes, to direct an additional $2 billion into the program.

* The House tackled executive salaries, too: "The House of Representatives approved legislation today that would give shareholders of companies the right to cast advisory votes on executive compensation and empower financial regulators to limit pay that they deem inappropriate. The bill, which passed 237-185, came in response to public outrage over lavish pay received by executives at Wall Street firms that took billions in emergency aid from the government."

* Gen. Stanley McChrystal is bringing a new U.S. strategy to Afghanistan, but he still wants a lot more boots on the ground.

* Sen. Chris Dodd (D) of Connecticut announced today that he's been diagnosed with a treatable form of prostate cancer. He will stay in the Senate, will seek re-election, and is confident about a full recovery.

* Congress will investigate fraudulent letters sent to lawmakers during the cap-and-trade debate.

* New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo with the Quote of the Day: "When the banks did well, their employees were paid well. When the banks did poorly, their employees were paid well. And when the banks did very poorly, they were bailed out by taxpayers and their employees were still paid well."

* Media Matters is going after Lou Dobbs with ads -- to be aired on CNN.

* House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) doesn't buy into the Birther conspiracy theory, which he blames on liberal bloggers and MSNBC.

* A right-wing activist group is distributing advice to conservatives on how to disrupt public events and harass Democratic lawmakers. Stay classy, conservatives.

* Peggy Noonan remembers Richard Nixon a lot differently than the rest of us.

* Megan McArdle argues against national health insurance. Ezra Klein was going to respond, but had trouble: "In 1,600 words, she doesn't muster a single link to a study or argument, nor a single number that she didn't make up (what numbers do exist come in the form of thought experiments and assumptions). Megan's argument against national health insurance boils down to a visceral hatred of the government."

* And finally, I thought National Review's Andy McCarthy couldn't be a bigger embarrassment. I stand corrected.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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BAUCUS SETS A DEADLINE.... Perhaps Max Baucus started feeling some heat from his colleagues, because he today he did something unusual: he gave Republicans a deadline.

The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus, has told colleagues he will press ahead with major health care legislation on Sept. 15 even if he does not have a bipartisan deal, Democrats said.

The Montana Democrat has been leading efforts by a bipartisan group of senators -- three Democrats and three Republicans -- to craft a compromise health care bill. But he is under increasing pressure from Democrats and the White House to unveil a draft and begin public committee sessions.

Republicans have urged him not to rush and insisted no deal was possible before the Senate leaves for its summer recess at the end of next week.

At a meeting late Thursday, Mr. Baucus told Democratic Finance committee members of his plan to begin those sessions on Sept. 15th.

Assuming Baucus doesn't walk this back, it's a very encouraging development. As Jonathan Chait noted this afternoon, "[T]he only way those Republicans, except maybe Olympia Snowe, will support a bill is if they think there's a strong chance that Democrats will pass an even more liberal bill without their input. This would give them some incentive to compromise, but zero incentive to compromise quickly. Indeed, they have a strong incentive to drag out the negotiations as long as possible."

They need, in other words, a deadline, which is what Baucus seems to have given them. If Republicans he's negotiating with don't agree to a deal by Sept. 15 -- the week after the Senate returns from recess -- the committee would ostensibly move forward with a Democratic plan. This tells GOP lawmakers that the train is leaving the station, whether they choose to get on or not is up to them.

Or, as Brian Beutler put it, "[I]t's put up or shut up time for Republicans."

Steve Benen 5:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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GUARDED OPTIMISM.... President Obama scheduled another brief, Friday afternoon speech at the White House today, and unlike last week, this time he barely even mentioned health care reform.

Rather, just as producers are preparing the evening newscasts, the president put a positive spin on the new economic data. What more, he pointed to new evidence that the recession he inherited was even deeper than we previously realized.

Obama was careful not to sound too optimistic -- he said the improved data doesn't offer "much comfort to those Americans who are still out of work and struggling to make ends meet" -- but he nevertheless touted the Recovery Act for contributing to some of the progress.

For those who can't watch clips from work computers, I'm putting a transcript after the jump.

From the White House event:

Well, I just wanted to say a few words about the economic numbers that we received this morning. The gross domestic product, or GDP, is a measure of our overall economic growth as a nation. This morning, the GDP revealed that the recession we faced when I took office was even deeper than anyone thought at the time. It told us how close we were to the edge.

But the GDP also revealed that in the last few months, the economy has done measurably better that we had thought -- better than expected. And as many economists will tell you, that part of the progress is directly attributable to the Recovery Act. This and other difficult but important steps that we've taken over the last six months have helped us put the brakes on the recession.

We took unprecedented action to stem the spread of foreclosures by helping responsible homeowners stay in their homes and pay their mortgages. We helped revive the credit markets and open up loans for families and small businesses. And we enacted a Recovery Act that put tax cuts directly in the pockets of middle-class families and small businesses; extended unemployment insurance and health insurance for those who've lost their jobs; provided relief to struggling states to prevent layoffs; and made investments that are putting people back to work building bridges and roads, schools and hospitals.

Now, I realize that none of this is much comfort to those Americans who are still out of work and struggling to make ends meet. And when we receive our monthly jobs report next week, it's likely to show that we're still continuing to lose far too many jobs. As far as I'm concerned, we won't have a recovery as long as we keep losing jobs. And I will not rest until every American who wants a job can find one.

But history does show that you need to have economic growth before you have job growth. And today's GDP is an important sign that the economy is headed in the right direction and that business investment, which had been plummeting in the last several months, is showing signs of stabilizing. This means that eventually, businesses will start growing and they'll start hiring again. And that's when it will truly feel like a recovery to the American people.

This won't happen overnight. As I've said before, it took us many more months to fully dig ourselves out of a recession that we now know was even deeper than anyone thought. But I will continue to work every single day and take every step that's necessary to make sure that happens. I also intend to make sure that we don't return to an economy where our growth is based on inflated profits and maxed-out credit cards -- because that doesn't create a lot of jobs. We need a robust growth based on a highly educated, well-trained workforce; health care costs that aren't dragging down businesses and families; and clean energy jobs and industries. That's where our future is. And that's where the jobs are.

Now, one of the steps we've taken to boost our economy is an initiative known as "Cash for Clunkers." Basically, this allows folks to trade in their older, less fuel-efficient cars for credits that go towards buying fewer, more -- newer, more fuel-efficient cars. This gives consumers a break, reduces dangerous carbon pollution and our dependence on foreign oil, and strengthens the American auto industry. Not more than a few weeks ago, there were skeptics who weren't sure that this "Cash for Clunkers" program would work. But I'm happy to report that it has succeeded well beyond our expectations and all expectations, and we're already seeing a dramatic increase in showroom traffic at local car dealers.

It's working so well that there are legitimate concerns that the funds in this program might soon be exhausted. So we're now working with Congress on a bipartisan solution to ensure that the program can continue for everyone out there who's still looking to make a trade. And I'm encouraged that Republicans and Democrats in the House are working to pass legislation today that would use some Recovery Act funding to keep this program going -- funding that we would work to replace down the road. Thanks to quick bipartisan responses, we're doing everything possible to continue this program and to continue helping consumers and the auto industry contribute to our recovery.

So I'm very pleased with the progress that's been made in the House today on the "Cash for Clunkers" program. I am guardedly optimistic about the direction that our economy is going. But we've got a lot more work to do. And I want to make sure that all the Americans out there who are still struggling because they're out of work or not having enough work know that this administration will not rest until the movement that we're seeing on the business side starts translating into jobs for those people and their families.

Thank you very much, everybody.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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THE SUCCESS OF THE STIMULUS.... When the second quarter GDP numbers were released this morning, the data showed the economy faring slightly better after six months of deep and painful contraction. It wasn't consumer spending that led to progress, however, but rather government spending that "helped economic activity in the spring."

Now, that in and of itself, is probably uncomfortable news for conservative Republicans, who've spent the better part of the year, if not the better part of their adult lives, arguing that government spending is incapable of helping economic activity. Indeed, let's recall that earlier this year, at the height of the economic crisis, the congressional GOP insisted that a five-year spending freeze was the responsible course of action.

But more to the point, these conservatives failed, and Democrats passed a stimulus package. The Economic Policy Institute's Josh Bivens reviews the numbers from the second quarter and concludes that the recovery efforts made a real difference. (via Kevin Drum)

The marked improvement in this quarter relative to last is largely due to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).... Despite the overall contraction, the fingerprints of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act could be seen in some aspect of today's report. Federal government spending grew at an 11% rate in the quarter, adding roughly 0.8% to overall GDP. State and local government spending grew at a 2.4% annual rate, the fastest growth since the middle of 2007. It is clear that the large amount of state aid contained in the ARRA made this growth possible.

Furthermore, real (inflation-adjusted) disposable personal income rose by 3.2% in the quarter, after rising by only 1% in the previous quarter. A large contribution to this increase was made by the Making Work Pay tax credit passed in conjunction with the ARRA, as this was the first full quarter that the credit was in effect. [...]

The consensus of macroeconomic forecasters is that ARRA contributed roughly 3% to annualized growth rates in the second quarter. This means that absent its effects, economic performance would have resembled that of the previous three quarters.

Kevin added, "The argument that the stimulus bill has 'failed' because times are still tough has always been dimwitted. There was never any chance that it was going to miraculously end the recession, only that it might make it a little shallower than it otherwise would have been. So far, it appears to have done exactly that."

In recent months, the Republicans have worked hard to convince the country that the recovery efforts were not only misguided, but can already be deemed a "failure." That said, slowly but surely, we're not only seeing improvements in the economy, we're even seeing far-right Republicans concluding that the stimulus may not have been so bad after all.

For about a quarter-century now, conservative Republicans have been wrong about every major economic turning point. They said Reagan's tax increases would hurt economic growth, but they didn't. They said Clinton's tax increases would produce devastating recessions, but they didn't. They said Bush's tax cuts would generate vast wealth and balanced budgets, but they didn't. And they said Obama's recovery plan would be (and has been) a disaster, and that's proving to be wrong, too.

I'm beginning to think these guys should just stop making economic arguments. They're always wrong.

Steve Benen 3:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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TIME TO CANCEL 'MOUTHPIECE THEATER'.... The Washington Post's Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza host a regular video feature on the paper's site called "Mouthpiece Theater." The two sit around in smoking jackets in a fake library -- it's supposed to be a parody of "Masterpiece Theater" -- and try to offer a funny take on political events of the day.

At least, that's the idea.

Today's edition focused, not surprisingly, on the Crowley/Gates meeting with the president yesterday, giving Milbank and Cillizza a chance to make all kinds of beer jokes and beer-related puns. In a bit about which beers would go to which political players if invited to the White House, we heard a variety of rather predictable jokes. David Vitter could enjoy "a nice cold Happy Ending." Dennis Kucinich would have a bottle of "Insanely Bad Elf." The French delegation could be served "Frosty Frog." You get the idea.

At the 2:35 mark, Milbank tells the viewer, "And we won't tell you who's getting a bottle of Mad Bitch." At that point, a photo of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appears briefly on screen.

That's unacceptable. I realize this was supposed to be a silly comedy routine, but this is offensive and stupid. Milbank doesn't get to say he "won't tell" us who the "Mad Bitch" is, and then show a photo of Clinton, as if coy and unsubtle rhetoric makes his little "joke" tolerable.

Brian Beutler, who I believe was the first to catch this, wrote, "If I were on the board of directors of the Kaplan test prep company, and discovered that the people running a money-losing Kaplan subsidiary (better known as the Washington Post) had greenlighted a feature called 'Mouthpiece Theater,' I would demand that either they be fired, or that the Post itself be liquidated."

For now, the video is still online, both at the Post's site and on YouTube. The sooner the paper apologizes and yanks the video, the better.

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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As U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello was considering how to vote on an important piece of climate change legislation in June, the freshman congressman's office received at least six letters from two Charlottesville-based minority organizations voicing opposition to the measure.

The letters, as it turns out, were forgeries.

"They stole our name. They stole our logo. They created a position title and made up the name of someone to fill it. They forged a letter and sent it to our congressman without our authorization," said Tim Freilich, who sits on the executive committee of Creciendo Juntos, a nonprofit network that tackles issues related to Charlottesville's Hispanic community. "It's this type of activity that undermines Americans' faith in democracy."

The faked letter from Creciendo Juntos was signed by "Marisse K. Acevado, Asst Member Coordinator," an identity and position at Creciendo Juntos that do not exist.

The mailing apparently came from a staffer at Bonner & Associates, a D.C. lobbying firm working in opposition to the American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) Act.

But wait, there's more. After being notified of the scheme, Perriello staffers went through other correspondence the Virginia Democrat received on ACES. They found five more forged letters, purportedly from the local branch of the NAACP.

M. Rick Turner, president of the local NAACP branch, said he checked his organization's roster and found none of the five people who signed their name to the five faked letters.

"I am very appalled as the president that our organization has been misrepresented in this way by this bogus ... letter," Turner said. "I hope that whoever's behind this will be brought to justice."

There are some key, unresolved issues here. Someone at Bonner & Associates was responsible for the fake "Acevado" letter, but we don't know who the firm was working for when the letter was sent, and the firm apparently isn't talking to the media about the incident. The fake NAACP letters were sent by fax from the D.C.-area headquarters of Professional Risk Management Services Inc, but we don't know its clients, either, and the company hasn't taken responsibility for the fraudulent correspondence. We also don't know what other lawmakers may have been sent bogus letters.

Tim Fernholz added a good point: "Members of Congress are already very skeptical of constituent communications in this day of Internet-organized communications blitzes; the possibility that they may take these messages even less seriously due to fraud is a very disheartening one."

Postscript: Perriello, by the way, did the right thing and voted for ACES.

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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A BIPARTISAN TEAM.... I'd welcome input on this from presidential historians in the audience, but as far as I can tell, no modern president has added so many officials from the rival party to an administration the way President Obama has.

President Obama added another Republican to his administration late Thursday, announcing that he had nominated former Rep. Anne Northup (R-Ky.) to head the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CSPC).

Obama tapped the former five-term congresswoman to lead the CSPC in yet another addition of a Republican member of Congress to his administration.

Northup had served in Congress until her defeat in the 2006 Democratic landslides by now-Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.).

It's getting to be quite a list. Unless I'm missing someone, Northup would be the sixth Republican with a fairly significant role in the Obama administration -- joining LaHood, McHugh, Gates, Huntsman, and Leach -- and it would have been seven were it not for the unpleasantness with Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.).

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released this week asked respondents whether the president has shown a willingness "to work with people whose viewpoints are different from his own." Only 32% gave Obama a "very good rating" on this, down from 42% in April.

I'm not sure what more the White House can do on this front. Obama has not only repeatedly sought out GOP lawmakers for support on legislation, but he also keeps giving Republicans jobs in his administration, arguably at a level without modern precedent.

Also note that the president's efforts haven't generated any goodwill with the opposition party. Obama has added a half-dozen Republicans to his team, and GOP leaders continue to whine about the president being some kind of strident partisan.

If White House officials hope putting together a bipartisan team might lower the partisan temperature a bit and discourage Republican attacks, they're likely to be disappointed.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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HENRY WAXMAN MAKES ANOTHER DEAL, KEEPS THE BALL ROLLING.... A couple of months ago, the Washington Monthly ran a cover story on House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman that highlighted, among other things, the fact that the California Democrat knows "not only how to make a deal, but how to make the right one."

It's a skill that's been put to the test this week, and Waxman seem to have come through quite nicely.

As of yesterday, the committee chairman was struggling to get a health care reform bill out of his committee and onto the House floor. He had a deal with Blue Dogs that angered the left, and if Waxman pulled back to satisfy liberals' concerns, he'd lose the conservatives. After more discussions this morning, another compromise is reportedly in place.

Liberals and a small core of conservative Democrats set aside long-standing ideological differences early Friday to cut a deal that should allow the House Energy and Commerce Committee to approve a sweeping health care bill, breaking a two-week deadlock that threatened President Barack Obama's top domestic priority.

Blue Dog Democrats on the committee, who are the linchpin in the House health care debate, agreed to allow their liberal colleagues to cut billions from existing government-funded health care programs in order to restore some $50 billion to $65 billion in subsidies set aside in the bill to help middle-income families purchase coverage. [...]

Moderates and liberals on the committee will offer a package during committee consideration that will make changes the Blue Dogs secured in a deal with Waxman earlier this week. The amendment also includes a liberal priority: reducing premiums many uninsured people will be required to pay for health coverage. The change would lower the premium from 12 percent of a household's total annual income to 11 percent.

This middle-of-the-road approach should give both sides the cover they need to approve the overarching legislation.

This is not to say there will be smooth sailing in the House going forward. The Energy and Commerce bill will have to be reconciled with the similar bills passed by the House Ways and Means Committee and the House Education and Labor Committee. Waxman has, for now, satisfied the concerns of progressive Dems and conservatives Dems on his panel, but the larger caucus still has members, both left and right, who need to be convinced.

That said, Waxman will host a vote in about two hours, and at that point, a health care reform bill will be headed to the House floor for the first time ever.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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FRIDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP....Today's installment of campaign-related news items that wouldn't generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers.

* Reports today suggest Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) may not take on Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) in a primary after all.

* Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R), as part of her gubernatorial campaign in Texas, included a series of hidden phrases on her campaign website, including "rick perry gay." A reporter discovered that the site offers automatically generated words and phrases. A Hutchison spokesperson said "rick perry gay" would be removed.

* Republican candidates in both of this year's gubernatorial campaigns -- New Jersey and Virginia -- are having a hard time with questions about Judge Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination. Do they alienate Latino voters or anger the far-right base?

* Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has decided not to attend an event at the Reagan Presidential Library next weekend hosted by a prominent California Republican women's group. There were reports that Palin had previously accepted an invitation, making this the latest in a series of scheduling problems for the conservative former governor.

* Hoping to coax North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven (R) into a Senate race against incumbent Sen. Byron Dorgan (D), the National Republican Senatorial Committee claims to have a poll showing Hoeven leading Dorgan in a head-to-head race, 53% to 36%.

* Democratic leaders hoped to see Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) run for statewide office next year, but he will instead seek re-election.

* Wall Street banker John Chachas (R) apparently intends to take on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) in Nevada next year.

* And there's apparently another uproar among Republican National Committee members. This time, the fight is over whether to let Jim Greer, chairman of the Florida Republican Party and a key ally of RNC Chairman Michael Steele, become head of the party's Rules Committee. Many party leaders perceive Greer as a moderate, and don't want him in a position of influence.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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THE AUGUST MESSAGE COMES TOGETHER ON REFORM.... Opponents of health care reform successfully pushed for a series of delays with the hope that conservatives could kill the effort over the August recess. Supporters of reform are preparing to make sure that doesn't happen. DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) told Chris Cillizza, "We are not going to allow supporters of the status quo to swift-boat health care reform in August."

The message doesn't seem especially complicated: tie reform opponents to the unpopular insurance industry. Greg Sargent obtained a copy of a script a liberal group will use to target GOP lawmakers over the break:

"The insurance industry makes more than $15 billion a year in profits. Now that money is going to fight health care reform. In Washington, opponents of health care reform are spending more than a million dollars a day, just on lobbying alone. On top of that, the insurance companies give millions to the politicians who support them.

"Congressman Roy Blunt has taken more than half a million dollars from the insurance industry. No wonder he's against reform that will lower costs, give us more choices, and keep the insurance companies honest. Meanwhile we are left paying more than three times what members of Congress pay for good health care. It seems that Roy Blunt is against anything that will hurt the insurance companies' bottom line. Call Roy Blunt and tell him to side with us, not the insurance companies."

Similarly, Brian Beutler reports on a strategy memo distributed to members of the House Democratic caucus, which emphasizes the importance of holding insurance companies accountable. The memo argues:

Remove them from between you and your doctor. No discrimination for pre-existing conditions. No dropping your coverage because you get sick. No more job or life decisions made based on loss of coverage. No need to change doctors or plans. No co-pays for preventive care. No excessive out-of-pocket expenses, deductibles, or co-pays. No yearly or lifetime cost caps on what insurance companies cover.

It's the consumer-focused message embraced by the White House, coupled with the insurance-industry criticism that, I imagine, polls well.

Democrats are reportedly calling their effort "Health Care ER" -- ER for "emergency response" -- that will include radio ads, online activism, and traditional grassroots activities, though it's unclear how much money is behind the recess campaign.

It's obviously intended to, at a minimum, match the right's efforts. With a little luck and effective messaging, reform advocates might even end up in a better position after the recess than before it.

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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ONE OF THESE THINGS IS NOT LIKE THE OTHER.... A new Research 2000 poll conducted for Daily Kos asked respondents a rather straightforward question: "Do you believe that Barack Obama was born in the United States of America or not?" Since the president was born in the U.S., ideally, the results would be around 100%.


They weren't. There was, not surprisingly, a significant partisan gap. Only 4% of Democrats are confused about the president's place of birth. The number is slightly higher among independents, 8% of whom got it wrong. Among Republicans, though, 28% -- more than one in four -- believe President Obama was not born in the United States.

For a crazy, demonstrably false, racist idea, these are discouraging numbers.

But I was especially surprised by the regional breakdowns. In the Northeast, West, and Midwest, the overwhelming majorities realize the president is a native-born American. But notice the South -- only 47% got it right and 30% are unsure.

Outside the South, this madness is gaining very little traction, and remains a fringe conspiracy theory. Within the South, it's practically mainstream.

Steve Benen 10:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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THERE IS SUCH A THING AS BAD PUBLICITY.... It's possible that CNN's executives see an upside to the uproar surrounding Lou Dobbs' Birther antics of late. The bad news, as far as the network is concerned, is that one of its leading on-air personalities has become an outrageous and insulting laughing stock, dragging down the CNN brand and name. The good news, perhaps for some of the network brass, is that everyone seems to be talking about one of their leading on-air personalities.

If Dobbs' madness helps bring more viewers to CNN to see what the provocative nut might say next, that might be a tradeoff the network is willing to make -- less integrity and credibility, but more eyeballs for advertisers.

As it turns out, CNN is failing on both counts. Dobbs is not only humiliating himself, according to a report in the New York Observer, he's also driving viewers away.

According to The Observer's analysis of Nielsen data, in recent weeks, as criticism of Mr. Dobbs has continued to go up, his ratings at CNN have continued to go down.

Mr. Dobbs' first began reporting on Obama birth certificate conspiracy theories on the night of Wednesday, July 15. In the roughly two weeks since then, from July 15 through July 28, Mr. Dobbs' 7 p.m. show on CNN has averaged 653,000 total viewers and 157,000 in the 25-54 demo.

By contrast, during the first two weeks of the month (July 1 to July 14) Mr. Dobbs averaged 771,000 total viewers and 218,000 in the 25-54 demo. In other words, Mr. Dobbs' audience has decreased 15 percent in total viewers and 27 percent in the demo since the start of the controversy.... [I]f Mr. Dobbs' affinity for "birthers" is a ratings ploy, it's a pretty ineffective one.

CNN President Jon Klein has been willing to let Dobbs say anything he wants on the air, no matter how wrong, racist, or ridiculous the comments may be. Perhaps the drop in ratings will prompt Klein to reconsider?

Steve Benen 9:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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GDP NUMBERS OFFER SOME ENCOURAGEMENT.... It's never a good thing when the U.S. economy shrinks. It's even worse when it shrinks for four consecutive quarters -- the longest contraction since the 1940s.

But given the seriousness of the recession and economic crisis, and in light of the numbers from the last couple of quarters, the new report on the gross domestic product offers at least some encouragement.

The American economy shrank at an annual rate of one percent from April through June, the government reported on Friday, stoking hopes that the longest recession since the Great Depression was nearly over.

The economy's long, churning decline leveled off significantly in the second quarter, as stock markets started to recover from their worst levels in a dozen years, some housing markets stabilized and the rampant pace of job losses tapered off.

"We're in a deep hole, and now we've got to dig ourselves out of it, which is a very difficult task," Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial, said.

In the fourth quarter of 2008 (October through December), the economy shrank at a pace of 6.3%, which was horrifically bad. In the first quarter of 2009 (January through March), the contraction was 6.4%, which further pointed to an economy in free fall.

The expectations for the second quarter (April through June) were that the economy would shrink 1.5%, and this morning's numbers suggest the country's output did slightly better than expected.

This will, in all likelihood, generate quite a bit of talk about the "end" of the recession. With that in mind, it's probably best to temper expectations. Economist Mark Zandi noted this morning, "We're going from recession to recovery, but at least early on, it's not going to feel like one. For economists, this is a seminal part in the business cycle, but for most Americans, it won't mean much."

And why's that? The NYT added, "That is because the job market is expected to remain dismal even after the economy resumes growing. As business picks up after a recession and companies start receiving more orders and restocking their shelves, employers will still resist hiring new full-time workers, and instead pay overtime or rely on part-time employees."

The AP report added that consumer spending declined in the second quarter, but a "return to spending by governments helped economic activity in the spring."

The national economy at least seems to be moving in the right direction for a change; the free fall is over; and talk of a "depression" has disappeared. It's not recovery, but at least it's not more bad news.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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STATE ACTIVISTS PREP FOR HEALTH CARE REFORM NULLIFICATION.... If Americans are lucky, later this year, health care reform proponents will overcome conservative opposition, institutional obstinacy, procedural morass, and internal Democratic division and pass a landmark piece of legislation.

And if that happens, they'll soon after find that far-right policymakers in some states hope to block reform before it's implemented. Indeed, they're already laying the groundwork. Take Florida, for example, where nearly 4 million people currently have no health care coverage.

Earlier this week, Florida State Senator Carey Baker (R) and State Representative Scott Plakon (R) introduced a state Constitutional amendment that, if adopted, would prevent Floridians from enrolling in any federal health care legislation. [...]

"We believe this unprecedented power-grab by President Obama and Congress is clearly not in the best interests of the citizens of Florida," Baker and Plakon said in a joint statement. Baker, who is a Republican candidate for Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, participated in the right-wing tea parties on July 4. Both he and Plakon are sponsors of a "sovereignty" memorial, a measure meant to serve "as a notice and a demand to the Federal Government ... to cease and desist, effective immediately, from issuing mandates that are beyond the scope of [their] constitutionally delegated powers."

Their amendment to ban health care would need approval by a three-fifths vote in both the House and Senate. If passed by the legislature, Florida voters would vote on the constitutional amendment on Election Day 2010.

Texas, meanwhile, has one of the nation's highest rates of uninsured residents -- roughly one in four Texans go without coverage. Its Republican governor, Rick Perry, recently said he's "willing and ready" to block reform from taking shape in his state, calling it "encroachment." What's more, Republican lawmakers in Arizona have approved a ballot measure that would, if approved, allow the state to override a federal health care law that includes individual or employer mandates.

The legality of these right-wing efforts is dubious. I imagine far-right policymakers in various states didn't like Social Security or Medicare when they became law, either, but they're still national programs, doing an enormous amount of good.

But it's nevertheless interesting, since a) the fight with conservatives can continue long after reform passes (if it passes); and b) these efforts are a reminder of just how far off the ideological cliff some elements of the GOP have gone.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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WHERE THE FIGHT FOR REFORM STANDS.... Everyone expected this to be a very busy week for the health care reform campaign(s), and it has been. Whether we're any closer to actual progress is far less clear.

Let's start with the Senate, where a center-right Gang of Six were supposed to finish their negotiations and produce a "bipartisan" bill before the recess. Now, negotiators say, that's not going to happen -- and even if it did, the resulting legislation may be so awful, other Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee may not be able to stomach it anyway.

At the same time, the NYT reports today that the Republican leadership has told its members -- including those in Finance Committee negotiations -- that delaying the process as long as possible is a necessity. Why? Because GOP leaders have apparently decided that they shouldn't "let Democrats head to their home states for the August recess boasting of any progress." Indeed, those same leaders have warned Chuck Grassley that if he helps Dems pass a reform bill, they may punish him by blocking him from becoming the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee next year.

Democrats, in other words, are trying to strike a reform compromise with lawmakers who want neither reform nor compromise. That is, for lack of a better word, insane.

As for the House, the compromise that brought some Blue Dogs on board with reform will apparently help get a bill out of Waxman's House Energy and Commerce Committee, but it's outraged dozens of House liberals, who insist that they can no longer support the legislation now that conservative Democrats have weakened it. At last count, 57 House Progressives say they are prepared to vote against the bill on the floor.

It creates a very difficult dynamic -- keep this week's changes, lose liberal votes, and watch health care reform die just inches from the finish line. Or, get rid of this week's changes, lose the Blue Dogs, and watch health care reform die just inches from the finish line.

Jonathan Cohn says just about all of the relevant players fighting for reform seem, at this point, "more than a little bit concerned."

...Democrats still haven't agreed among themselves on the most challenging issue in reform: how to pay for it. There's no shortage of viable ideas on that front. Senator John Kerry's proposal to tax health benefits by taxing insurers, rather than the insured, offers some hope for a broadly acceptable compromise. But the Democrats aren't there yet.

Will they get there soon? And get there in time? It's the question not just about financing, but about reform as a whole.

Stay tuned.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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July 30, 2009

THURSDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* Col. Timothy R. Reese wrote an interesting memo: "A senior American military adviser in Baghdad has concluded in an unusually blunt memo that the Iraqi forces suffer from deeply entrenched deficiencies but are now capable of protecting the Iraqi government, and that it is time 'for the U.S. to declare victory and go home.'" Reese acknowledged the corruption and poor management in the Iraqi forces, but said they're competent enough to hold off insurgents, and there's not much more we can do anyway.

* A federal judge today ordered military officials to release Mohammed Jawad, who was reportedly taken into U.S. custody when he was 12 years old, from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay.

* The problems in Iran continue: "Iranian police arrested mourners who gathered at a Tehran cemetery to commemorate victims of the unrest that followed the country's disputed June presidential election , witnesses said. Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi was also blocked from attending the graveside memorial after he defied a government ban on the gathering."

* Dozens of liberal House Democrats continue to threaten to derail health care reform, following Henry Waxman's compromise with some Blue Dogs yesterday.

* There's quite a bit of wasteful spending in the Pentagon spending bill for fiscal 2010. The Obama administration instructed Congress not to send him a pork-padded bill, and the House responded today by approving it anyway, 400 to 30.

* A sixth Republican senator, Tennessee's Lamar Alexander, endorsed Judge Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination today.

* The media's interest in the Obama/Crowley/Gates get-together this afternoon is more than a little excessive. How bad is it? This afternoon, MSNBC not only aired footage of Henry Louis Gates walking to a car, on his way to the airport, it also put a countdown graphic on the screen, letting viewers know the number of hours, minutes, and seconds remaining until the "beer summit."

* On a related note, a Boston police officer was suspended yesterday for writing an email calling Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. a "jungle monkey." Boston Mayor Mayor Thomas M. Menino said last night that the officer, Justin Barrett, is "gone," adding, "[I]t's like cancer, you don't keep those cancers around."

* It took a whole lot of effort, but Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) finally conceded today that he believes the president is a natural-born citizen of the United States.

* If more reporters covered the health care debate as well as Time's Karen Tumulty does, the country would be a lot better off.

* Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) recently unveiled their alternative health care plan. It probably won't surprise you to learn their plan is awful.

* And when Fox News personalities start making fun of Lou Dobbs, that should send a pretty clear signal to CNN that he's an embarrassment to the network.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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ROVE'S ROLE IN U.S. ATTORNEY SCANDAL STILL PERCOLATING.... Media personality Karl Rove has been chatting behind closed doors with the House Judiciary Committee this week, as part of lawmakers' inquiry on the Bush White House's purge of U.S. attorneys for political reasons. Apparently, Rove's role in the fiasco was larger than originally known. Imagine that.

Political adviser Karl Rove and other high-ranking figures in the Bush White House played a greater role than previously understood in the firing of federal prosecutors almost three years ago, according to e-mails obtained by The Washington Post, in a scandal that led to mass Justice Department resignations and an ongoing criminal probe.

The e-mails and new interviews with key participants reflect contacts among Rove, aides in the Bush political affairs office and White House lawyers about the dismissal of three of the nine U.S. attorneys fired in 2006: New Mexico's David C. Iglesias, the focus of ire from GOP lawmakers; Missouri's Todd Graves, who had clashed with one of Rove's former clients; and Arkansas's Bud Cummins, who was pushed out to make way for a Rove protege.

The documents and interviews provide new information about efforts by political aides in the Bush White House, for example, to push a former colleague as a favored candidate for one of the U.S. attorney posts. They also reflect the intensity of efforts by lawmakers and party officials in New Mexico to unseat the top prosecutor there.

Rove insists he was merely a "conduit" between White House lawyers and GOP officials, but the documents reportedly point to some extensive work Rove did on the issue.

Keep in mind, assistant U.S. attorney Nora R. Dannehy "continues to investigate whether the firings of the prosecutors and the political firestorm that followed could form the basis of possible false statements, obstruction of justice or other criminal charges." Rove has already met with Dannehy, at least once.

Zachary Roth has more, including this understatement: "[T]his story is a long way from over."

Steve Benen 5:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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CANTOR'S CZAR PROBLEM.... During the Bush/Cheney years, the White House created new czars for almost every conceivable policy challenge. In the span of about six years, Rove's White House oversaw the creation of a "food safety czar," a "cybersecurity czar," a "regulatory czar," an "AIDS czar," a "manufacturing czar," an "intelligence czar," a "bird-flu czar," and a "Katrina czar." It was such a common strategy for Bush, Rove, and the gang, that it quickly became the butt of jokes. Newsweek satirist Andy Borowitz suggested in 2007 that the White House needed a "lying czar" to "oversee all distortions and misrepresentations."

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) never seemed especially concerned about czars before, but he, like much of the GOP establishment, seems awfully worked up about the issue now. Consider Cantor's Washington Post op-ed today:

By appointing a virtual army of "czars" -- each wholly unaccountable to Congress yet tasked with spearheading major policy efforts for the White House -- in his first six months, the president has embarked on an end-run around the legislative branch of historic proportions.

To be sure, the appointment of a few special officers to play a constructive role in a given administration is nothing new. What is new is the elevation of so many czars, with so much authority on endless policy fronts. Vesting such broad authority in the hands of people not subjected to Senate confirmation and congressional oversight poses a grave threat to our system of checks and balances.

What's curious about this is how demonstrably wrong it is. These aren't off-the-cuff comments Cantor made in an interview; this is an argument written for publication, presumably subjected to some kind of fact-checking process.

And yet, Cantor's argument just isn't true. He points to "at least 32 active czars," which he insists are "unaccountable to Congress" and were "not subjected to Senate confirmation." Specifically, Cantor complains about a "TARP czar," a "technology czar," and the "government performance czar" -- all of whom, in our reality, were vetted by Congress and subjected to Senate confirmation. One of Cantor's 32 was actually a position created by Bush, and another by Clinton.

Moreover, some of these "czars" only deserve the title in the most colloquial sense. In the State Department, for example, the administration has an official who works full time on shaping a policy on the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. This hardly sounds outrageous, but Cantor has labeled the official a "Guantanamo closure czar." Obama, like all recent presidents, has deputy national security adviser for counter-terrorism. A ha, Cantor says, this is a "terrorism czar" who is part of "a virtual army."

What's more, some of these "czars" are new, but only because they're working in response to new efforts and/or challenges. Previous administrations didn't need a "TARP czar" before, because TARP didn't exist. The "stimulus accountability czar" wasn't needed before there was a stimulus. The "car czar" wasn't needed before the collapse of the American auto industry. These are temporary gigs, not a new, permanent layer of bureaucracy.

I realize Cantor is easily confused. I can also appreciate Cantor's reflexive desire to attack the president relentlessly, without regard for honesty or reality. And while there's a legitimate issue to consider when it comes to a White House reliance on "czars" -- it's created tension between Congresses and White Houses for generations -- Cantor's op-ed is really quite foolish.

Steve Benen 4:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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SALES PITCH.... President Obama told Time's Karen Tumulty that, when it comes to health care, the need to reform the system "is so clear to me," but he's finding it "difficult ... to describe in clear, simple terms how important it is" to get this done.

Reading the transcript of the president's comments, I get the sense he's a little surprised by the polls. It seems so simple -- the system is broken, and everyone knows it. Tens of millions have no coverage, and millions more are underinsured or on the verge of losing their insurance. We pay too much, and get too little. Long term, without reform, the costs to taxpayers are practically ridiculous. Obama told Tumulty, "[W]hen you just start hearing the litany of facts, what you say to yourself is, 'This shouldn't be such a hard case to make, because the American consumer is really not getting a good deal.'"

And yet, it's proving to be a very hard case to make, with more and more Americans buying into conservative critiques, even the ones that don't make sense.

Ezra Klein argues, "I don't think the problem for health-care reform is how it's being sold," but rather, the "congressional process" is the hang-up. Kevin Drum makes the opposite case, saying it's all about how it's sold."

Everything has to have a constituency if it's going to get passed. For ag subsidies it's farmers. For lax financial regulation, it's banks. For tax cuts it's rich people.

For healthcare it's ... I dunno. Who? But that's the point. Everyone has been so hung up on congressional process that they seem to have forgotten that Congress responds to the public. If constituents are mad as hell that their healthcare isn't as good as France's, they'll flood congressional offices with phone calls. But if they think America has the best healthcare in the world, while the rest of the world is a socialist dystopia of ramshackle hospitals, yearlong waits for hip replacements, and harried doctors who can't see you for months and treat you like a postal customer when you finally get in -- well, who's going to get pissed off about the occasional scuffle with their insurance company? And if the public isn't worked up, then Congress won't get worked up either.

This has always been about public opinion. Everything is about public opinion. It's about public opinion being strong enough to overcome the resistance of whatever corporate interests are on the other side. For some reason, though, liberals don't seem to get that anymore, and because of that we don't spend enough time on either side of the basic vox populi equation: (a) hammering home why individuals, personally, should be unhappy with the status quo, and (b) promising them, personally, lots of cool new stuff if they buy into change.

You don't have to lie to accomplish this. But you do have to sell, the same way any salesman anywhere sells stuff.

Kevin fears he's "practically alone on this," so let me heartily endorse his argument. I'm hung up on congressional process in part because I find it interesting, and in part because there have been a lot of developments of late, but when it comes to the success or failure, if the sales pitch were more effective, we'd be talking about how Republicans are trying to figure out how to justify opposing a popular, once-in-a-generation reform package that is obviously, desperately needed. We're not having that conversation at all.

Indeed, the right, despite all of its obvious problems -- inability to govern, lack of credibility, partisanship over the public good, no leadership, no ideas -- understand sales extremely well. They decided early on to hammer a few ideas -- socialism, Canada, rationing, complicated, taxes, small businesses -- to instill doubt. They're lying, of course, but salesmen often do. (Ideally we'd have news outlets separating fact from fiction, but to tell the public the truth would represent "bias.")

For what it's worth, I get the sense the White House recognizes where the administration has come up short on its sales pitch, and is trying to adjust accordingly. Expect a better sales job in August than July. Whether it's too late remains to be seen.

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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REID DOESN'T GO FOR ENZI DEMANDS.... Yesterday, Sen. Mike Enzi, the conservative Wyoming Republican who is part of the Senate Finance Committee's gang of six, said his little group's deal couldn't be tampered with later. He issued a statement explaining that he "needs commitments" from the White House, the Speaker, and the Senate Majority Leader that the center-right compromise "will survive in a final bill that goes to the president."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) suggested today that's not going to happen.

"I know how to count to 60," Reid said, referencing the number of votes needed to kill a filibuster. "So anyone that would intimate that this is going to be all the HELP Committee bill or all the Finance Committee bill doesn't know how to count to 60."

He added later, "We can't do it without Republican support."

While it's encouraging that the Senate won't consider an untouched Finance Committee bill, I'd add that I know how to count to 60, too. And if there's a good bill on the floor, and Reid's caucus agrees that health care reform, after decades of delay, deserves an up-or-down vote, the majority most certainly can do it without Republican support.

As for the Finance Committee's interminable center-right negotiations, we were told last week that the Senate wouldn't have a floor vote before the August recess, but we would at least see the Finance Committee approve a bill. Today, Enzi said that's not going to happen, either, and he expects his little group to work on an agreement once lawmakers return in September.

The Senate is scheduled to adjourn a week from tomorrow. The leadership can't use the recess to reconcile HELP and Finance bills if Finance isn't prepared to move forward until six weeks from now, at the earliest.

Seems like a situation in need of some Senate leadership. I wonder if we'll see any.

Steve Benen 2:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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JOHN CORNYN'S SHORT MEMORY.... Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas has been watching the debate over Judge Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination, and he's drawn an odd conclusion about the role of racial politics.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) has accused the Democrats of using race as a wedge issue in the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation process -- that is, the Dems have been "giving cover to groups and individuals to nurture racial grievances for political advantage."

Cornyn was responding to statements from Harry Reid and other Democrats, that the GOP's opposition to Sotomayor will hurt them among Latino voters.

"I don't think it influences people's votes, but what it does encourage is a very poisonous -- indeed a very toxic -- tone of destructive politics," said Cornyn. "They ought to be ashamed of themselves."

Just to be clear, when Cornyn says "they" out to be "ashamed," he's referring to Democratic officials.

Funny, I've been watching the same process, and I'm fairly certain Cornyn has it backwards. In fact, I seem to recall a high-profile Republican senator -- I believe his name was John Cornyn of Texas -- who went on NRP in May to distance his party from ugly, race-based attacks against Sotomayor at the hands of Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh. At the time, Cornyn said, "I just don't think it's appropriate. I certainly don't endorse it. I think it's wrong."

As the debate progressed, the "poisonous" and "destructive" political atmosphere got far worse. If Cornyn can't recall, I'm sure someone on his staff could pull together quite a quote collection from Gingrich, Limbaugh, Rove, Tancredo, Barnes, Liddy, and Pat Buchanan. It reached the point in late May that "top-ranking Republican strategists who specialize in Hispanic outreach say they are outraged, disturbed and concerned by the type of reception Barack Obama's pick for the Supreme Court has received from conservative activists."

Cornyn thinks Harry Reid and the Democratic leadership "ought to be ashamed of themselves"? Cornyn thinks Dems have used a "toxic tone"? Please.

Steve Benen 1:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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MEDAL OF FREEDOM RECIPIENTS.... The Obama White House announced this morning its first recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the top honor a president can bestow on a civilian. The 2009 list includes some clearly worthy individuals. From the press release:

This year's awardees were chosen for their work as agents of change. Among their many accomplishments in fields ranging from sports and art to science and medicine to politics and public policy, these men and women have changed the world for the better. They have blazed trails and broken down barriers. They have discovered new theories, launched new initiatives, and opened minds to new possibilities.

President Obama said, "These outstanding men and women represent an incredible diversity of backgrounds. Their tremendous accomplishments span fields from science to sports, from fine arts to foreign affairs. Yet they share one overarching trait: Each has been an agent of change. Each saw an imperfect world and set about improving it, often overcoming great obstacles along the way.

"Their relentless devotion to breaking down barriers and lifting up their fellow citizens sets a standard to which we all should strive. It is my great honor to award them the Medal of Freedom."

It's an impressive group of people, made up of Nancy Goodman Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the world's leading breast cancer grass roots organization; Dr. Joe Greer, founder of Camillus House Camillus Health Concern; physicist Stephen Hawking; the late Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.); Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.); legendary athlete Billie Jean King; the Rev. Joseph Lowery; Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow, an author of seminal works in Native American history and culture; the late Harvey Milk, a LGBT civil-rights pioneer; Justice Sandra Day O'Connor; actor Sidney Poitier; entertainer Chita Rivera; former Ireland President Mary Robinson; geneticist Dr. Janet Davison Rowley; South African Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu; and micro-loan pioneer Dr. Muhammad Yunus.

Now, this is a diverse list of exemplary Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients Americans can be proud of. As Amanda Terkel remembered, the last White House had lowered the bar a bit on the civil honor: "The award seems to be finally regaining the honor that it largely lost during the tenure of President Bush, who doled it out to his cronies."

Quite right. I still cringe a bit when I see photos of Bush honoring Norm Podhoretz, George Tenet, and Paul Bremer.

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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'TORN BY CONFLICTING IMPULSES AND CONFUSION'.... There's an overabundance of new polling data that's been released over the last 24 hours, from a variety of major national outlets. Overall, it's a bit of a mixed bag, with a little something for everyone.

Perhaps the most common element of the polls is widespread confusion. Take this item, for example, from the New York Times/CBS News poll.

Over all, the poll portrays a nation torn by conflicting impulses and confusion. In one finding, 75 percent of respondents said they were concerned that the cost of their own health care would eventually go up if the government did not create a system of providing health care for all Americans. But in another finding, 77 percent said they were concerned that the cost of health care would go up if the government did create such a system.

For what it's worth, the poll puts President Obama's approval rating at 58%, but his handling of health care at 46%. Approval of the Democratic Party (47%) remains much higher than that of the Republican Party (28%), and by 30-point margins, respondents prefer Obama to congressional Republicans on economic and health care decisions.

But there were other polls, offering competing results. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, for example, found support for health care reform dropping off considerably, with a plurality calling the current proposal a "bad idea." Only two in 10 believe the quality of their health care would improve, and twice as many thought it would get worse.

On the other hand, when given the rough details of the reform proposals, 56% of respondents support reform, and a surtax on the wealthy proved to be even more popular.

A Time magazine poll found that most respondents worried about the consequences of reform, but supportive of "the rough outlines of the health-reform effort as originally described by President Obama," including support (56%) for a public option.

Gallup, meanwhile, found that Americans generally believe report would improve the system, but doubt that it would offer benefits for them personally.

I imagine antsy policymakers might look through these polls, looking for guidance about public opinion. They probably shouldn't bother. For one thing, attitudes are all over the map, pointing to confusion and contradictions. For another, as Jon Chait recently noted, polls will likely shift if/when policymakers get something done.

People do not pay close attention to details. The broad message is likely to shape their ultimate view. And the biggest single driver of that opinion is whether health care reform passes. If it does, then it will have a Rose Garden ceremony, lots of commentary about the historical import, liberal celebrations and conservative apoplexy. If it fails, then the plan will be described as a "failure" -- a designation intended to describe the political prospects but which is certain to bleed into the public's estimation of the plan's substantive merits -- and produce endless commentary about liberal overreach, all of which will make people more prone to believe that the plan was a disaster.

Democrats simply have to accept that health care reform is going to be polling badly when they vote on it. There's no mechanism in the current media configuration that would allow them to convey the details of the plan in a positive way without getting overrun by negative process stories. It's just not possible. What they have to focus on is which alternative is likely to make them better off: reform passing or reform failing. It's an easy call, which is why I think reform will pass.

Here's hoping Chait's right.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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THURSDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP....Today's installment of campaign-related news items that wouldn't generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers.

* Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas confirmed yesterday that she will resign her Senate seat later this year, in order to focus her attention on her gubernatorial campaign. Incumbent Gov. Rick Perry, who will face Hutchison in a GOP primary, would fill the vacancy in advance of a special election.

* In a strange twist, just a few hours after explaining her intention to resign this fall, Hutchison reversed course and said she may stay in the Senate while running for governor. Hutchison added that her comments were meant to suggest that Perry should drop out of the race. It's all rather confusing.

* The latest SurveyUSA poll shows Bob McDonnell (R) leading Creigh Deeds (D) in Virginia's gubernatorial race by 15 points, 55% to 40%. In early June, SUSA showed McDonnell up by four.

* Rudy Giuliani, laying the groundwork for a likely gubernatorial campaign next year, will speak at the Crain's Business Breakfast Forum today in New York, delivering an address on "his ideas for fixing the nation's economy, and the economic and political problems in New York State."

* California Republicans probably shouldn't count on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to give the party's candidates a boost next year. A new poll from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California puts the governor's approval rating at just 28%. The same poll showed President Obama's approval rating in the Golden State at 65%.

* In a setback for NRCC recruiting, Connecticut state Sen. John McKinney (R) has decided not to take on Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.).

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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SHOULD WE CALL IT 'REPUBLICAN-ENCOURAGED EUTHANASIA'?.... A provision in the health care reform bill would, as the NYT put it, "provide Medicare coverage for the work of doctors who advise patients on life-sustaining treatment and 'end-of-life services,' including hospice care." It doesn't seem especially controversial.

Unless your goal is to deceive the public, that is. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said the provision "may start us down a treacherous path toward government-encouraged euthanasia." Other Republican leaders, including Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Eric Cantor, have repeated the argument, and a wide variety of right-wing lawmakers have told voters the provision might compel the government to kill senior citizens.

Even by conservative standards, the argument is insane. It's extremely common, and has even "made its way into the standard conservative critique of the Democrats' reforms," but it's not in any way grounded in reality.

Those on the right pushing this may not care about the facts, but maybe they care about partisanship?

[I]t turns out a GOP Senator, Susan Collins, sponsored a virtually identical initiative this spring, before this became an anti-reform GOP talking point -- and praised it as necessary to improving our health care system's "care for patients at the end of their lives."

This sharply undercuts the GOP and conservative claim — unless, of course, you believe Collins backed an initiative she thinks could lead to mass government extermination of the elderly. Though this talking point has been debunked multiple times, conservatives and GOP leaders like John Boehner continue to employ it with abandon.

Yes, the not-so-radical idea Republicans hope to exploit was crafted, sponsored, and touted by a sitting Republican senator.

Of course, this only matters if those who want to shamelessly mislead the country care about getting caught. Given the rhetoric from opponents of reform, it's safe to assume they'll keep repeating the "euthanasia" talking point, regardless of it being wrong, and regardless of its Republican origins.

Steve Benen 11:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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THE ORIGINAL KING OF IRONY STRIKES AGAIN.... Have I mentioned lately how much I enjoy Karl Rove's ironic columns in the Wall Street Journal? Today, the former Bush aide blasts the politics of fear.

On the campaign trail last year, Barack Obama promised to end the "politics of fear and cynicism." Yet he is now trying to sell his health-care proposals on fear. [...]

This is not a healthy way to wage a policy debate.

Yes, Karl "Mushroom Cloud" Rove, after leading a White House political operation that re-wrote the rules when it came to demagoguery, now believes it's inappropriate to engage in a policy debate by relying on scare tactics. He even feels comfortable blasting others who, he thinks, are using fear to advance an agenda.

At this point, no one does irony quite like ol' Karl. After all, this is the same Rove who believes President Obama

* will make terrorist recruiting easier by banning torture;

* relies too much on "pre-packaged, organized, controlled, scripted " political events to manipulate message dissemination;

* is guilty of using hardball political tactics;

* looks at every policy issue "from a political perspective."

About a year ago, Rove accused the New York Times of having "outed a CIA agent," which "obviously puts the CIA agent in danger." Rove added that disclosing the name of a CIA operative represents "a very callous view about our nation's security and interests." It was, at the time, one of the most ironic things I'd ever heard.

It's a reminder that Rove really is the Original King of Irony.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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PETE SESSIONS AND HIS DIRIGIBLE EARMARK.... Rep. Pete Sessions (R) of Texas, the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, probably wants to focus his energies right now on recruiting and fundraising. He may want to take a moment, however, to explain his support for this earmark from last year.

[Sessions] steered a $1.6 million earmark for dirigible research to an Illinois company whose president acknowledges having no experience in government contracting, let alone in building blimps.

What the company did have: the help of Adrian Plesha, a former Sessions aide with a criminal record who has made more than $446,000 lobbying on its behalf.

While lawmakers routinely support earmarks for their home district and/or state, this particular measure has nothing to do with Sessions' Dallas-area district. The company, Jim G. Ferguson & Associates, is based in a Chicago suburb. It has an office in Texas, but it's 300 miles from Sessions' district.

What's more, when Sessions submitted the earmark, he used a Dallas address for the company, but it was actually the address of a friend of one of the company's executives.

It looks a little suspicious. The leaders of Jim G. Ferguson & Associates admit they have no background in aviation or defense, and no expertise in engineering or research. It's why it seems odd that Sessions would direct $1.6 million to the company, most of which would go towards research and engineering on a dirigible project.

By all appearances, Ferguson was able to secure the funds thanks to Plesha, who worked for Sessions before becoming a lobbyist. (Plesha seems to have quite an interesting background, including lying to the Federal Election Commission, which was investigating a scheme he launched to lie to voters during a campaign he helped run.)

It's an interesting story, which Sessions should probably feel compelled to respond to. Given his avowed opposition to earmarks -- he's called them "a symbol of a broken Washington to the American people" -- Sessions' support for this one seems worthy of some follow-up.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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EYEING BAUCUS' GAVEL?.... As of today, probably the biggest hurdle standing in the way of health care reform is the Senate Finance Committee, or more specifically, the group of six centrist and center-right senators on the committee who are crafting a Republican-friendly proposal. The effort, like the committee, is being led by Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, the not-at-all-liberal Democrat from Montana.

When it comes to health care, there are some strong Democratic voices on the Finance Committee, including John Kerry, Debbie Stabenow, Chuck Schumer, Maria Cantwell, and John Rockefeller, but they're not invited to the negotiating table. It's Baucus who's in the lead, and it's Baucus who won't advance reform until he can win over some conservative senators.

Apparently, there are some senators who are wondering why Baucus has this much power, and what the caucus might do to change this.

In an apparent warning to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), some liberal Democrats have suggested a secret-ballot vote every two years on whether or not to strip committee chairmen of their gavels.

Baucus, who is more conservative than most of the Democratic Conference, has frustrated many of his liberal colleagues by negotiating for weeks with Republicans over healthcare reform without producing a bill or even much detail about the policies he is considering.

"Every two years the caucus could have a secret ballot on whether a chairman should continue, yes or no," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. "If the 'no's win, [the chairman's] out."

Well, that's certainly one way to get Baucus' attention. "That's a nice gavel you have there, Max. It'd be a shame if something happened to it."

The chairman doesn't seem especially concerned about pushback from Montana voters, but if it's his Democratic colleagues who have his chairmanship in their hands, perhaps he'd be more amenable to his party's agenda?

This seems to go beyond just Harkin. One senator, asked about a biennial referendum on committee chairs, told The Hill, "Put me down as a yes, but if you use my name I'll send a SWAT team after you."

Joe Lieberman, chair of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, said he'd oppose such a proposal. That's not too big a surprise -- if it's his gavel on the line with a secret-ballot vote from his colleagues, Lieberman might have to give up his chairmanship, too.

All the more reason to look favorably on the idea.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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THE WRONG PERSON FOR THE MIDDLE EAST JOB.... I can appreciate outside-the-box thinking as much as the next blogger, and I realize the appeal of contrarian arguments hold for many editors.

But Newsweek ran a piece yesterday from Gregory Levey arguing that President Obama should make George W. Bush his envoy to the Middle East. Seriously.

On Sunday, George Mitchell, President Obama's Middle East envoy, arrived in Israel to confer with its leaders. Also visiting this week are Defense Secretary Robert Gates, national-security adviser James Jones, and Gulf States envoy Dennis Ross. It's a full-court press on the Israelis, and the American wish list is long. They want Israel to stop expanding settlements; to stop building Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem; and for hawks in the government to chill out while the U.S. is negotiating with Iran. And yet, odds are, they'll come back to Washington empty-handed, for reasons having to do as much with atmospherics as policy: Team Obama just doesn't have Israel's full trust.

But there is someone who does -- someone who could use a job, someone who argued straightforwardly for a Palestinian state, and yet someone who has the implicit admiration and regard of Israel. President Obama needs a new envoy to the region who can get results -- and George W. Bush is his man.

No, he isn't.

Levey's basic pitch is that Bush enjoys a far more favorable standing with the Israeli government than the Obama administration, which would therefore give him credibility with the country's conservative leadership. Since the current U.S. president pressed Israel on settlement growth, and his predecessor didn't, that's likely true. But it also points to one of the flaws in the argument: Obama and Bush disagree. It makes the idea of the latter being an effective policy envoy for the prior seem more than a little misguided.

What's more, while Levey is right about the Israeli government's responsiveness to George W. Bush, the job description for a U.S. envoy to the Middle East is broader than this.

U.S. stature and credibility in the region is finally on the rise, and sending Bush -- a man with a striking lack of international popularity and no diplomatic skills -- puts all of that at risk. It's one of many reasons this will never happen.

In fairness to Levey, he concedes the idea is "just a fantasy," not a meaningful request to the White House. The point of the Newsweek column, then, is to urge Obama to be more like Bush when it comes to U.S. policy towards Israel.

It's advice I hope the president ignores.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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CLEARING ONE HURDLE, RUNNING INTO ANOTHER.... Yesterday, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) came to an agreement with four conservative Blue Dog Democrats on health care reform, clearing the way for approval. It took a while, but the biggest hurdle between reform and House passage had been cleared, and Waxman scheduled a mark-up for yesterday afternoon.

But it was delayed once more. This time, the left balked.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spent half of Wednesday finalizing a deal with the Blue Dogs -- and the other half quelling a brewing rebellion among progressives who think conservatives have hijacked health care reform.

Liberals, Hispanics and African-American members -- Pelosi's most loyal base of support -- are feeling betrayed after House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) reached an agreement with four of seven Blue Dogs on his committee who had been bottling up the bill over concerns about cost.

The compromise, which still must be reconciled with competing House and Senate versions, would significantly weaken the public option favored by liberals by delinking reimbursement rates to Medicare.

The seriousness of the concessions Waxman made to win over Blue Dogs is itself open to debate. Jonathan Cohn described changes as "modest," and said, "Most of the bill's core elements seem to be intact, including the public insurance option." Cohn added that the deal is "a pretty big step forward" and said the House bill is on track to be "very good legislation." Ezra Klein's analysis was similar, noting that the "substantive changes" made to the compromise bill "are minimal."

As of last night, several liberal Dems strongly disagreed. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) called the deal "unacceptable." Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said he's not prepared to vote for the bill. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) said the bill needed to get "much stronger" to earn the support of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and raised the prospect of scrapping the entire legislation and starting over.

Waxman nevertheless seems confident the process can get back on track today. He's scheduled a 10 a.m. (eastern) mark-up, and will host a "mass question-and-answer session" for the entire caucus, in which he hopes to alleviate concerns.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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July 29, 2009

WEDNESDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* The Fed seems cautiously optimistic about the beginnings of an economic recovery.

* Iraqi security forces, against the wishes of the U.S., launched an offensive against an Iranian dissident group. It's a move fraught with implications.

* Despite 280 supporters in the House, a sweeping food safety bill, which would improve inspections and oversight, is being slowed down on the Hill.

* Despite today's deal, some Blue Dogs still don't like health care reform.

* The center-right health care "compromise" emerging from the Senate Finance Committee will reportedly cost under $900 billion over 10 years. No word yet on what kind of concessions, or gimmicks, make this possible.

* When pressed, even the most right-wing lawmakers will rail against government-run health care and praise Medicare in the same breath.

* Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana wants to find the "center" of the health care reform debate. I have no idea what that means.

* The DCCC is not amused by mock-hangings put together by reform opponents.

* In an apparent attempt to be as annoying as humanly possible, Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska says he's undecided about Judge Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. The conservative Democrat said yesterday he needs to "convince myself she won't be an activist" on the bench.

* It can be challenging to keep the conservative front-groups straight when it comes the fight over health care reform, but ThinkProgress has done some interesting research on the Coalition to Protect Patients' Rights.

* The New America Foundation's Frida Berrigan has a great piece on the neocons drumming up opposition to the administration's policies on nuclear weapons.

* Both of Colorado's freshmen Democratic senators, Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, are taking heat from the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence for their votes on the Thune Amendment last week.

* Tennessee's Paul Stanley (R), in the wake of an ugly sex scandal, wisely chose to resign yesterday.

* And finally, Fox News can't find Egypt on a map. Apparently, the network's staffers are as confused as its audience.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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AN EASY-TO-CORRECT ERROR.... In a Washington Post op-ed yesterday, Martin Feldstein argued, "Obama has said that he would favor a British-style 'single payer' system in which the government owns the hospitals and the doctors are salaried but that he recognizes that such a shift would be too disruptive to the health-care industry."

That is plainly false. As Jon Chait explained yesterday:

Obama has never said that he favors a British-style health care system. Britain does not have a single-payer system. It has a socialized system, where the government directly employs all health care providers. Indeed, if you follow the link in Feldstein's own column, it says, "A single-payer system would eliminate private insurance companies and put a Medicare-like system into place where the government pays all health-care bills with tax dollars." Does Medicare own hospitals and pay doctors government salaries? No. Professor Feldstein, please stop writing about topics you know nothing about.

I naively expected the Post to run a correction. It was a mistake for the paper to publish the bogus claim in the first place, but it's an error that's easy enough to correct. Especially in the middle of a heated debate over health care policy, it only makes sense that D.C.'s newspaper would want readers to know that Feldstein's claim is demonstrably untrue.

After all, as Paul Krugman explained, "Single-payer, as anyone who has paid the least bit of attention to the health care debate knows, means a system like Medicare, in which the government pays the bills. It absolutely does not mean a British-style system -- and Obama definitely didn't advocate anything of the sort.... [I]f I misstated the facts like this in the Times, I'd be required to publish a correction."

As of this afternoon, there's been no correction or clarification.

It was a glaring and obvious falsehood based on Feldstein's incorrect definition of the phrase 'single-payer.' The kind of thing that is so obviously false, it shouldn't have taken the Post more than 30 seconds to write up a correction once the mistake was pointed out.... But the Washington Post has not yet run a correction, online or in print.... Correcting this obvious falsehood as soon as possible is the only responsible thing to do.

This seems to have come up quite a bit lately, most notably with a couple of George Will columns on environmental policy. It's unclear why factual errors keep appearing in WaPo opinion pieces, what kind of fact-checking process they're subjected to, and why the paper seems so reluctant to set the record straight.

Steve Benen 4:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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VITTER SHOULD AVOID TALK ABOUT 'VALUES'.... Sen. George Voinovich (R) of Ohio raised a few eyebrows this week when he said the Republican Party is "being taken over by Southerners," which has caused the GOP's decline. "We got too many Jim DeMints and Tom Coburns," Voinovich said, referring to two of the most right-wing members of his party.

Sen. David Vitter (R) of Louisiana wasn't specifically referenced by Voinovich, but felt compelled to respond anyway.

"I'm on the side of conservatives getting back to core conservative values," Vitter told the Washington Times. "There are a lot of us from the South who hold those values, which I think the party is supposed to be about. We strayed from them in the past few years, and that's why we performed so badly in the national elections."

"[Voinovich is...] a moderate, really wishy-washy," he said.

Now, describing Voinovich as a "moderate" strikes me as rather silly, as does the misguided argument that Republicans would have won more recent elections nationwide if only they'd been even more right-wing.

But it's Vitter's references to "conservative values" and those from the South who embrace "those values" that continues to be a problem. In context, the far-right Louisianan wasn't talking about social and/or family issues, but that doesn't change the fact that every time Vitter mentions the word "values," it elicits the same response: "Aren't you that 'family-values' guy who got caught with prostitutes?"

It's no doubt awkward for the Republican senator, but he has to realize there are certain words and phrases he's going to have to avoid. Over the weekend, his aides launched an attack ad against his likely Democratic opponent, blasting him for attending a fundraiser Vitter's team called a "love fest." Bad idea -- "love fest" only helped remind folks about Vitter's sex scandal.

Today, Vitter is talking about those who have the audacity to "stray from ... conservative values." Does he not realize this is like setting a ball on a tee, inviting his opponents to take a free swing?

Steve Benen 4:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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... Rep. Bill Posey's (R-FL) "birther bill" has gained yet another cosponsor. Yesterday, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) became the latest Republican congressman to declare support for the bill.

Notably, Rep. Gohmert hasn't issued a press release announcing his sponsorship, so it seems he doesn't want to advertise his move toward the fringe.

Whether he advertises it or not, Gohmert is mad as a hatter.

Posey's ridiculous Birther Bill obviously isn't going anywhere, but it is interesting to see just how many Republicans are deranged enough to sign on as co-sponsors. When Posey unveiled the bill in March, he stood alone, literally and figuratively. For two months, no one in the House would sign onto his measure, which made the Republican caucus seem relatively responsible -- Posey was just a fringe nut, who lacked support from his own colleagues.

But note the trend since. In May, the Birther Bill picked up one co-sponsor. In June, it received five more. So far in July, four more climbed on the train to Crazytown. This doesn't constitute "momentum" in any practical sense, but it suggests more and more House GOP lawmakers are comfortable embracing right-wing nonsense.

And it goes beyond just this one silly piece of legislation. Rep. Roy Blunt (R) of Missouri, a former House Republican leader and current candidate for the U.S. Senate, said this week, on camera, "What I don't know is why the president can't produce a birth certificate. I don't know anybody else that can't produce one. And I think that that's a legitimate question -- no health records, no birth certificate."

In perhaps the most amusing Birther-related story of the day, one Republican consultant argued in CQ today that the entire right-wing conspiracy theory is getting attention because the media may be trying to make conservatives look foolish.

Someone ought to tell Limbaugh and Dobbs, because if this theory's true, the right is helping the "liberal media" in strange ways.

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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PRESSURE ON THE UPPER CHAMBER.... The chances of health care reform passing the House look a whole lot better today than they did last week. At this point, a good bill has passed the House Ways and Means Committee and the Education and Labor Committee. Thanks to today's developments, success with the Energy and Commerce Committee seems fairly likely before the end of the week.

There's obviously still a long distance between passing these three committees and a signing ceremony at the White House, but it's worth appreciating the fact that we've never been anywhere near this close to passing health care reform. The House has never even had a floor vote on this, and now, one seems very likely.

Ezra Klein had an interesting item the other day about the "gamechanger" that occurs when (if?) the House actually approves a reform bill.

After all, that has never happened before. In 1994, Bill Clinton's plan didn't survive long enough to see a vote. Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Harry Truman weren't any luckier. Obama is likely to not only see a vote in the House, but win it. And that gives him more than just bragging rights. It will put tremendous pressure on the Senate to follow suit.

After all, it's one thing for health-care reform to die. it's wholly another for Senate Democrats to kill it. They don't want that. In particular, Harry Reid doesn't want that. His place in the leadership -- not to mention history -- might not be able to survive that. And the few key senators who would stand in the way of reform might rethink their position in a world where blame isn't diffuse, and where the White House will know exactly who murdered their top legislative priority.

Quite right. There's reason for at least some optimism that the House -- with enough Blue Dogs on board -- will pass a bill after the August recess. At that point, the only thing standing between the status quo and a reform plan that's been sought after since the days of Truman is a Senate with a 60-seat Democratic majority.

Under those circumstances, and facing that pressure, how much weight should Chuck Grassley's and Mike Enzi's demands carry? What are the chances that center-right Dems (Nelson, Bayh, Lieberman, Landrieu, et al) would deny reform an up-or-down vote by siding with Republicans on a filibuster?

If the process continues as it should, we'll find out soon enough.

Steve Benen 3:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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MIKE ENZI, CHUTZPAH KING.... Reports vary as to just how close the Senate Finance Committee's gang of six is to some kind of deal. I'm sure they'll get back to us at some point in the future.

More interesting, though, was a statement issued by Mike Enzi, the conservative Wyoming Republican who is participating in the six-member negotiations. After explaining that the Finance Committee still has a ways to go, Enzi explained his expectations about the future of the process.

Enzi said that Reid and Pelosi would have to commit to leaving any bipartisan agreements in place once the bill goes to conference.

"I also need commitments from Senator Reid and Speaker Pelosi, as well as the Administration, that the bipartisan agreements reached in the Finance Committee will survive in a final bill that goes to the president," Enzi added.

Well, I'll gladly give Enzi credit for having chutzpah. But as a serious proposition, this is almost comical.

Look, five committees in two chambers are trying to pass health care reform. Each understands that after approving a bill, their committee's work will have to be reconciled with other committees' work, before eventually reconciling the House and Senate versions.

Enzi is saying that this isn't good enough. This conservative Republican "needs" a "commitment" from the Democratic White House, the Democratic House Speaker, and the Democratic Senate Majority Leader that all of them will leave intact the work he and five other senators worked out in secret. No changes allowed.

Perhaps Enzi is taking advantage of some kind of prescription drug benefit already, because only someone who's heavily medicated would think this makes sense.

Enzi's little club features just six senators -- no liberals, no senators representing urban areas -- who represent less than 3% of the U.S. population. The gang has already abandoned key policy priorities of the president, the majority party, and the public, and is putting the finishing work on an inadequate piece of legislation.

And Enzi expects -- indeed, he demands -- that no one touch his group's work once it's complete? Please.

Steve Benen 2:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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WAXMAN, BLUE DOGS STRIKE A DEAL.... It wasn't easy, but House Democrats took a big step forward today on passing a health care reform bill. Roll Call reported about a half-hour ago:

House leaders, the White House and four Blue Dogs on the Energy and Commerce Committee reached a deal Wednesday on a health care overhaul. The Energy panel will be resuming a markup of the measure at 4 p.m. with plans to vote on the bill by Friday, according to Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), head of the Blue Dog health care task force, said the deal would cut more than $100 billion from the Democratic health bill, increase exemptions for small businesses and prevent the public insurance option from basing reimbursements on Medicare rates.

The details are still a little sketchy on that last point, but it appears the Blue Dogs will let the public option remain in the House bill, so long as HHS negotiates rates with health care providers, as private insurers do. States will be permitted to craft non-profit co-ops, but Brian Beutler noted that they "would be in addition to the public option."

A delayed schedule, however, is apparently part of the deal. Waxman's Energy and Commerce Committee will be able to approve a reform bill this week, but the full House will not vote on reform until after the August recess.

The deal hasn't been endorsed by the entire Blue Dog caucus -- negotiations continue -- but Waxman and the leadership doesn't need all of them, at least not this week. Four Blue Dogs, including Ross and caucus co-chair Baron Hill of Indiana, endorsed today's compromise, meaning there will be enough votes for reform to pass the committee and advance to the floor.

Details of the compromise are still coming together, but it appears the deal includes an exemption from an employer mandate for small-businesses with less than $500,000 in payroll. Brian added that policymakers are getting the $100 billion in savings "by lowering by one percent the rate at which people living between 300 and 400 percent of the poverty level will be subsidized to buy health care in insurance exchanges."

For his part, Ross told reporters, "After two weeks of very long and intense negotiations, I'm proud to report that we've reached an agreement that will allow health care reform to move forward." As for the post-recess vote, he added, "I am confident we'll get health care reform done this year, but let's not rush it."

Steve Benen 1:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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BIPARTISANSHIP 'AIN'T WHAT IT USED TO BE'.... Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and a key player in the health care reform debate, said the other day that the final package must have Republican support. It's "not possible" and "not desirable" to reform the system any other way.

This is, alas, not new. A wide variety of Democratic leaders on the Hill have said the process matters at least as much as the policy, if not more so. Near the very top of the priority list is support from members of an increasingly right-wing party, turned out of power by the electorate after their humiliating failures at governing.

The Washington Post's Harold Meyerson understands the history and the larger dynamic a lot better than Conrad, Max Baucus, and others.

[B]ipartisanship ain't what it used to be, and for one fundamental reason: Republicans ain't what they used to be. It's true that there was considerable Republican congressional support, back in the day, for Social Security and Medicare. But in the '30s, there were progressive Republicans who stood to the left of the Democrats. Nebraska Republican George Norris, who for decades called for establishing public power companies to compete with price-gouging private companies, was the father of the Tennessee Valley Authority. In the '60s, Rockefeller Republicans supported civil rights legislation and Medicare.

Today, no such Republicans exist. In New England and New York, historically the home of GOP moderates, Republicans occupy just two of 51 House seats. Nationally, the party is dominated by Southern neo-Dixiecrats. In their book "Off Center," political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson compared congressional Republicans of different eras and concluded that a Republican House member in 2003 with a voting record that placed him at the median of his party was 73 percent more conservative than the median GOP member of the early '70s.

Max Baucus, then, isn't negotiating universal coverage with the party of Everett Dirksen, in which many members supported Medicare. He's negotiating it with the party of Barry Goldwater, who was dead set against Medicare. It's a fool's errand that is creating a plan that's a marvel of ineffectuality and self-negation -- a latter-day Missouri Compromise that reconciles opposites at the cost of good policy.

David Waldman reminded me the other day that Republican opponents of Social Security and Medicare used some of the same ridiculous arguments then that we're hearing now. That's absolutely true. It's worth noting, though, that in those eras, there were plenty of centrist and center-left Republicans who rejected the nonsense and worked with Democrats on achieving progressive policy goals.

Those days are long gone. We're now watching negotiations with Republicans like Chuck Grassley and Mike Enzi, who are not only conservative, but fundamentally reject the goals the majority hopes to achieve through reform.

This is hopelessly twisted, and evidence of a political system that not only doesn't work, but doesn't know how to work. To reiterate a point from a couple of weeks ago, bills with bipartisan support have traditionally been the result of one party reaching out to moderates from the other party to put together a reasonably good-sized majority.

Under the current circumstances, though, the expectations for the majority are skewed -- Republicans have almost entirely excised moderates from their ranks, and voters have handed Democrats a huge majority. It creates a ridiculous dynamic -- demanded by Republicans, touted by the media, and accepted by a few too many Democrats -- that the majority's legislation is only legitimate if it's endorsed by some liberals and some conservatives, as if the parties and ideologies of members aren't supposed to have any meaning. As if it's Democrats' fault Republicans have become too conservative. As if elections don't matter.

Ezra Klein's observation from earlier is worth repeating: "The modern version of bipartisanship would be a compromise between Democrats who did believe in civil rights and Republicans who did not. The bill's strongest provisions would thus be gutted, and we'd have a Civil Rights Act in name only, but at least it would be bipartisan."

Steve Benen 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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PROTECTING CONSUMERS.... Over the weekend, in his weekly radio/video address, President Obama presented health care reform in a slightly different light. He didn't mention the uninsured at all, and instead talked almost exclusively about the importance of reform on businesses and employers. The president referenced the words "small business" 11 times in his brief message.

Today, Obama is poised to tweak the message further, hosting events in Raleigh, N.C., and Bristol, Va., with a fundamentally different pitch, emphasizing consumers. The bullet points are likely to resonate with people who have insurance, and are afraid of changes.

1. No Denials for Pre-Existing Conditions: Insurers would be banned from refusing coverage based on medical history.

2. No Huge Out-of-Pocket Expenses, Deductibles or Co-Pays: Insurers would be bound by annual caps on charges for out-of-pocket expenses.

3. Preventive Care: Insurers would be required to cover checkups and tests like mammograms or diabetes screenings.

4. No Drops in Coverage for Major Illnesses: Companies would be barred dropping or diluting coverage for those who become seriously ill.

5. No Gender Disparities: Companies could not charge differently based on gender.

6. No Annual or Lifetime Caps on Coverage:

7. Expanded Coverage for Young Adults: Family plans would cover people through age 26.

8. Renewal Guarantees: If premiums are paid, policies have to be renewed even if new illnesses emerge.

This isn't about changing the policy itself, but rather, reframing the argument. When the White House subtly (or perhaps not so subtly) began talking up "health insurance reform" last week, this is probably what they were getting at. Millions of Americans have insurance through a private provider, and don't necessarily appreciate how reform will affect them. Obama's message seems intended to speak to this directly.

In a nutshell, the new message is telling consumers, "We're going to make it a lot harder for an insurance company to screw you over." At face value, it's the kind of message that might make reform more appealing to more people.

The problem, of course, is that there are eight bullet points. People actually have to be willing to listen to them, and the media, which has been complaining about substance, details, and the "boring' nature of policy debates, may be reluctant to actually list all eight.

That said, the eight points are easy to understand, and one assumes, popular points for pretty much everyone in the country. If the White House has struggled with a clear public message on reform -- and I believe it has -- perhaps this revised pitch will help focus Obama and his team, and get their efforts back on track.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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WEDNESDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP....Today's installment of campaign-related news items that wouldn't generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers.

* If New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D) is going to make his move and win re-election, he's going to have to do it soon. A new survey from Public Policy Polling shows Corzine trailing Republican Chris Christie by 14 points, 50% to 36%. The margin is up from Christie's 10-point lead a month ago. The election is about three months away.

* Just when it seemed Sen. Chris Dodd's (D-Conn.) re-election campaign was getting back on track, an old controversy about his mortgage makes a comeback. This week, the AP reported that a former Countrywide official "has told House and Senate investigators that [Dodd] knew that he was part of the company's VIP loan program."

* In an interesting experiment, the 2010 Iowa caucuses -- not to be confused with the 2012 Iowa caucuses -- will apparently be held on a Saturday, instead of a Tuesday. While presidential candidates will obviously not be on the ballot, these caucuses matter in state legislative races. If it goes well (i.e., stronger turnout), keep an eye on whether this might be a permanent change.

* Joining a long list, Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) announced yesterday that he will seek re-election, and skip a race against Sen. Richard Burr (R) next year. Still on the DSCC's radar are North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and former state senator and Iraq war veteran Cal Cunningham.

* National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas), perhaps best known for saying he wants his party to emulate the Taliban, announced this morning that his NRCC would target as many as 80 House Democrats next year.

* And in South Dakota, Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin took a pass on the gubernatorial race, but the party successfully recruited their #2 choice, state Sen. Scott Heidepriem, who will probably not have to worry about a primary.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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COULD OBAMA SETTLE FOR A CO-OP PLAN?.... President Obama chatted with Time's Karen Tumulty about health care policy, and the two touched briefly on a public option. Tumulty said there's some ambiguity about how, specifically, the policy would work, and the president talked about a "self-sustaining" program, financed "through premiums," that would "compete with private insurers."

The reporter asked whether a co-op would "fit that definition." Obama responded:

"Well, I think in theory you can imagine a cooperative meeting that definition. Obviously sort of the legal structure of it is less important than practically how can it operate. There are concerns that in the past, attempts at setting up co-ops have not been successful because they just haven't been able to get off the ground; sort of the start-up energy involved may not exist if you're doing a state-by-state co-op effort as opposed to a broad national plan."

Before anyone says, "Obama is lowering the bar and willing to accept a co-op!" notice the details here. The president said, as recently as last week, co-ops have struggled "because they don't have the scale and the resources to be able to compete effectively."

It's why he talked to Tumulty about a "broad national plan," as opposed to regional or state co-ops that fail to include a large enough base of employers and individuals with purchasing power. As Brian Beutler explained, Obama's remarks on this are roughly the Schumer position -- if a co-operative can operate like a national government-run insurance program, then he'd likely support it."

That said, if the discussion shifts to how best to craft a functional co-op system, it's almost certainly shifting away from how to implement a public plan.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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EXPEDITED IRAQ WITHDRAWAL?.... Pentagon officials have said more than once recently that the U.S. withdrawal timetable for Iraq remains on schedule, violent flare-ups notwithstanding. Defense Secretary Robert Gates went a little further today, raising the prospect of a faster pullout of U.S. troops.

Gates told reporters after a two-day visit to Iraq that there was "at least some chance for a modest acceleration" of plans for the drawdown of American troops this year.

Citing his talks with the top US commander in Iraq, he said a stepped up withdrawal was possible "because of the way General (Ray) Odierno sees the way things going" amid declining violence and increasingly capable Iraqi security forces.

The current plan would have two combat brigade teams depart by the end of the year but Gates said "maybe one more" brigade could be withdrawn as well before elections in January.

An additional brigade would mean the withdrawal of as many as 5,000 Americans.

Spencer Ackerman notes that Gates' remarks about the military presence in Iraq coincides with Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for more U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

As for the larger context of the Iraqi conflict, Gates' comments about a speedier withdrawal are encouraging, but I think Michael Crowley's take about the timetable sounds about right: "As American troops leave in large numbers, it seems likely that Iraq will either largely hold together, with scattered instances of conflict and terrorism, or plunge back into a renewed nightmare of chaos and sectarian violence. We can tweak our exit schedule to leave faster or more slowly, but the real question is whether the place is fundamentally able to hold together, and that remains unclear."

Gates, Odierno, and other leaders seem confident. Time will tell.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (5)

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DOBBS GETS CREATIVE IN HIS CRITICISM.... CNN's Lou Dobbs' obsession with right-wing conspiracy theories about President Obama's birthplace continues, in part, the television personality says, because Birthers "don't have representation." One assume Dobbs is excluding the members of Congress and major media figures, such as himself, who insist this nonsense is a legitimate issue.

Yesterday, as part of his angry response to widespread disgust with his crusade, Dobbs lashed out at, among others, Rachel Maddow, whom Dobbs labeled a "tea-bagging queen."

I'm not sure how, exactly, Dobbs came to choose this particular label for the MSNBC host. If the CNN personality wanted to blast Maddow, he probably could have chosen an attack that makes more ideological and physiological sense.

Thankfully, Maddow briefly responded to Dobbs' odd criticism last night. "[W]e're left to sort out the deeply confusing nature of what it means to be called a 'tea-bagging queen by Lou Dobbs,'" Maddow said. "A 'tea-baggin queen'? What kind of queen would that be, exactly? And can a female person be that kind of queen?"

I don't imagine Dobbs will respond, but I can hope.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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END-OF-LIFE SERVICES.... Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) delivered a speech on the House floor yesterday, insisting that health care reform would "put seniors in a position" in which they may be "put to death by their government." There's been a lot of that rhetoric floating around lately.

And apparently, some are actually starting to worry about it. President Obama, speaking at an AARP forum yesterday, was asked by a concerned elderly woman about "rumors" that government officials would visit people's homes and "told to decide how they wish to die." The president tried to clarify what this is all about.

"You know, I guarantee you, first of all, we just don't have enough government workers to send to talk to everybody, to find out how they want to die. I think that the only thing that may have been proposed in some of the bills -- and I actually think this is a good thing -- is that it makes it easier for people to fill out a living will."

After explaining what living wills are, and why they can be beneficial, Obama added, "Mary, I just want to be clear: Nobody is going to be knocking on your door; nobody is going to be telling you you've got to fill one out. And certainly nobody is going to be forcing you to make a set of decisions on end-of-life care based on some bureaucratic law in Washington."

Pressed further by the AARP moderator, the president said the intent of the provision in question is to provide seniors with "more information, and that Medicare will pay for it."

The NYT touched on this in a report today, too.

A provision of the House bill would provide Medicare coverage for the work of doctors who advise patients on life-sustaining treatment and "end-of-life services," including hospice care.

Conservative groups have seized on this provision as evidence that the bill could encourage the rationing of health care.... The House Republican leader, Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, said, "This provision may start us down a treacherous path toward government-encouraged euthanasia."

Boehner was serious. [Update: Zachary Roth has a good item on this.]

Rep. G. K. Butterfield (D) of North Carolina told the Times he's been hearing concerns from constituents who've been misled. "The longer we wait to vote," Butterfield, "the more opportunity our opponents have to put out false messages."

In other words, lawmakers have to hurry, and resolve differences with conservative lawmakers, because professional conservative liars are busy conning the country. It's quite a political process we have here.

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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BECK'S LIMITLESS IDIOCY.... One of the problems with Glenn Beck's propensity for madness is the sheer volume. The unhinged Fox News personality is so far gone, and spouts so much nonsense on a daily basis, it's difficult to separate the routine absurdities from the uniquely offensive idiocy.

Yesterday, Beck shared some thoughts that probably fall into the latter category. Appearing on "Fox & Friends," Beck weighed in again on the Gates/Crowley incident, and this week's social gathering at the White House. He told his national television audience that President Obama has "a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture."

Reminded of the many white people on the president's team, Beck added, "I'm not saying he doesn't like white people, I'm saying he has a problem. This guy is, I believe, a racist."

Don't even try to consider the logic of the argument. Beck believes Obama has "a deep-seated hatred for white people," but Beck isn't arguing that Obama "doesn't like white people."

A TPM reader, a media professional, suggested this was a game-changing exchange for Rupert Murdoch's propaganda outlet. "This is not Kanye West saying Bush doesn't care about white people, or Michael Moore saying something provocative while a guest on CNN (though I challenge anyone to find Moore saying anything this ugly on anyone's program)," the reader noted. "This is Rupert's prized employee appearing on his channel, and doing the equivalent of shouting 'fire' in a crowded movie house. This is the sort of comment that I might expect to read about in some SPLC missive concerning neo-Nazi websites, or the like. But as uttered by the paid employee of Fox News, on one of the network's shows?"

Of course, the Republican network doesn't see it that way. Bill Shine, Fox News' Senior Vice President of Programming, said Beck's anti-Obama tirade "represented his own views, not those of the Fox News Channel." Beck, Shine said, "is given the freedom to express his opinions."

Karl Frisch translated the response: "Beck doesn't speak for Fox News, but we'll keep paying him to say anything he wants."

The network's response needs some work, because by the logic of Bill Shine, any Fox News personality could say literally anything on the air, and so long as it doesn't run afoul of FCC regulations, the network brass is unconcerned.

So, here's the follow-up for Shine or anyone at the propaganda machine: is there a line that can't be crossed? And if so, how much further do the network's paid hosts have to go to get there?

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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WHAT HAS GOVERNMENT-RUN HEALTH CARE EVER DONE FOR US?.... Paul Krugman noted yesterday that "Americans hate single-payer insurance" because "they don't know they have it." President Obama raised a related point yesterday during an AARP forum on health care.

"I have to say, the reason [a public option] has been controversial is a lot of people have heard this phrase 'socialized medicine' and they say, 'We don't want government-run health care; we don't want a Canadian-style plan,'" Obama said. "Nobody is talking about that. We're saying, let's give you a choice. You can choose the private marketplace, or this other approach.

"And I got a letter the other day from a woman; she said, 'I don't want government-run health care, I don't want socialized medicine, and don't touch my Medicare.' And I wanted to say, well, I mean, that's what Medicare is, is it's a government-run health care plan that people are very happy with. But I think that we've been so accustomed to hearing those phrases that sometimes we can't sort out the myth from the reality."

This, apparently, is fairly common. Rep. Robert Inglis (R-S.C.) recently hosted a town-hall meeting, at which a man insisted, in all seriousness, "Keep your government hands off my Medicare." The constituent, apparently, didn't appreciate the irony.

As obvious as it should be, a surprising number of people don't realize that public health care programs already exist in the United States, and operate quite well. Krugman reminded readers yesterday, "[W]e already have a system in which the government pays substantially more medical bills (47% of the total) than the private insurance industry (35%)."

It reminds me a bit of a scene in "Life of Brian." The People's Front of Judea are having a meeting and considering what the Romans had ever done for them. Reg asks, "Apart apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?"

Likewise, we've reached the point at which opponents of health care reform ask, "Apart from quality, affordable medical care for seniors, U.S. servicemen and women, injured veterans, poor families, and low-income children, what has government-run health care ever done for us?"

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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July 28, 2009

TUESDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* The Senate Judiciary Committee approved Judge Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination this afternoon, on a 13 to 6 vote. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) joined every Democrat on the committee in support of the nominee.

* Also on the House this afternoon, the House Financial Services Committee voted to approve a measure pushed by the Obama administration to impose new restraints on executive pay. The bill passed 40 to 28, along straight party lines. The NYT noted, "The bill does not set pay limits. Instead it gives shareholders the right to vote on pay and requires that independent directors from outside of management serve on compensation committees."

* President Obama spoke at an AARP-sponsored forum this afternoon, and explained that the biggest threat to Medicare is the status quo.

* Iran's Mir Hossein Mousavi is calling for a new round of street protests during religious festivities scheduled for next week.

* Media Matters noticed that the president's conservative detractors have begun heavily relying on racial rhetoric to attack Obama. TPM noticed the same thing.

* Defense Secretary Robert Gates made another trip to southern Iraq this morning.

* Obama cabinet secretaries have identified $243 million in cost-cutting measures, more than double the original $100 million target.

* Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), who seems to be disturbed, said today that health care reform will "put seniors in a position of being put to death by their government."

* Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley will join the president on Thursday at 6 p.m. for a casual get-together at the White House.

* In general, right-wing opponents of health care reform probably shouldn't walk around in public with nooses and props that hang members of Congress in effigy.

* When Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) blamed right-wing, southern Republicans for the Republican Party's troubles, he apparently meant it to be "off the record."

* Under the circumstances, Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.) probably shouldn't casually throw around words like "nuts." He is, after all, an apparent Birther.

* On a related note, Hawaii's health director apparently checked the president's birth certificate again, and discovered that Obama was, in fact, born in Hawaii on Aug. 4, 1961, and "is a natural-born American citizen." Lunatics won't care.

* I assume you've seen it, but just in case, Shatner's dramatic reading of Palin was an instant classic.

* And tonight on "Countdown," Phil Longman, a frequent contributor to Monthly, will be talking about health care and the V.A. This 2005 piece is likely to come up, as is this follow-up article from 2007. Tonight's episode will be guest-hosted by Howard Dean, so be sure to check it out.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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REID TALKS ABOUT WHAT TO EXPECT.... Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) spoke on the floor this afternoon, and said he's confident that the Finance Committee will move on its health care reform bill before the August recess.

But his remarks also signaled some discouraging expectations about what Reid thinks is likely to be in the final bill.

"Any plan that passes the Senate will be fully paid for ... When all of the numbers are crunched, the number on the bottom line will be zero ... We are long overdue for changes in our health care system. The biggest cost to the American public is inaction."

"What I think should be in the bill is something that I will vote for according to my conscience when we get this bill to the floor ... But I have a responsibility to get a bill to the Senate floor that will get 60 votes that we can proceed toward."

"That's my number one responsibility and there are times I have to set aside my personal preferences for the good of the Senate and I think the country."

The Majority Leader didn't use the words "public option," but it certainly seemed like he was hinting, didn't it? What matters is what will "get 60 votes," which is more important, he said, than what he thinks "should be in the bill."

Would now be a good time to mention that Reid is the leader of a 60-member caucus?

Howard Dean (appearing in front of a very familiar backdrop) rhetorically asked Rachel Maddow last night, "[W]hat's the point of having a 60 vote majority in the United States Senate, if you can't produce ... health care reform?"

Steve Benen 4:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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KRISTOL'S UNINTENTIONALLY HELPFUL INTERVIEW.... If you watched last night's "Daily Show," you caught another entertaining chat between Jon Stewart and Bill Kristol. Because of time constraints, though, the show could only broadcast a part of the larger interview, which is a shame, because the whole thing is worth watching.

There's probably no point in trying to fact-check everything Kristol said -- there was quite a bit of nonsense -- but the Weekly Standard editor did make this provocative claim: "One reason the price of health care is going up so fast is because of government programs. The price of Medicare and Medicaid have gone up faster than private insurance. That's well-documented."

Ezra Klein did a nice job explaining (with charts) what's true in the real world: "It is true that the growth rates of Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance are well-documented. But the documentation shows the opposite of what Bill Kristol says it shows. The price of Medicare and Medicaid have gone up much more slowly than private insurance."

Kristol, in other words, in one of his key claims in opposition to reform, has reality backwards, and inadvertently made the case for more government intervention in the health care system.

Also noteworthy were Kristol's observations about health care for military troops and veterans (a point of particular interest to us at the Monthly, given our important cover-story on this a few years ago). Kristol said one of the ways we reward those who wear the uniform is with "first-class health care," while the "rest of us can go out and buy insurance" from private insurers.

Kristol, apparently oblivious to the point he'd just conceded, watched as Stewart explained, "Get this on the record. Bill Kristol said that the government can run a 'first-class health care system, and a government-run health care system is better than the private health care system."

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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CONGRESSIONAL LIBERALS SPEAK UP.... When it comes to health care reform, most of the recent debate has been focused on how to weaken the bill and make conservatives happy. In the Senate, that's led a band of six centrists and center-right members to hold up the process and strip reform of measures Democrats find important. In the House, it's a matter of satisfying the demands of center-right Blue Dogs.

The group that's left out of the equation, and whose concerns seem less pertinent right now, is the majority of the majority -- namely, liberal/progressive Democrats.

Roll Call reports this afternoon that a group of progressive House Dems "voiced their concerns" to Speaker Pelosi today, fearful that Blue Dogs and Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) are, deliberately or not, sabotaging this once-in-a-generation effort.

About two dozen liberal Members trickled in and out of the hour-long meeting with Pelosi, who discussed strategy for moving the bill forward if Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) is unable to reach a deal with Blue Dogs this week.

"There was a lot of talk about the Blue Dogs," said one lawmaker, who noted that Pelosi is walking "a very delicate line" as she tries to keep a Democratic coalition together on the bill.

"She won't criticize them. She says they're representing their constituents. She's being very careful. But other Members are not being as charitable," said the progressive Democrat.

Here's the problem -- or the nightmare, depending on one's perspective -- that often goes unstated: liberal lawmakers feel as if they don't have any leverage right now. And they're right.

Progressive members of Congress are already on board with reform. They like the tri-committee proposal in the House, and fully embrace the HELP committee's bill in the Senate. They don't need coaxing or deals or enticements or concessions. They have legislation they like, and there's not much more for them to talk about.

For conservatives, it's obviously an entirely different dynamic. Conservatives don't really want to overhaul the system. Democrats on the right are skeptical of the approach, and Republicans on the right oppose reform in a more fundamental way. If reform has to be "bipartisan," and can't pass the House without Blue Dogs, that necessarily means making the bill worse.

It also means conservatives have the leverage. If they don't get the changes they want, they'll kill reform and do extraordinary damage to the Obama presidency -- an outcome they don't consider especially troublesome. If conservatives do get the changes they want, it's assumed liberals will go along, because some reform will be preferable to the status quo, and they have a vested interest in not undermining the White House.

So, it becomes easier to imagine a scenario in the fall in which center-right lawmakers -- some Democrats, some not; some in the Senate, some not -- hold reform hostage until it looks like the kind of bill they want. The left is told, "Take it or leave it." If liberals say it's a bridge too far, conservatives will say, "We had a bipartisan bill ready to go, but the left killed health care." If liberals swallow hard and accept it, the once-in-a-generation opportunity will have passed, and a weak bill will become law.

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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RICHARD COHEN RETIREMENT WATCH.... I'll confess that I tend to skip past most of Richard Cohen's Washington Post columns. But Adam Serwer today described Cohen as "the worst columnist in America" -- a bold claim with Krauthammer, Goldberg, and Barnes still publishing regularly -- so I thought I should check out what drove Adam to his assessment.

It turns out, Cohen is apparently bored.

When the Pulitzer committee called to say that I had won the prize for being the only syndicated columnist, or for that matter touch-typist, who had not had an exclusive interview with Barack Obama, I was shocked. I had to check to see if indeed I had not exclusively interviewed the president and, if I had, what he had said and, if I hadn't -- which turned out to be the case -- how it had happened.

I checked my records and diaries and discovered that I had been offered many opportunities to exclusively interview the president, but only after he had been exclusively interviewed by all the other columnists and bloggers and, of course, the anchors of all the networks, including cable -- basic as well as premium. A review of the record showed that the president usually said nothing or nearly so, and indeed things have gotten to the point that when I see Obama on TV, I hurry on to another channel, even one with a Maury Povich rerun. I recently came across Anderson Cooper, who was interviewing Obama in Africa or some such place, and after noticing how they were both so trim, I quickly channel-surfed my way to Animal Planet. I knew I had not missed anything important.

Cohen added that if he did sit down with President Obama for a one-on-one interview, he'd feel compelled to ask about health care reform, which would prove to be awkward, since Cohen knows "next to nothing" about the subject. The debate over the issue, he said, has produced proposals that he finds "mind-numbingly boring."

So, let me get this straight. A Washington Post political columnist, whose work is syndicated nationwide, doesn't really want to talk to the president, doesn't want to see anyone else interview the president, doesn't care about the president traveling abroad to "some such place," and doesn't want to learn more about the health care debate.

Obviously, what Cohen finds interesting or not is up to him. But if he's no longer interested in politics or events of the day, perhaps he shouldn't be a political columnist in the nation's capital?

Adam concluded, "Maybe the Animal Planet channel has an opening, or maybe Cohen could intern for Maury. Maybe then the WaPo op-ed page could find a columnist who happens to actually be interested in writing about public affairs other than to complain about how boring they are."

Steve Benen 2:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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CAN'T ARGUE WITH LOGIC LIKE THAT.... Fox News' Bill O'Reilly likes to answer a few questions from viewers on his show, and last night, he highlighted an inquiry from a Canadian: "Has anyone noticed that life expectancy in Canada under our health system is higher than the USA?"

"Well, that's to be expected, Peter," O'Reilly said, "because we have 10 times as many people as you do. That translates to 10 times as many accidents, crimes, down the line."

I've watched this a few times now, hoping to understand what O'Reilly's thinking, and whether he's kidding.

I'd like to think the Fox News personality at least understands the question and the meaning of the words "life expectancy." Obviously, with the U.S. population being 10 times that of Canada, the total number of Americans who die will necessarily be larger than the total number of Canadians who die. But that's irrelevant.

I'm at a loss. Someone want to help me out with this one? Because at face value, this makes O'Reilly seem even dumber than usual.

Steve Benen 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (74)

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KIRK DISCOVERS HOW WRONG HE WAS (WHEN HE WAS RIGHT).... On June 27, Rep. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois was one of just eight House Republicans to break party ranks and support the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), which included a cap-and-trade system. Far-right activists, who don't accept the evidence of global warming, vowed revenge.

On July 27, Kirk, now a candidate for U.S. Senate, sure is sorry about upsetting those right-wing opponents of climate-change legislation.

Kirk immediately drew flak from the state's Republican base over the vote, which nearly prompted a primary challenge from his own party chairman, Andy McKenna.

But in an interview with FOX Chicago Sunday, Kirk sounded a lot more like a "drill-baby-drill" type of Republican than one focused on the environmentally-minded constituents in his North Shore Chicago district.

"I've always backed energy independence policies, but I've heard from people on this issue like no other. The energy interests of Illinois are far broader and deeper than my North Shore district. The political prospects of this bill are dim in the Senate.... I think the bill in its current form is probably dead," Kirk said.

"What I really want to see is a new round of nuclear power plants for the country, exploration for oil offshore and the Trans-Canada pipeline that would bring lower-cost natural gas to the Midwest."

What a difference a month -- and a bunch of right-wing vitriol -- can make. A month ago, Kirk was positioning himself as a moderate, willing to make the tough choices to combat a climate catastrophe.

A month later, his support for the bill he just voted for has vanished, and Kirk is carefully repeating the conservative line on energy policy.

Imagine that.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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CBO GIVES PUBLIC OPTION THE A-OK.... Just as the Senate Finance Committee concludes that a public option in health care reform deserves to be scuttled, the Congressional Budget Office concludes that the principal argument against a public option is wrong.

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives pounced on a congressional budget analysis to bolster their plan for a government-run health insurance option on Monday, as party leaders said they were closer to agreement on healthcare reform.

The report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the public option proposed by Democrats would not drive private insurers out of business and most people would still choose to get their medical coverage through employers.

Republicans have been citing a Lewin Group study that found that as many as 103 million Americans would move to a public option over the next decade. The Lewin Group, however, is part of a larger group owned by an insurance company. The CBO, meanwhile, responding to questions from Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), found that the number would likely be between 10 million and 11 million.

Speaker Pelosi was, not surprisingly, pleased, telling reporters, "The CBO has ... disputed claims made by the Republicans about what our legislation will do."

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer added, "Now we've heard that the reform will represent a government takeover of health care. A point of fact: The opposite is true."

Whether this will make any difference remains to be seen -- support for the CBO's conclusions seems to be a little selective -- but it's one more angle to consider going forward. At a minimum, the analysis of the public option is a bit of good news for Democratic reform efforts at a good time in the process.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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TUESDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP....Today's installment of campaign-related news items that wouldn't generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers.

* With Sen. Jim Bunning (R) retiring in Kentucky, what does the landscape look like for the open-seat contest? For Republicans, Trey Grayson, Kentucky's secretary of state, is likely to have the field to himself, and has been raising money for months, assuming Bunning would eventually step aside. For Democrats, the contest will come down to state Attorney General Jack Conway and Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo.

* Former Sen. Norm Coleman (R) has been cagey about his future political plans, and there's been widespread speculation about whether he would run for governor in Minnesota next year. According to a local report, Coleman is "telling friends and political colleagues he will not run for that spot." Expect an official announcement in the Spring.

* Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher's (D) Senate campaign got a bit of a boost yesterday when he received an endorsement from Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio). Fisher, who is running against Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner in a Democratic primary, has also received the backing of Gov. Ted Strickland (D).

* When President Obama hosts a health care event in Virginia tomorrow, gubernatorial hopeful Creigh Deeds will not join him on the stage. The event is in Washington County, where Obama only received 33% of the vote in 2008, despite winning Virginia overall.

* Has the DSCC finally found a credible challenger for Sen. Richard Burr (R) in North Carolina next year? Perhaps. North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall was in DC yesterday to chat about the race with party leaders.

* And in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is still considered the favorite as he seeks a third term, but the incumbent's lead over NYC Comptroller William Thompson (D) has shrunk considerably in recent months. A new Quinnipiac poll shows Bloomberg ahead, 47% to 37%.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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FRIENDS IN WRONG PLACES.... Know who's really impressed with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus' (D-Mont.) work on "bipartisan" health care reform? The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which, it so happens, opposes health care reform.

The big-business group, which has been highly critical of a number of the key components of the healthcare reform platform espoused by President Obama and most congressional Democrats, penned the letter to Baucus, Finance Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and the other members of the committee to urge them to keep working for a deal. [...]

"The Chamber applauds your commitment to develop a comprehensive plan that garners bipartisan support in the United States Senate. Restructuring one-sixth of the U.S. economy is too important to pursue on a one-party basis," says the letter, signed by Bruce Josten, the Chamber's chief lobbyist. [...]

The business community has long thought that any bill born of Baucus's committee would be the one they most likely could support.

In particular, the Chamber of Commerce seemed especially pleased that the Senate Finance Committee has moved away from a public option.

Generally, lawmakers seek praise from high-profile organizations. But when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce thinks your health care plan is on the right track, chances are pretty good that your health care plan is on the wrong track.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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FURTHER BLURRING THE LINES.... I continue to be fascinated by the shrinking differences between the nutty, right-wing fringe and the Republican establishment. Lee Fang flagged this gem yesterday.

Last Friday, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) joined radical conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on his radio talk show for an interview. Jones has made a name for himself propagating conspiracies ranging from the claim that Bill Clinton planned the Oklahoma City bombings to the idea that the attacks on 9/11 were orchestrated by a cabal of American and Israeli government officials.

During the 30-minute interview about "nation ending stuff," Gohmert used his opportunity on the Jones show to showcase his own odd anti-Obama conspiracy theories.

Gohmert was on quite a roll, insisting that health care reform will "absolutely kill senior citizens," because the government will put older Americans on a list and then "force them to die early." He added that the government will also control what Americans eat and where we can live.

When Jones, compared current events to Hitler and Mao, the Republican Texan replied, "Well that's exactly what I was thinking of. This is the kind of the thing we got to stop." Gohmert went on to praise the fringe talk-show host for being "on top of things."

Now, I don't much care what these obviously unhinged conservatives have to say. What's fascinating to me, though, is the fact that there was no real difference between them. Generally, politicians try to keep radicals and fringe activists at arm's length. If a politician runs into a nut in public, he/she tries to avoid making eye contact, and scurries away as quickly as possible.

But here's an elected member of Congress, voluntarily appearing on a notorious extremist's radio show, as if this were a normal thing to do. They two swapped insane conspiracy theories casually, as if radical nonsense were as commonplace as discussing the weather.

The line, in other words, between the member of Congress and the fanatic simply didn't exist. What's more, because right-wing extremism has become mainstream in conservative circles, there are no consequences for Gohmert's rhetoric or appearance. It's just what GOP officials do in the early part of the 21st century.

Lawmakers, right-wing shock-jocks, Fox News personalities, conservative bloggers, major publications on the right -- they're all largely on the same page, without a sense of shame or limits, and they're all spouting transparent nonsense.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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WE WON'T HAVE BUNNING TO KICK AROUND ANYMORE.... Perhaps the only good thing about having Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) around is that no one knows what kind of bizarre behavior he might engage in next.

With his re-election prospects looking poor next year, Bunning's Republican colleagues have begged him to retire. Yesterday, he agreed to step down at the end of his term.

Bunning announced Monday that he's ending his bid for a third term, bringing to a close a multimonth-long saga that pitted the 77-year-old Hall of Famer against a Republican leadership that sent strong signals that he should step aside for the good of the party.

"Unfortunately, running for office is not just about the issues," Bunning said in a statement Monday. "To win a general election, a candidate has to be able to raise millions of dollars to get the message out to voters. Over the past year, some of the leaders of the Republican Party in the Senate have done everything in their power to dry up my fundraising.

"The simple fact is that I have not raised the funds necessary to run an effective campaign for the U.S. Senate," Bunning said. "For this reason, I will not be a candidate for re-election in 2010."

This is a setback for the DSCC, which was looking forward to a race against the erratic, confused conservative incumbent, and becomes one of those rare campaigns when the incumbent party's chances improve when the sitting lawmaker doesn't seek re-election.

Bunning's departure was, however, the right move. Indeed, it's several years overdue. In his 2004 race, Bunning was one of those rare candidates who actually, literally, seemed to be suffering the effects of dementia. He would fail to show up for campaign events; he skipped a debate he agreed to participate in; and he lied about using a teleprompter in a different debate in which he wasn't supposed to use one. He insisted on traveling with a special police escort, at taxpayer expense, for fear of a terrorist attack.

When local journalists asked that he release his medical records, Bunning refused. As the campaign wore on, Bunning was unaware of current events, and boasted he only knew what Fox News told him. He inexplicably won on Election Day with 51% of the vote.

In his second term, Bunning's condition deteriorated further. Earlier this year, for example, Bunning decided not to show up for work for a while, and refused to say where he was. More recently, he stopped talking to his Republican colleagues, threatened to file a lawsuit against the NRSC for its lack of support, and started making ridiculous medical diagnoses of Supreme Court justices.

Bunning's departure is great news for Republicans, but more important, it's even better news for the Senate itself.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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VOINOVICH SLAMS 'SOUTHERNERS' FOR GOP DECLINE.... Sen. George Voinovich (R) of Ohio is retiring next year, and apparently feels a little more comfortable speaking his mind, now that he doesn't have to worry about impressing voters or donors.

Yesterday, Voinovich shared some thoughts on why the Republican Party has fallen on hard times, and specifically pointed the finger at right-wing senators like Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).

"We got too many Jim DeMints and Tom Coburns," Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) told the Columbus Dispatch. "It's the southerners."

Voinovich, a native Clevelander who retires after the 2010 election, continued after the southern elements of the GOP.

"They get on TV and go 'errrr, errrrr,'" he said. "People hear them and say, 'These people, they're southerners. The party's being taken over by southerners. What they hell they got to do with Ohio?'"

I don't imagine these remarks are going to go over especially well in conservative circles, especially south of the Mason-Dixon line. But the comments, while seemingly intemperate, are hardly scandalous.

Indeed, in November, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) said the GOP is struggling to become "a majority governing party" because its base is limited geographically. David Broder wrote in December, "The Southern domination of the congressional Republican Party has become more complete with each and every election."

Voinovich will no doubt get slammed for his remarks, but it's not his fault the party's power base has become focused on one conservative region.

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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WAXMAN, BLUE DOGS GETTING CLOSER?.... As of mid-day Friday, negotiations between House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and conservative Blue Dog Democrats weren't just going poorly, they'd completely collapsed. Slowly but surely, principals returned to the table, and agreed to keep seeking agreement.

As of late yesterday, there'd apparently been quite a bit of progress.

Reps. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Mike Ross (D-Ark.) emerged from more than three hours of negotiations late Monday to say that the Blue Dogs were weighing an offer from Waxman. Blue Dogs have asked Waxman to get a cost estimate for the bill.

"The chairman has made an offer," said Ross, who is the lead Blue Dog on healthcare reform. "We have asked that he get a [Congressional Budget Office] score, that is, find out how much it would cost. We're going to review it and see if it's something we can accept."

Granted, Ross's comments sound non-committal. But for the better part of the summer, Ross has expressed his, and his conservative caucus's, unambiguous opposition to House reform measures. Moving from "no" to "we're going to review it" is evidence of constructive negotiations.

Of course, those of us outside the negotiations don't know what kind of concessions Waxman was willing to make to reach this point, but according to reports this morning Ross said Waxman's offer "addresses all 10 of the concerns Blue Dogs have raised with the bill."

We'll see how far Waxman was willing to go, but if his record is any indication, he's far more reliable and trustworthy when it comes to progressive benchmarks than the other Democratic leader negotiating with conservatives: Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

And speaking of the House, the Democratic caucus apparently held a five-hour meeting last night -- that's not a typo -- to go over every section of their health care bill with every Democratic member of the House.

No word on whether the meeting went well -- or whether the overview reflects possible changes resulting from Waxman/Blue Dog talks -- but one assumes the caucus is, at a minimum, better informed about the details.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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WHAT BAUCUS AND GRASSLEY ARE UP TO.... The good news is, the Senate Finance Committee, which has held up health care reform efforts, is nearing the end of its negotiations. The bad news is, the negotiators have apparently come up with a bad bill.

The New York Times reports today on the ongoing talks between six committee members -- Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.), and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) -- who reportedly agree on the broad outline of a bipartisan plan.

The group, which includes no genuine progressives and is made up entirely of senators from states with no major urban areas, seem to have no use for liberal benchmark measures.

Already, the group of six has tossed aside the idea of a government-run insurance plan that would compete with private insurers, which the president supports but Republicans said was a deal-breaker. Instead, they are proposing a network of private, nonprofit cooperatives.

They have also dismissed the House Democratic plan to pay for the bill's roughly $1 trillion, 10-year cost partly with an income surtax on high earners. The three Republicans have insisted that any new taxes come from within the health care arena. As one option, Democrats have proposed taxing high-end insurance plans with values exceeding $25,000.

The Senate group also seems prepared to drop a requirement, included in other versions of the legislation, that employers offer coverage to their workers.

The AP is reporting similar details -- no public option, no employer mandate, no millionaire surtax.

The co-ops are an inadequate substitute for a public option, which Baucus had vowed to "fight tooth and nail" for. Moreover, the elimination of an employer mandate makes holding down costs that much more difficult.

Baucus, in other words, has prioritized Republican support for a bill over the quality of the bill, and has given up on some of the key priorities Democrats, including the president, have prioritized from the outset.

Of course, we still don't know when, exactly, the Finance Committee might actually produce a bill, or what the whole Finance Committee will think of the work of these six negotiators. For that matter, the really tricky part will be trying to merge this Republican-friendly bill with the HELP committee's already-approved legislation, which is both ambitious and progressive.

And for added fun, note that there are plenty of center-left Democrats who've said they won't be able to support a final bill if it lacks a public option.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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July 27, 2009

MONDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* At the start of a two-day summit between the United States and China, President Obama emphasized the fact that the relationship between the two countries will shape the 21st century. The U.S. delegation for the talks will be led by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

* New home sales in the U.S. far exceeded expectations last month, showing the largest increase in more than eight years.

* Images from intelligence satellites of Arctic ice bolstered the evidence of global warming. The Bush administration kept the images hidden; the Obama administration has released them.

* Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have announced their opposition to the Sotomayor nomination. No big surprise.

* The $644-million Community Stabilization Program in Iraq has been suspended due to alleged widespread corruption.

* Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, in what I believe is a first, seems to be hitting the campaign trail, hoping for a second term.

* How can policymakers pay for health care? John Kerry's idea about imposing an excise tax on "gold-plated Cadillac" insurance plans seems to be generating quite a bit of support.

* In the wake of the controversy surrounding Skip Gates' arrest, racial slurs at The Root have become a real problem.

* Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) is real sorry he suggested last week that the U.S. needed to prepare for a possible military confrontation with India.

* It was a pleasant surprise to see Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) acknowledge that United States has detention facilities that could safely hold Gitmo inmates. Alas, he's still wrong about the policy.

* Rick Santorum apparently can't read health care legislation. After all those years in the House and Senate, Santorum really should have learned a little more about the process.

* Yet another far-right, "family values" Republican has been caught up in a sex scandal. The latest is Tennessee State Sen. Paul Stanley (R), a married Sunday school teacher, ardent anti-gay lawmaker, and proponent of abstinence-only education, who acknowledged his adultery after his mistress' boyfriend tried to blackmail him. The boyfriend, apparently, had video of the state senator in a "compromising" position.

* Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), never accused of being the sharpest crayon in the box, argued today on the Senate floor that burning oil doesn't cause pollution. He wasn't kidding.

* One of the guest hosts of MSNBC's "Countdown" this week will be none other than Howard Dean. That ought to be fun.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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WHO HAS THE AUGUST EDGE?.... With hopes for a pre-recess vote on health care reform dashed, the lobbying of key lawmakers in August is going to get pretty intense. Opponents of reform are hoping to use the recess to raise doubts, disseminate propaganda, scare the bejusus out of people, and kill the bill. Proponents of reform are hoping to convince wavering lawmakers that reform isn't just necessary, it's also popular. May the better argument win.

Oh, who am I kidding? This has nothing to do with the better argument, and everything to do with a campaign-style ground game. If on-the-fence, persuadable lawmakers head home and face a flood of pressure from constituents and local media -- in one direction or the other -- it's very likely to affect on the outcome.

In an election, GOTV efforts are focused on a specific day. In a month-long lobbying campaign, it's more of a challenge to maintain intensity, focus, and discipline. With the recess nearly here, who has the better ground game? It seems reformers have the edge.

A White House official said the administration is still in the process of making plans for the recess, but labor leaders and other administration allies told POLITICO that they're gearing up to spend millions on television advertisements and grass-roots organizing. And, judging by spending already reported by some of these groups, they are off to an impressive start. [...]

Conversations with leaders on both sides, and a measure of the early activity ... suggest that the White House will maintain its advantage in money and organization.

That spending has already begun, and its level is unprecedented, experts say, both in sheer volume and balance. According to data from the Campaign Media and Analysis Group, most of the ad spending this year has been to support initiatives pushed by Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress.

"That has almost never been the case in any administration," said Evan Tracey, CMAG's chief operating officer.

This is not to say the right won't be fully engaged. The RNC committed today to spending $1 million over the next month to help kill health care reform, and allied groups and far-right leaders will be just as engaged.

But supporters of reform, at a minimum, seem to have the infrastructure in place to lean heavily on lawmakers in support of this rare opportunity. It's also poised to be a real test for Organizing for America, the DNC-backed outgrowth of the Obama campaign, in what may prove to be the outfit's chance to show what it's made of.

Kevin Drum noted the other day, "[C]ongressmen listen to their constituents when they go home for the holidays, and there's no reason reform advocates can't use that to their advantage. It all depends on whether we're really as motivated and as angry as the opposition. Are we?"

I guess we'll find out fairly soon.

If your senator and/or House member may go either way on reform, don't be afraid to weigh in. I guarantee you won't be alone.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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HOUSE DEM LEADER EYES END OF BIPARTISAN TALKS.... Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), suggested this morning that the value of bipartisan health care reform talks is nearing its end.

"What concerns me about what's happened in the Senate Finance Committee is that they've had a whole lot of time to work these things out, and just don't seem to be able to break the impasse," Van Hollen said in an interview on the liberal Bill Press Radio Show. "It doesn't seem to be as much about a disagreement over policy issues, and it seems more to be just the lack of the political will on behalf of some to get it done."

Van Hollen blamed the committee's slow work on Republicans, who he asserted were unwilling to make the needed "tough decisions" to craft a healthcare bill.

"At some point that's going to have to happen, and the question is when do you reach that breaking point," the Maryland Democrat said when asked if Senate Democrats should end negotiations. "At some point they're going to have to pull the plug on that process, and when they do that is something they're in a better position to know."

"A lot of our members in the House want to see, not what the full Senate does, but at least what the Senate Finance Committee moves forward," he said. "The reality is, a lot of our members want them to at least show their hand a little bit before we ask them to make some very tough decisions."

The notion that there will come a point at which they'll have to "pull the plug" is an interesting one, since Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) seemed to think we'd reached that point about three weeks ago. And yet, Max Baucus continues to try to find a way to make Republicans happy (with concessions that other Democrats aren't at all aware of).

Van Hollen's comments also reinforce the idea that House Dems care a great deal about the direction the Senate is headed in, in large part because they don't want to stick their necks out on a controversial vote -- including, quite likely, tax increases -- if the Senate is going to make them regret it. Jon Chait noted earlier, "This isn't a fundamental clash over ideology. It's a skirmish over the timing of a vote. The Blue Dogs don't want to have to vote for a more liberal bill than what ultimately becomes law."

I wouldn't go quite that far -- I think a clash over Blue Dog ideology makes at least some difference here -- but Van Hollen's remarks this morning suggest Chait is onto something here.

As for the practical implications, Van Hollen's plug-pulling comments probably won't sway the Senate deliberations -- Baucus and Reid may not care whether the DCCC chair is getting impatient -- but it does speak to the growing sense of frustration among Democratic lawmakers that the clock is ticking and Baucus and the Finance Committee are causing delays that might kill reform. The more that frustration grows on the Hill, the more likely Baucus will get a friendly note that says, "Time's up."

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ALL THE WAY TO THE WHITE HOUSE.... I suppose it was bound to happen eventually, though I'd hoped it wouldn't. Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, during an official press briefing, was actually asked about the Birther conspiracy nuts.

I'm fairly certain it was Bill Press, a liberal talk-show host, who asked Gibbs, "Is there anything you can say to make the Birthers go away?"

I more or less expected Gibbs to dismiss the question out of hand, unwilling to dignify the stupidity from the podium, and by some measures, maybe he should have. But Gibbs is no doubt aware of the media's coverage of the "story," and perhaps concluded he might as well get it over with (at least until the next time he's asked to address the matter).

"No," the press secretary said in response to Press' question. "The God's honest truth is, no.... I almost hate to indulge in such an august setting as the White House ... discussing the made up, fictional nonsense of whether the president was born in this country." Gibbs added that putting the birth certificate online during the campaign was his idea, assuming there would be nothing else to talk about once the materials were online for the world to see.

"Nothing," Gibbs said, "will assuage" the activists who choose to believe insane conspiracy theories.

Asked why the nonsense continues, Gibbs concluded, "Because for $15 you can get an Internet address and say whatever you want."

So there you have it. A demonstrably ridiculous, not-so-subtly racist smear can work its way from a right-wing chain email, to conservative blogs, to Fox News, to Republican members of Congress, to a question in the White House briefing room, answered by the spokesperson for the President of the United States.

Steve Benen 3:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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LIMBAUGH DISCOVERS HIS OPPOSITION TO TORTURE.... During the Bush/Cheney era, we had an administration that routinely ignored the rule of law, embraced authoritarian tendencies, and approved heinous acts of torture. Rush Limbaugh, without a hint of irony, today warned his listeners that the Obama administration will do the very things Bush already did.

"[T]here are people in this country, who are Americans, and have the same view of totalitarianism that all the worst regimes in the world have had. They just are a minority -- or have been a minority," Limbaugh said. "And they have to be stealth to get anywhere, because who's gonna vote for torture? Who's gonna vote for tyranny? Who's gonna vote for dictatorship? But we did. We did, and you see it slowly encroaching. And if they could move faster on this, they would."

Keep in mind, when Limbaugh says we "did" vote for torture and dictatorship, he's referring to Obama's election, not Bush's. "Who's going vote for torture?" Well, as I recall, Limbaugh did, twice.

It's almost comical. Bush created a torture policy; Obama ended the torture policy. So, naturally, Limbaugh tells his audience that Obama supporters "voted for torture."

Eric Kleefeld added, "On the subject of torture, let's take a trip back in time to a little over five years ago, when Limbaugh said this in defense of Abu Ghraib: 'I'm talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of need to blow some steam off?'"

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POLICY DEBATES AREN'T SUMMER POPCORN FARE.... Health care policy is complicated. It's also not especially "sexy" as news stories go, which is probably why so many in the media complained last week that President Obama's press conference last week wasn't exciting enough for their tastes.

Michael Calderone reports today that the reform debate therefore poses a challenge for the media. It is, in the words of some journalists, "bad for ratings."

Discussing the previous night's low-key news conference, [MSNBC host Dylan Ratigan] said that "cable networks' ratings go off a cliff" during the health care debate, which eventually "forces the conversation out of the TV."

It's not as if the public ignored Obama entirely as he took questions in the East Room on Wednesday night. Indeed, 24.5 million viewers tuned in across the broadcast and cable networks. Still, that tally was the smallest prime-time audience of Obama's presidency, dropping 50 percent from five months ago. And Fox's decision not to air the presser paid off: The network won the 8 p.m. time slot with an episode of "So You Think You Can Dance."

"It's bad for ratings," The Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart told Ratigan, "but not talking about it is bad for the American people."

Decisions, decisions. Health care represents one-sixth of the largest economy on the planet, and for many Americans, its financial and medicinal significance are literally critical. On the other hand, some Americans -- and a few too many journalists -- find it dull.

News outlets realize, of course, that they have a "professional obligation" to cover the debate, but what seems to happen is that some reporters, confused about reform details and fearful of losing their audience, prefer to focus more on process and politics than substance. The reform fight, CNBC's and NYT's John Harwood, said, is "not a journalism-friendly story."

NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner explained on the air last week, "The problem with health care is that it's so big and so complicated that the public is never really going to understand all the moving parts of this.... So the public is really always going to be sort of amenable, if you will, to demagoguery and arguments one way or the other that don't necessarily link to what the substance is."

This is really the key to the larger dynamic. Opponents of reform are counting on the typical American not knowing the details, which makes them more vulnerable to scare tactics and bogus claims. These same activists are also counting on news outlets a) being afraid to say who's lying and who isn't; and b) not beings sure about the details themselves.

It's not exactly a recipe for a constructive national dialog. Indeed, it's an invitation for manipulation and/or distraction.

Steve Benen 1:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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INHOFE BLAMES OBAMA FOR RIGHT-WING CONSPIRACY THEORY.... Sen. James Inhofe (R) caused a bit of a stir today, when the Politico reported that the right-wing Oklahoman believes Birther activists "have a point."

Greg Sargent contacted Inhofe's office today, and the senator's spokesperson responded by blaming the White House -- not for Inhofe's stupid comment, but for the larger right-wing conspiracy theory.

"The point that they make is the Constitutional mandate that the U.S. President be a natural born citizen, and the White House has not done a very good job of dispelling the concerns of these citizens."

Now, this isn't exactly the same argument. Inhofe initially argued that the fringe activists "have a point"; now he's arguing that whether they have a point or not, White House officials are responsible for satisfying the bizarre demands of unhinged wingnuts.

One would like to think an experienced member of the U.S. Senate would have the courage and decency to simply say, "I don't want anything to do with these lunatics."

I'd add that Inhofe is the second high-profile conservative to blame the Obama White House for the Birther madness in less than a week. Last week, Liz Cheney said it's the president's fault, and today, Inhofe did the same.

It's as if they're handing out crazy pills at RNC headquarters.

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KRUGMAN VS THE BLUE DOGS.... Paul Krugman does a nice job today, summarizing some of the inherent flaws in the demands of conservative Blue Dog Democrats in the House. The caucus members "complain about the plan's cost," he notes, while "making demands that would greatly increase that cost."

It's an approach that leads the conservative Dems to want to limit subsidies to the uninsured, block a public option, and reject an employer mandate. The consequences of these positions are, Krugman explains, contradictory.

So, what's driving them?

One interpretation, then, is that the Blue Dogs are basically following in [the footsteps of Louisiana's Billy Tauzin, who became a Republican and eventually left Congress to the lavishly paid president of PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry lobby]: if their position is incoherent, it's because they're nothing but corporate tools, defending special interests. And as the Center for Responsive Politics pointed out in a recent report, drug and insurance companies have lately been pouring money into Blue Dog coffers.

But I guess I'm not quite that cynical. After all, today's Blue Dogs are politicians who didn't go the Tauzin route -- they didn't switch parties even when the G.O.P. seemed to hold all the cards and pundits were declaring the Republican majority permanent. So these are Democrats who, despite their relative conservatism, have shown some commitment to their party and its values.

Now, however, they face their moment of truth. For they can't extract major concessions on the shape of health care reform without dooming the whole project: knock away any of the four main pillars of reform, and the whole thing will collapse -- and probably take the Obama presidency down with it.

I've largely given up trying to figure out what motivates the Blue Dogs. Maybe they're bought and paid for. Perhaps they deliberately want to shrink the Democratic majority. Maybe they're just really conservative on health care, and fundamentally reject the tenets of real reform.

Chait has a more charitable interpretation of recent events, and suggests today that they "don't want to have to vote for a more liberal bill than what ultimately becomes law," so the Blue Dogs are really just waiting for the Senate.

Whatever the case, Krugman is right about this being their "moment of truth." About a week ago, Rep. Mike Ross' (D-Ark.) , the chairman of the Blue Dog Health Care Task Force, told NPR, "There's some folks from the right that have been calling my office very pleased that they perceive I'm trying to kill healthcare. At the end of the day, I suspect they're going to be sorely disappointed, because none of us within the Blue Dog Coalition are trying to kill healthcare reform."

It's time to prove it. Ross and his Blue Dog colleagues have a chance to show their commitment to the issue, and demonstrate their steadfastness to their party and its principles. We'll see what happens.

Steve Benen 12:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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MONDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP....Today's installment of campaign-related news items that wouldn't generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers.

* In New Jersey's gubernatorial campaign, Republican Chris Christie is hoping to capitalize on the recent corruption scandal in the state by emphasizing his background as a prosecutor.

* In related news, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D) has chosen state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D) as his running mate. Weinberg, not coincidentally, is best known for her work on ethics reform.

* In this year's other gubernatorial race, R. Creigh Deeds and Bob McDonnell faced off over the weekend in their first head-to-head debate.

* As expected, Illinois state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D) officially launched his Senate campaign over the weekend. Giannoulias, with $2 million raised and an endorsement from Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), appears to be the frontrunner for the party's nod.

* Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick's (D) chances for re-election appear poor, at least for now. A new Boston Globe poll shows his approval rating down to just 35% statewide. Among self-identified independents, it's down to 28%.

* Former Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.), who narrowly lost his re-election bid last year, has apparently decided not to seek a re-match. Rep. Tom Periello (D), who defeated Goode, will remain a top GOP target.

* And under the circumstances, scandal-plagued Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), perhaps best known for his experiences with prostitutes, should probably steer clear of attack ads featuring the phrase "love fest."

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (5)

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PRIMARY COLORS, REDUX.... A couple of weeks ago, Jon Chait had a great piece arguing that the Democratic majority on the Hill would have fewer problems with party discipline, and more success on the party's agenda, if more vacillating members faced primary challenges.


Nate Silver reinforced the argument over the weekend, noting the trend in Sen. Arlen Specter's voting record. The first column shows his willingness to vote with the Democratic majority when he was a Republican, facing a likely GOP challenger from the right. The middle column shows Specter voting with Dems after his party switch, but before he had to worry about a Democratic primary opponent. And third is after Rep. Joe Sestak said he planned to get into the race.

A little pressure, in other words, can go a long way. Specter went from being a moderate Republican to, eventually, "behaving like a mainline, liberal Democrat," at least in part because he has to worry about impressing Democratic primary voters in a "blue" state.

Would Specter be as dependable on the party's agenda if Sestak weren't part of the equation? Silver makes the argument that he wouldn't, and I'm very much inclined to agree.

I still think these challenges can and should be considered on a case-by-case basis. It's tough, for example, to threaten Sen. Ben Nelson with a primary challenge from the left. He represents a pretty "red" state (Nebraska), and for all I know, Nelson may actually like a primary opponent to help prove that he's not part of the Democratic mainstream.

But for every Ben Nelson there are a few Democratic incumbents -- Dianne Feinstein, Evan Bayh, I'm looking in your direction -- who might be more reliable if they had to work a little harder to impress Democratic voters.

I should add, by the way, that this dynamic is also playing out on the other side of the aisle. Matt Yglesias had a good item over the weekend, noting Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) with his eye on re-election next year. No credible Democrats have yet stepped up to launch a serious challenge, but Grassley is worried about a far-right opponent in a Republican primary. "Which means," Matt noted, "that the only thing Grassley has to do to secure his tenure in office is obstruct health care reform."

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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THEY DON'T DESERVE ENCOURAGEMENT.... There's a Politico item today on Republican lawmakers being forced to deal with fringe conspiracy theorists who insist the president wasn't born in the United States, reality notwithstanding. Apparently, for GOP officials, this has become something of a nuisance -- they can't hold a town-hall meeting without having to endure questions from these nutty activists.

It's become more relevant to lawmakers now, in part because some in the media keep publicizing the lunacy, and in part because lawmakers will be heading home soon for their August recess, when they'll likely have to confront this stupidity. Many are apparently preparing their answers now.

At least one U.S. senator, however, is sounding a sympathetic note about the Birthers.

Sen. Jim Inhofe has also tried to find the elusive middle ground.

"They have a point," he said of the birthers. "I don't discourage it. ... But I'm going to pursue defeating [Obama] on things that I think are very destructive to America."

That's not "middle ground." That's just ridiculous.

There should be a clear and distinct line between fringe lunatics and the beliefs of U.S. senators. That Inhofe thinks Birthers "have a point" suggests that line is blurring in unhealthy ways.

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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MORE CONGRESSIONAL PROGRESS ON DADT.... We learned earlier this month that Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), a decorated Army combat veteran, has taken the lead in the House on repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." His bill, H.R. 1283, now has 164 House co-sponsors, including 14 who've signed on this month.

What of the Senate? There's apparently some progress in the upper chamber, too.

The Daily Beast has learned that the Senate, prompted by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, will hold hearings on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" -- a first since 1993, despite Obama's campaign promises.

After determining she didn't have enough votes in support of a temporary suspension of the ban on gays in the military, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand tells The Daily Beast she has secured the commitment of Senate Armed Services Committee to hold hearings on "Don't Ask Don't Tell" this fall. It would be the first formal re-assessment of the policy since Congress passed it into law in 1993.

Proponents of repeal are optimistic the hearings should move us closer to a more sensible policy. Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America, said, "Almost all serious experts who used to argue against allowing gays in the military have either changed course or died."

And for what it's worth, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who tends to be rather risk averse, will support Senate efforts to scrap the existing policy, making repeal that much more likely.

Obviously, every day that DADT remains on the books is a problem, and a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing is just a step in the right direction. That said, there seems to be some momentum on the issue for the first time.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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PUTTING THEIR SAFETY WHERE THEIR MOUTH IS.... If you've ever visited Capitol Hill in Washington, especially in the post-9/11 era, you know there's quite a bit of security. Visitors, staffers, reporters, and guests have to go through metal detectors, not only to get into the Capitol itself, but also to enter any of the congressional office buildings.

E.J. Dionne Jr. argued today that conservative lawmakers, loyal to the NRA, should at least try to do something about these security measures -- by fighting for their removal.

Isn't it time to dismantle the metal detectors, send the guards at the doors away and allow Americans to exercise their Second Amendment rights by being free to carry their firearms into the nation's Capitol?

I've been studying the deep thoughts of senators who regularly express their undying loyalty to the National Rifle Association, and I have decided that they should practice what they preach. They tell us that the best defense against crime is an armed citizenry and that laws restricting guns do nothing to stop violence.

If they believe that, why don't they live by it?

Why would freedom-loving lawmakers want to hide behind guards and metal detectors? Shouldn't NRA members be outraged that Second Amendment rights mean nothing in the very seat of our democracy?

There's a tongue-in-cheek quality to Dionne's piece, but his argument is very compelling. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) insisted last week that Americans must "have the right to self-defense," and the more Americans are allowed to carry concealed firearms, the safer the public becomes. By that reasoning, Dionne explains, "keeping guns out of the Capitol makes all our elected officials far less safe. If just a few senators had weapons, the criminals wouldn't know which ones were armed, and all senators would be safer, right? Isn't that better than highly intrusive gun control -- i.e., keeping people with guns out of the Capitol in the first place?"

Dionne didn't mention it, but there is a history of gun violence in the Capitol -- incidents, I should add, that happened before metal detectors were installed -- but I suppose that reinforces Dionne's thesis. If conservatives believe American families are safer if more people are carrying concealed firearms, and there have been shootings on the Hill before, it stands to reason the right would demand that more people be armed in Congress. It's necessary for "safety."

Over to you, NRA.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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BRODER IS HARD TO PLEASE.... In his latest column, the Washington Post's David Broder takes aim at a provision of health care reform that he finds potentially problematic: the creation of an Independent Medicare Advisory Council (IMAC).

As proponents see it, appointed IMAC members -- physicians and medical experts -- would have some added authority to help control what Medicare pays doctors and hospitals. The panel would ideally help lower costs more effectively than Congress.

The idea makes Broder uncomfortable.

Americans are familiar with -- if not altogether comfortable about -- unelected officials exercising great authority over our lives. The nine justices on the Supreme Court and hundreds of other jurists exert their power from the bench. The economy is managed by the Federal Reserve Board, though no one ever forced Alan Greenspan or Ben Bernanke to campaign for a vote.

If President Obama has his way, another such unelected authority will be created -- a manager and monitor for the vast and expensive American health-care system. As part of his health-reform effort, he is seeking to launch the Independent Medicare Advisory Council, or IMAC, a bland title for a body that could become as much an arbiter of medicine as the Fed is of the economy or the Supreme Court of the law.

The idea has gained a warm initial reaction on Capitol Hill. But with the delay in action on the overall reform effort until fall, there will be more time for reflection on IMAC and its authority.

Broder concluded that "Americans will have to decide" if they're comfortable with "five unelected IMAC commissioners" determining "how they will be treated when they are ill."

I'm a little surprised by Broder's apprehension. After all, the IMAC idea was proposed by the right, and accepted by the left, as part of a larger effort to save money and take political considerations out of the process. In other words, it's an idea with bipartisan appeal, with an eye towards fiscal responsibility. Isn't this exactly the kind of policymaking Broder says he wants?

Mark Kleiman added, "Forget the fact that the 'five unelected commissioners' will be appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, that their recommendations can't take effect without the President's approval, and that even then they could be over-ridden by the Congress. I'd rather have five unelected commissioners, or five names drawn at random from the phone book, determine how I will be treated than have that determination made by an unelected insurance-company bureaucrat whose employer makes money by denying me care."

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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DEPARTING WITH A WHIMPER.... As expected, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) resigned yesterday, giving up her office half-way through her first term. Before officially handing over the reins to Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell (R), Palin delivered a campaign-style speech at an event in Fairbanks, during which she predictably complained about the news media, her political opponents, and Hollywood "starlets."

The former governor added that she "will be able to fight even harder" for her supporters, now that she has no office, no governmental power, no authority, and no influence over public policy. She didn't elaborate as to why.

Arguably more interesting than Palin's bizarre decision to quit with 18 months to go in her only term is considering how, exactly, she changed as an officeholder. TNR's Suzy Khimm had a good piece the other day exploring "how national exposure changed" her, pushing Palin "much further to the right than she had been," to the disappointment of Alaskan lawmakers in both parties.

There are plenty of similarities between pre- and post-campaign Palin. Both avoided details, and preferred over-simplification. Both found the unglamorous work of governing to be tiresome.

But the Palin who was governor before the national campaign was something of a pragmatist, willing to compromise and engage opponents in the interests of advancing an agenda. By the time she returned to Alaska after Election Day, Khimm explained, Palin had become an inflexible, antagonistic ideologue, unwilling to work with almost anyone.

There's no doubt that Alaska's state government has been paralyzed since Palin's return, with anger and frustration emanating from both the governor's office and the state legislature. All of Palin's major bills failed to pass this year's first 90-day session. But conversations with both Republican and Democratic legislators reveal that Palin's inability to get anything done has little to do with the media attacks the Alaska governor claims drove her from office. The lawmakers say it has more to do with how national exposure changed her, moving her much further to the right than she had been and making her nearly impossible to work with. And state Republicans seem just as incensed about it as the Democrats. [...]

[U]pon returning to Juneau last fall, "she managed to alienate most of the 60 members of [the Alaska] House and Senate," says Larry Persily, an aide to state Republican Representative Mike Hawker. "It wasn't a matter of burning bridges -- she blew them up." [...]

"The little bit of time she spent on policy, she devoted ... to issues of national merit," says Republican Representative Jay Ramras. "It wasn't when but how she was going to throw Alaska under the bus." But even as Palin grandstanded on her opposition to the funds and her willingness to withstand what she called "the slings and arrows" from both parties, she failed to communicate the specifics of her positions and dismissed lawmakers. When it came to legislative matters of any substance, "we got very little information from the state," says Republican House Speaker Mike Chenault. "All I wanted was to know what her response was.... There were many times we couldn't get a clear answer." "We couldn't get any decisions out of the governor," says Persily, who spent two years working in the Alaska governor's Washington office. "It had nothing to do with critics harping at her -- it was a lack of attention to governing."

Many of those who supported her statewide campaign in 2006 are left to wonder what could've been.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (67)

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July 26, 2009

DEPARTMENT OF POTS AND KETTLES.... CNN's Rick Sanchez has apparently been making some less than kind remarks about Fox News on his Twitter account. A Fox News spokesperson had an interesting response.

"Everyone knows that Rick is an industry joke, he shows that he's a hack everyday [sic]. And he doesn't have to worry about working at FOX because we only hire talent who have [sic] the ability to generate ratings."

I have to admit, reading a statement from Fox News spokesperson accusing anyone of being a "hack" and an "industry joke" is rather amusing. Sanchez isn't exactly my cup of tea, but Fox News exists to make a mockery of American journalism. If anything, Sanchez should be thrilled by this kind of criticism, and wear it as a badge of honor.

Stepping back, however, note how the Republican network responds to criticism from others within the industry. I remember in 2003, about six months after the war in Iraq began, Christiane Amanpour noted that in the months leading up to the U.S. invasion, CNN "self-muzzled," in large part because it was "intimidated by the administration and its foot soldiers at Fox News."

A Fox News spokesperson shot back, "Given the choice, it's better to be viewed as a foot soldier for Bush than a spokeswoman for al-Qaeda."

Seriously. "Spokeswoman for al-Qaeda." Fox News wasn't kidding.

Similarly, last year, Jon Stewart described Fox News as "an appendage of the Republican Party." Asked for comment, an FNC spokesperson responded, "[B]eing out of touch with mainstream America is nothing new to Jon, as evidenced by the crash-and-burn ratings of this year's Oscars telecast."

It's not enough that the Republican network has given up on journalistic standards -- it has to be thin-skinned, too?

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AHEAD OF THEIR TIME.... I learned a few things from Ezra Klein's Washington Post piece on the "ghosts of Clintoncare," and the ways in which the Obama White House has been trying, perhaps a little too hard, to avoid the mistakes of the last serious campaign to reform health care.

Clinton, Ezra explained, presented reform as the system was changing dramatically, and American consumers shifted from indemnity insurance to managed care. The plan in '93 and '94 was focused on problems that were going to exist, but the White House was ultimately not rewarded for their foresight.

Managed care came anyway. By last year, only 7 percent of American workers were in "traditional" indemnity health plans, while the rest of us -- or at least those of us fortunate enough to have insurance -- were swimming in the alphabet soup of HMOs and PPOs and HDHPs. We're all in networks now. We don't get our choice of doctor. There's no appeals process. No out-of-pocket caps. Nothing to stop insurers from rejecting our coverage applications based on preexisting conditions. And if we don't like our insurer? Tough.

"We got managed care," says Chris Jennings, who was one of Clinton's top health-care staffers. "But we didn't get the things that would protect us from managed care. We got the Wild West version of it."

In the modern health-care system, there is no higher power than the insurance market. And the insurers who populate that market have grown all the stronger. The Justice Department judges an industry "highly concentrated" if a single company controls more than 42 percent of the market. By that definition, 94 percent of statewide insurance markets are highly concentrated. A recent study by the advocacy organization Health Care for America Now showed that in Indiana, WellPoint controls 60 percent of the insurance market; in Iowa, Wellmark accounts for 71 percent; and in Alabama, Blue Cross/Blue Shield holds 83 percent. In the past 13 years, there have been more than 400 corporate mergers involving health insurers.

Economics textbooks tell us that concentrated markets reduce the competitive behavior that benefits consumers and lead to outsize profits for the dominant firms. Predictably, health-care premiums shot up more than 90 percent between 2000 and 2007, while the profits of the 10 largest insurers increased 428 percent over the same period. Clinton had promised us managed care within managed competition. Instead, the insurers took control of our care and managed to effectively end competition. Neat trick.

It's a great piece. Read the whole thing.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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KURTZ TAKES ON BIRTHER MADNESS.... Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz has steered clear of the Birther stupidity, despite the media's willingness to legitimize the right-wing conspiracy theory. Kurtz's apparent reluctance to call out Lou Dobbs, among others, has itself drawn some criticism.

To his credit, Kurtz tackled the nutty story today, and did so in such a way as to criticize the media's handling of the baseless "controversy." In fact, Kurtz called the claims "ludicrous" and noted "there is no factual basis for them."

Roger Simon added that the media is looking for excuses "not to act responsibly" and not to "use any judgment." Both Simon and Kurtz agreed that this is "tantamount to giving airtime to flat-earth people," but Simon was right to add, "[T]here's a racial element to this story, too. Some people, quite frankly, cannot accept the fact we have a black president ... and some of them are seeking to delegitimize his presidency." These nuts, Simon said, are getting "much too much" assistance from major news outlets.

Lauren Ashburn of USA Today added, "[I]t's unethical of the media to be taking this issue and putting it front and center when all of the proof is there to the contrary."

Lou Dobbs' name was used a few times in the four-minute segment. One assumes he'll respond by blasting Kurtz and his panel for being part of what he's described as "a national left-wing media conspiracy."

Steve Benen 12:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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CLINTON ON 'MTP'.... Secretary of State Hillary Clinton covered quite a bit of ground on "Meet the Press" this morning, including praise for China as part of the international response to North Korea, which, she noted, "doesn't have any friends left."

Clinton also took a firm line with Iran, telling its leaders that pursuing a nuclear weapons program is "futile," adding, "What we want to do is to send a message to whoever is making these decisions, that if you're pursuing nuclear weapons for the purpose of intimidating, of projecting your power, we're not going to let that happen."

The Secretary of State added, however, that the should the U.S. engage Iranian officials, it will not betray the dissidents who took to the streets to protest the ruling regime. "We have negotiated with many governments who we did not believe represented the will of their people," Clinton said. "Look at all the negotiations that went on with the Soviet Union.... That's what you do in diplomacy. You don't get to choose the people."

More generally, I found her discussion of administration vision and principles pretty compelling:

I also got the sense watching this that the administration is functioning exactly as it should:

Steve Benen 11:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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OVERDUE PROGRESS ON SENTENCING DISPARITY.... Slowly but surely, we're seeing some progress on the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009.

After two decades of criticism over cocaine sentences that disproportionately punish African Americans, momentum is building in Congress and in the Obama administration for a legislative fix, representing a fundamental shift in politics and attitude, even among key Republican lawmakers.

For the first time after multiple attempts, a House subcommittee this week approved a bill to equalize criminal penalties for people caught with crack cocaine and those caught with powder cocaine. The bill would eliminate mandatory prison terms of no less than five years for possession of crack cocaine.

The subcommittee vote came as a bipartisan group from the Senate Judiciary Committee was working on a similar proposal. It could be unveiled as early as next week, according to two congressional sources familiar with the effort.

I'm pleasantly surprised to see policymakers take this on. This isn't exactly an issue with a huge political upside, and it's likely that the right will start howling about the left being "soft on crime," but a lot of people are doing the right thing anyway. The Obama administration's willingness to step up on this issue is no doubt helping to move the process forward. (Obama's chief of the criminal division at the Justice Department has asked Congress to "completely eliminate" the sentencing disparity.)

I'm yet to hear even a half-hearted defense of the status quo. The AP recently noted, "[A] person selling five grams of crack faces the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence as someone selling 500 grams of powder cocaine."

And because the vast majority of crack convictions involve African Americans, while powder cocaine convictions tend to involve whites, there's also an obvious racial component to the sentencing disparity.

"We all know that this egregious difference in punishment is simply wrong," Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told the National Association of Black Prosecutors in a speech Wednesday. "The Department of Justice will never back down from its duty to protect our citizens and our neighborhoods from drugs, or from the violence that all too often accompanies the drug trade. But we must discharge this duty in a way that protects our communities as well as the public's confidence in the justice system."

What are the odds this will actually come together and the law will be changed? I'm cautiously optimistic. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) recently drew laughs when he said, "I think we're going to do that crack thing," but the comment nevertheless suggested there's real movement on the issue. It's about time.

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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THE MISSING ELEMENT.... I found myself yelling at my monitor this morning, reading Adam Nagourney's NYT piece about the "possibility of bipartisanship" on health care reform. It's not Nagourney's fault, necessarily, but the piece touches all of the bases on the problems with the underlying assumptions.

...Mr. Obama is under growing pressure to choose between wooing a small band of Republicans or struggling to rally his party to use its big majorities in Congress to get the job done. The bipartisanship exhibited in the passage of two other ambitious domestic programs that offer one historical backdrop for this debate -- Social Security in 1935 and Medicare and Medicaid 30 years later -- seems increasingly improbable in today's Washington. [...]

Even if he goes the bipartisan route and succeeds, the end result could be comparatively modest: Perhaps fewer than 10 Senate Republicans, and perhaps not even that many in the House, party officials said. Social Security, by contrast, passed in 1935 with the support of 16 of the 25 Republican senators and 81 of the 102 Republican representatives. [...]

No less important, a partisan vote could also undercut the political legitimacy of the effort itself. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid were all passed with significant support from both parties, which is one of the reasons those programs have become such an accepted part of the country's political landscape.

That's true. But when there was bipartisan support for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, we were dealing with a Congress that had Republicans who a) took electoral mandates seriously; b) were chastened by electoral defeats; and c) had plenty of moderates and pragmatists in their caucuses. That's no longer the case.

As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, it's not Obama's fault Republicans have become too conservative, failed at governing, and were punished by voters.

The question of "legitimacy" then becomes tantamount to a heckler's veto -- a small, reflexive minority can cast doubt on the credibility of everything, simply by being stubborn partisans.

Nagourney said independent voters might reject Obama if he "abandons efforts to reach out to Republicans." But what about the months of outreach the president has already done? How about the fact that we'd likely get pre-recess votes in both chambers if the majority stopped caring what Republicans thought?

Nagourney added, "[T]he go-it-alone course could cost Mr. Obama and, more important, Congressional Democrats political cover should the health care plan prove ineffective, unpopular or excessively costly before the 2010 or 2012 elections." Perhaps, but it seems Republicans don't much care about "cover" when it comes to launching campaign attacks. Eight GOP House members voted for the ACES bill on global warming. Will that over vulnerable House Dems "political cover" in 2010? I seriously doubt -- Republicans are going to attack if they see a political benefit in it. And they always see a political benefit in it.

Nagourney went on to say relying on Democrats to pass health care reform may set "a polarizing pattern for the remaining three years of Mr. Obama's first term, complicating his efforts to get through an ambitious agenda by forcing him to rely only on Democrats for votes."

Maybe, but if the shrinking Republican minority is dominated by conservative ideologues, who don't take public policy seriously, and who reflexively reject anything Obama proposes because they're desperate to deny him successes, who's responsible for the "polarizing pattern"?

No less a figure than Sen. Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana, one of the chamber's more conservative Dems, conceded, "The Republicans are reduced to a core, so there aren't that many pragmatists left to work things out."

Steve Benen 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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BIDEN WANTS TO 'SET THE RECORD STRAIGHT'.... The administration's conservative detractors, throughout the Spring and early Summer, had a consistent line on the stimulus package: this isn't going to work. Earlier this month, the line shifted a bit, and was no longer speculative. Recovery efforts, the right had decided, were already a failure.

In fact, as part of the public relations offensive, Republicans and conservative activists started shaping their attacks as if the stimulus' failure was a foregone conclusion. "What should we do now that we know the stimulus didn't work?" they asked. "Who can we blame for the lack of success?"

Well aware of how memes work, White House officials seem to appreciate the need to push back against this, before it's the media's preferred conventional wisdom. A concerted defense of the recovery efforts seemed to begin in earnest in a couple of weeks ago -- making clear that the administration wouldn't concede an inch to those who helped create the economic collapse in the first place -- and will apparently continue.

To that end, Vice President Biden has a piece in the New York Times today, noting that he wants to "set the record straight" because "the nature of the Recovery Act remains misunderstood by many, and misconstrued by others."

The op-ed doesn't necessarily break new ground for those who keep up on current events -- the stimulus package cut taxes, helps states, saves and creates jobs, invests in infrastructure -- but it's a fairly persuasive overview.

The Recovery Act is not the cure for all our economic ills -- no single piece of legislation could be. But how many government initiatives can point to both large numbers of projects coming in under budget and a Government Accountability Office finding that we are ahead of schedule in key areas?

It is true that the act's effort to address multiple problems simultaneously makes it an easy target for second-guessing. Critics have argued that the tax cuts are too small (or too large); that too much (or not enough) aid is going to rural areas; that too little (or too much) is being spent on roads. Recently, some have even criticized the act for helping support soup kitchens and food banks.

But the way I see it, our balanced approach recognizes that there is no silver bullet, no single thing, that can address the many and complex needs of America's vast economy. We need relief, recovery and reinvestment to cope with our multifaceted crisis -- and only 159 days after it was signed by President Obama, the Recovery Act is already at work providing all three.

Biden twice mentions projects coming in "under budget," which, under the circumstances, isn't exactly the best argument to make in the context of government stimulus. Nevertheless, the larger pitch is a good one, and the larger point -- the administration isn't going to back down in defending the recovery efforts -- remains clear.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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WHAT THE CBO SAID (AND DIDN'T SAY).... This week, policymakers moved closer to the creation of a new commission to help control what Medicare pays doctors and hospitals. The commission, to be made up of doctors and medical experts, would ideally help lower costs more effectively than Congress, and the idea has drawn favor from conservatives.

The Congressional Budget Office, however, believes the likely savings would be modest. It reported yesterday that the government would likely only save $2 billion over the next decade from the creation of Independent Medicare Advisory Council (IMAC). In the context of a trillion-dollar reform effort, $2 billion isn't much.

The Politico described this as another "blow to the Democrat's health reform efforts," and noted that "Republicans pounced on CBO's analysis as another demonstration that Democratic proposals don't control costs."

There is, however, another, more complete, side to this. OMB Director Peter Orszag, who used to lead the CBO, had a very different take on the news, and added some important context.

CBO noted that this [IMAC] approach could lead to significant long-term savings in federal spending on health care and that the available evidence implies that a substantial share of spending on health care contributes little, if anything, to the overall health of the nation. This supports what President Obama has said all along: we can reduce waste and unnecessary spending without reducing quality of care and benefits.

In part because legislation under consideration already includes substantial savings in Medicare over the next decade, CBO found modest additional medium-term savings from this proposal -- $2 billion over 10 years. The point of the proposal, however, was never to generate savings over the next decade. (Indeed, under the Administration's approach, the IMAC system would not even begin to make recommendations until 2015.) Instead, the goal is to provide a mechanism for improving quality of care for beneficiaries and reducing costs over the long term. In other words, in the terminology of our belt-and-suspenders approach to a fiscally responsible health reform, the IMAC is a game changer not a scoreable offset.

With regard to the long-term impact, CBO suggested that the proposal, with several specific tweaks that would strengthen its operations, could generate significant savings.... The bottom line is that it is very rare for CBO to conclude that a specific legislative proposal would generate significant long-term savings so it is noteworthy that, with some modifications, CBO reached such a conclusion with regard to the IMAC concept.

A final note is worth underscoring. As a former CBO director, I can attest that CBO is sometimes accused of a bias toward exaggerating costs and underestimating savings. Unfortunately, parts of today's analysis from CBO could feed that perception. For example, and without specifying precisely how the various modifications would work, CBO somehow concluded that the council could "eventually achieve annual savings equal to several percent of Medicare spending...[which] would amount to tens of billions of dollars per year after 2019." Such savings are welcome (and rare!), but it is also the case that (for good reason) CBO has restricted itself to qualitative, not quantitative, analyses of long-term effects from legislative proposals. In providing a quantitative estimate of long-term effects without any analytical basis for doing so, CBO seems to have overstepped.

Ezra Klein added, "The potential savings from IMAC aren't something you can plug into a formula. After all, the point of IMAC is not that it would implement the best ideas we have in 2009, but that it will give a body of experts the ability to implement the best ideas they have in 2022, and 2034, and 2019, and every other year. CBO can't guess at what those ideas will be any more than I can. We don't have the data they'll be using, we don't know the technology they'll be able to employ, and it's impossible to estimate the political climate. May as well ask what the top-rated NBC show will be in 2029."

But that's exactly what's happened. To use Ezra's metaphor, the CBO not only predicted what the top-rated NBC show will be in 2029, but also its rating/share and expected advertising revenue.

Digby noted last night that these details may not matter: "The Village doesn't care about the details, they care about Chuck Todd's 'political reality' and they are getting very excited over the prospect of Obama's Waterloo."

Perhaps. But for those who take details seriously, the CBO's conclusions yesterday shouldn't undermine the larger reform campaign at all.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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DON'T TALK TO GRASSLEY IN CONFIDENCE.... Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee and the leading conservative on "bipartisan" health care negotiations, had an interesting chat with Bloomberg's Al Hunt this week. Faiz Shakir flagged this exchange yesterday:

GRASSLEY: One of the most controversial things we are facing -- and one that the House does and Senator Kennedy's committee does -- is bring a government health insurance program into existence. He still spoke highly about that. And that's not going to get bipartisan support.

And it would have been good if he had said to the entire country what he said to me privately -- that he would look to alternatives for that. And we have a very good alternative by going with cooperatives because we've known them for 150 years in America. And allowing them to sell health insurance for more competition.

HUNT: Do you think the President could support that?

GRASSLEY: All I can tell you is -- but he didn't say this that night and he should have said it -- that he's looking for reasonable alternatives. And I think we have a reasonable bipartisan alternative in co-ops.

There are a few angles to this. The first is that Obama's commitment to a public option and a possibly private concession that he'd consider an alternative are not necessarily contradictory. It's easy to imagine the president telling Grassley, "I want a public plan, but if you can find a different mechanism that can achieve the same results, I'll gladly consider it." Grassley wants Americans to think Obama is saying one thing in public and another in private. There's little reason to think that's true.

The second is that the Republicans' co-op idea, for all the reasons Faiz explained, is a poor substitute for more meaningful reform of the system.

But the part of the Grassley-Hunt exchange that stood out for me is the fact that the president and Senate Democrats are negotiating with a conservative Republican senator who feels entirely comfortable telling national television audiences about private discussions. I have no idea what Obama did or didn't say to Grassley during their negotiations, but I suspect the president assumed he could talk to the Iowa Republican in confidence. That's apparently not the case.

Maybe it's time to stop basing the future of health care reform on Chuck Grassley's partisan perceptions?

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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July 25, 2009

A SHIFT IN FOCUS.... Not surprisingly, President Obama devoted his weekly multi-media address to health care reform today -- the sixth address to emphasize reform in the last eight weeks.

But what I found noteworthy about today's was the target audience of the pitch. In his five-and-a-half minute message, the president didn't mention the word "uninsured." In fact, the address wasn't geared towards the tens of millions of Americans without coverage at all. Instead, Obama talked almost exclusively about the importance of reform on businesses and employers. The president, apparently hoping to drive his point home, referenced the words "small business" 11 times in his message this morning.*

"I recently heard from a small business owner from New Jersey who wrote that he employs eight people and provides health insurance for all of them," Obama said, perhaps aware of the media complaints that his arguments aren't anecdotal enough. "But his policy goes up at least 20 percent each year, and today, it costs almost $1,400 per family per month -- his highest business expense besides his employees' salaries. He's already had to let two of them go, and he may be forced to eliminate health insurance altogether.

"He wrote, simply: 'I am not looking for free health care, I would just like to get my premiums reduced enough to be able to afford it.' Day after day, I hear from people just like him."

The president's pitch was straightforward, and a direct refutation of Republican complaints that reform will somehow hurt small businesses. Obama made it clear the opposite is true.

In fact, the message this morning was released the same time as a new report from the White House Council of Economic Advisers on the impact of reform on small business and the ways in which the costs of status quo are crushing employers.

I wouldn't be surprised if the White House felt the need to push in this direction because of polling data suggesting the public is concerned about the implications of reform on employers, especially small businesses. It's worth it, then, for the president to explain that opponents of reform have it backwards.

* edited for clarity

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is an interesting report from the Pew Forum, using data from the group's 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey to note the most politically conservative religious group. It's not, as it turns out, evangelical Christians.

More Mormons (60 percent) identify themselves as conservatives than any other religious group; they also lead every other group in GOP party identification (at 65 percent) -- much higher than the general population in both categories. [...]

Keep in mind that GOP identification is very low right now -- only 35 percent of the general population identify themselves as Republicans -- making the Mormon numbers even higher by comparison. Evangelicals, for instance--a group that has, for the past decade, been counted as an influential Republican voting bloc -- identify with the GOP at a 50 percent rate, a full 15 percent lower than Mormons.

The only group that's more partisan is members of historically black churches, according to Pew, 77 percent of whom identify themselves as Democrats. (Though that's more of a racial subset of a religious category, than it is a religious category in its own right.)

On the other end of the spectrum, the faith traditions most likely to identify themselves as liberal and Democratic are Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, and African-American Protestants.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* New USAID controversy of note: "The U.S. Agency for International Development funded programs that rebuilt Iraqi mosques and used biblical lessons to promote sexual abstinence in Africa, despite a prohibition on the use of taxpayer funds to support 'inherently religious activities,' according to a new audit by the agency's inspector general."

* Former President Jimmy Carter officially gave up on the Southern Baptist Convention several years ago, but this week, continued this week to criticize it and other faith traditions who argue that "women are somehow inferior to men."

* The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit this week to stop Congress from spending $100,000 in public funds to engrave the words "In God We Trust" and the Pledge of Allegiance in prominent spots at the Capitol Visitor Center in Washington.

* In related news, there's apparently a something of a "de-baptism" movement among atheists. USA Today reported this week, "Within the past year, 'de-baptism' ceremonies have attracted as many as 250 participants at atheist conventions in Ohio, Texas, Florida and Georgia."

* And yesterday, a jury in Arkansas convicted Tony Alamo, founder and leader of Tony Alamo Christian Ministries, of 10 federal counts of taking minors across state lines for sex.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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CNN'S KLEIN BACKS OFF DOBBS CONCERNS.... CNN President Jon Klein contacted staffers for "Lou Dobbs Tonight" this week to explain that the Birther story, which the conservative host is oddly obsessed with, is baseless. "It seems this story is dead," Klein said in his email, "because anyone who still is not convinced doesn't really have a legitimate beef." The CNN chief added that there is no doubt about where the president was born.

After receiving Klein's note, Dobbs proceeded to keep talking about the "story" anyway. This, oddly enough, does not bother the CNN president at all. Greg Sargent reported late yesterday:

Klein, in an interview with me just now, also took a shot at Dobbs' critics, saying they're politically motivated: "I understand that people with a partisan point of view from one extreme or another might get annoyed that certain subjects are aired." [...]

"Look, Lou's his own show, and CNN in general has repeatedly and thoroughly reported on the facts behind this situation," Klein said to me, adding that Lou had merely hosted "a few conversations with people representing a wide range of opinions."

Klein said that Dobbs has repeatedly stated that he believes that Obama was born in Hawaii, and has simply been examining the "phenomenon that for some people this won't go away."

The CNN president said he wants to let viewers "make up their own minds."

I'm not sure how this qualifies as "journalism." The "phenomenon ... won't go away" because clowns like Dobbs keep telling viewers there this is a legitimate subject of discussion. It's not. There's nothing wrong with letting viewer make up their own minds about subjective political controversies, but CNN is giving its audience mixed messages -- reports saying the case is closed, coupled with reports saying there are lingering questions.

A responsible outlet is supposed to report the truth, not present viewers with contradictory messages, leaving them to go elsewhere to sort out reality. This has nothing to do with a "partisan point of view," and everything to do with a major news outlet repeatedly lending credence to a bizarre conspiracy theory.

Klein added that Dobbs' coverage of the right-wing conspiracy has been "legitimate." He didn't say why.

As for Klein telling the show that the story "seems dead," only to see the show keep pushing the nonsense anyway, Media Matters' Eric Burns raises a good point: "This raised the troubling question of who is really calling the shots at CNN."

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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CORNYN WANTS TO PREPARE FOR THE INDIAN THREAT.... Senators have had to get pretty creative lately to defend spending more money on a fighter jet that doesn't work and that the Pentagon doesn't want. Sen. John Cornyn's (R-Texas) argument, however, might be my favorite.

"[The F-22 is] important to our national security because we're not just fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq," Cornyn says. "We're fighting -- we have graver threats and greater threats than that: From a rising India, with increased exercise of their military power; Russia; Iran, that's threatening to build a nuclear weapon; with North Korea, shooting intercontinental ballistic missiles, capable of hitting American soil." [emphasis added]

Wait, Cornyn thinks we should spend tax dollars on a fighter jet the Pentagon and the Air Force don't want because we should be worried about a "rising India"? Perhaps someone can take Cornyn aside and explain that that India is a close U.S. ally. If we need unnecessary fighter jets to prepare ourselves for a military conflict with India, the United States is in a much more precarious position that I realized.

Cornyn added that the F-22 is "one of our most innovative, strategic fighter planes." If by "innovative" and "strategic" Cornyn means, "planes that don't function properly," he's absolutely right.

The whole argument is just so foolish. Sure, there are possible international security threats on the horizon, but the debate isn't about whether to slash defense spending or do away with all fighter jets. We're talking about money for new jets that don't work and which was opposed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates (a Bush/Cheney appointee), the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (a Bush/Cheney appointee), the current Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff, and the leading Democrat and Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

If Cornyn said, "Look, the excess spending will help some jobs in Texas," I could respect that. It would at least be honest. But Cornyn's problem is he has to manufacture an excuse to justify wasteful spending, and he hasn't thought the argument through.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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APPARENTLY, WE ALREADY HAVE UNIVERSAL COVERAGE.... To appreciate why so many conservative Republican lawmakers oppose health care reform, it's important to remember that they generally don't consider the status quo that bad. Most Americans already have some kind of insurance through their employers; retirees are already covered through Medicare; and everyone else can just go to the emergency room.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R) of North Carolina, for example, shared these words of wisdom yesterday.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) disputes President Obama's claim that 47 million Americans lack healthcare. "There are no Americans who don't have healthcare. Everybody in this country has access to healthcare," she says. "We do have about 7.5 million Americans who want to purchase health insurance who cannot afford it," she says, urging Congress to adopt a new plan for healthcare reform that wouldn't "destroy what is good about healthcare in this country" and "give the government control of our lives."

"There are no Americans who don't have healthcare." I feel like we've been hearing that quite a bit from GOP officials lately. Last weekend, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was asked on "Meet the Press" about the 47 million Americans who go without health insurance, McConnell replied, "Well, they don't go without health care," because they can just go to the emergency room.

It's a surprisingly common argument. Last year, the conservative who shaped John McCain's health care policy said anyone with access to an emergency room effectively has insurance. The year before, Tom DeLay argued, "[N]o American is denied health care in America," because everyone can go to the emergency room. Around the same time, George W. Bush said the same thing: "[P]eople have access to health care in America. After all, you just go to an emergency room." In 2004, then-HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said our healthcare system "could be defined as universal coverage," because of emergency rooms.

There are a couple of key angles to this. First, it's true that if you're uninsured and get sick, there are public hospitals that will treat you. But it's extremely expensive to treat patients this way, and it would be far cheaper, and more effective, to pay for preventative care so that people don't have to wait for a medical emergency to seek treatment. For that matter, when sick people with no insurance go to the E.R. for care, they often can't pay their bills. Since hospitals can't treat sick patients for free, so the costs are passed on to everyone else.

In that sense, Republicans are endorsing the most inefficient system of socialized medicine ever devised.

Second, for Foxx or anyone else to argue that every Americans "has access to healthcare" is absurd. As Matt Corley explained, millions of Americans experience access problems due to medical costs every year, and skip necessary treatment because they can't afford it.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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AGREEMENT TO KEEP SEEKING AGREEMENT.... Talks between House Democratic leaders and the conservative Blue Dog Democratic caucus were on. Then they were off. Then they were on again. How did things wrap on the Hill by the time lawmakers headed home last night? The various players came to an agreement -- to keep talking.

"The chairman and I would like to retract some of the things that we said earlier today," Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), the chairman of the Blue Dog healthcare task force said while standing beside Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) after the two emerged from an emergency meeting of the Democrats on the committee.

"Our group of seven has always believed that we want to be a constructive part of the legislative process," Ross said. "Earlier today it appeared that those negotiations had reached a standstill. The chairman has now invited us to sit back down with him again and continue those negotiations.

"Talks are back on," Ross added.

What's more, Waxman apologized to Ross in front of a group of reporters, a gesture that apparently helped calm the waters. The committee chairman said, "We've had some rough edges as we try to deal with some of these issues. But I think that our colleagues have pulled us both back and said, 'Let's all take a deep breath.' Nothing's irreconcilable, unless you decide its irreconcilable."

Ross emerged from the meeting and said, "We're just talking, and that's a good thing." The Blue Dog's health care point man added, "Everything that was off the table a couple of hours ago is now back on the table."

That last point was not necessarily encouraging to the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Eight of its members wrote to the leadership to say they won't tolerate a reform package that weakens or eliminates a public option.

As for the Senate, President Obama met with Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) yesterday, but there was no word on whether the Finance Committee is any closer to moving forward.

Steve Benen 9:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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FRED BARNES DOESN'T KNOW WHAT HE'S TALKING ABOUT.... Conceit is nearly always unseemly, but it takes a smug fool with misplaced arrogance to be truly offensive.

The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes devotes his latest column to bashing President Obama's economic policies. That, in and of itself, is unremarkable. Barnes is a Bush/Cheney Republican, and Obama isn't. They're bound to see economic policy differently.

What's striking, though, is how Barnes presents his argument. Instead of simply making the case against the administration's policies, he feels comfortable arguing that Obama is "an economic illiterate," the "Know-Nothing-in-Chief," and a leader lacking "even a sketchy grasp of economics." This from a shameless conservative hack who has never demonstrated any proficiency in any area of public policy.

At his press conference, Obama endorsed a surtax on families earning more than $1 million a year to pay for his health care initiative. This is no way to get the country out of a recession. Like them or not, millionaires are the folks whose investments create growth and jobs -- which are, after all, exactly what the president is hoping for.

Another tax hike -- especially on top of the increased taxes on individual income, capital gains, dividends, and inheritances that Obama intends to go into effect in 2011 -- is sure to impede investment. It's an anti-growth measure, as those with even a sketchy grasp of economics know. But Obama doesn't appear to.

In the world where the grown-ups live, the surtax, if passed, wouldn't kick in until 2011. Just as important, there's no evidence tax increases on the very wealthy have ever stunted economic growth. These are the kind of details those with even a sketchy grasp of current events know. But Barnes doesn't appear to.

He declared it "a good thing" that banks are profitable again, but he couldn't leave it at that. He went on to bemoan the absence of "change in behavior and practices" among bankers. As for the "record profits" of insurance companies, he had nothing but disdain.

This, Barnes argued, is evidence of a president who doesn't understand economics. But that's absurd. Obama raised concerns about changing the behavior and practices of banks, because the president would like to avoid things going to back to the way they were -- conditions that led to the collapse of the economy in the first place. He objected to health insurance companies making "record profits," because American families are struggling badly with rising health care costs. If Barnes disagrees, fine, but the president's concern is hardly evidence of ignorance.

Barnes goes on (and on) from there. Obama, he says, needs to cut corporate taxes. The stimulus, he argues, needed even more tax cuts. If Obama disagrees, Barnes says, he must be an idiot.

What an embarrassment.

Steve Benen 9:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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PUTTING POSSE COMITATUS ASIDE, TOO.... It's hardly a new revelation that Bush administration officials believed they could ignore practically any law while pursuing national security interests, but even now, the list of laws they felt comfortable ignoring keeps getting longer.

Top Bush administration officials in 2002 debated testing the Constitution by sending American troops into the suburbs of Buffalo to arrest a group of men suspected of plotting with Al Qaeda, according to former administration officials.

Some of the advisers to President George W. Bush, including Vice President Dick Cheney, argued that a president had the power to use the military on domestic soil to sweep up the terrorism suspects, who came to be known as the Lackawanna Six, and declare them enemy combatants. [...]

A decision to dispatch troops into the streets to make arrests has few precedents in American history, as both the Constitution and subsequent laws restrict the military from being used to conduct domestic raids and seize property.

The Fourth Amendment bans "unreasonable" searches and seizures without probable cause. And the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 generally prohibits the military from acting in a law enforcement capacity.

During at least one high-level meeting, Cheney, David Addington, and their allies cited a memo from John Yoo, which suggested pursuit of national security goals overrode practically everything, including the Fourth Amendment and Posse Comitatus

Sticking up for the basics of the rule of law and American civics were Condoleezza Rice, Michael Chertoff, and FBI Director Robert Mueller, and thankfully, then-President Bush sided with them instead of Cheney. The NYT noted that the president "bristled at the prospect of troops descending on an American suburb to arrest terrorism suspects."

Bush ordered the FBI to make the arrests in September 2002, and the Lackawanna Six later pleaded guilty to terrorism-related charges.

Why would Cheney oppose sending the FBI to go get the suspected bad guys? Because he feared the evidence may not be compelling enough to justify an arrest and conviction. It was better, he said, to have the military take the Lackawanna Six into custody, declare them enemy combatants, and not worry about due process or meeting legal standards.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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DIPLOMACY ON TAP.... In what will hopefully bring some resolution to the hullabaloo surrounding the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard professor has gladly accepted the president's invitation and will get together for a beer at the White House with the police officer who arrested him, Sgt. James Crowley.

In a statement published by the Washington Post's "The Root," Gates said:

"It was very kind of the President to phone me today. Vernon Jordan is absolutely correct: my unfortunate experience will only have a larger meaning if we can all use this to diminish racial profiling and to enhance fairness and equity in the criminal justice system for poor people and for people of color.

"And to that end, I look forward to studying the history of racial profiling in a new documentary for PBS. I told the President that my principal regret was that all of the attention paid to his deeply supportive remarks during his press conference had distracted attention from his health care initiative. I am pleased that he, too, is eager to use my experience as a teaching moment, and if meeting Sgt. [James] Crowley for a beer with the President will further that end, then I would be happy to oblige."

(As it turns out, Gates is the editor in chief of "The Root," so it's not terribly surprising he gave his own publication an exclusive.)

We may not see the actual coda until the three -- Obama, Crowley, and Gates -- have their get-together, but I'd like to think the story is finally, mercifully, winding down.

This morning, I re-watched the president's comments in the briefing room, and to the extent that he was clumsy in getting himself into the story on Wednesday, he was poised in helping defuse it on Friday. Recognizing that the matter was escalating in disturbing directions, Obama not only wisely reached out to Crowley and Gates directly, he also played to his strengths, showing some humility, humor, and grace.

Ben Smith noted that it's now a different story: "The story of black professor and Irish cop sitting down for beers at the White House with the president -- now that's Obama's narrative. And between his calls to Crowley and now, the White House says, to Gates, Obama seems to have retaken control of the story, and shaken it out of that old narrative -- if at the cost of creating a major distraction."

Whether the news outlets that obsessed over this are prepared to move on remains to be seen, but I can hope.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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July 24, 2009

FRIDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* Education is on the to-do list, too: "President Obama launched a competition Friday for $4.35 billion in federal education funds, urging states to ease restrictions on charter schools, link teacher pay to student achievement and adopt common national academic standards to be eligible for the money."

* No big surprise, but Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch (Utah) and John Cornyn (Texas) have announced their opposition to Judge Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination.

* From Nicaragua to Honduras: "Ousted Honduran President Jose Manuel Zelaya walked under a border chain Friday and returned to his country nearly a month after being removed by a military-led coup."

* Iran continues to crack down on Internet usage; and Iranians continue to look for ways around government interference.

* Hamas, seeking legitimacy, isn't giving up on armed resistance, but it is talking up a "culture of resistance."

* Effective today, the minimum wage goes from $6.55 to $7.25 an hour.

* California lawmakers have signed off on their budget deal.

* I'm starting to get the impression that Sen. John Ensign's (R-Nev.) aides are worried about the future careers -- so they're running away from the disgraced senator.

* Worried about the implications of the delay in the health care reform fight? Nate Silver explains why waiting until after August isn't necessarily disastrous.

* Does Rep. Heath Shuler, a conservative North Carolina Democrat, live with The Fellowship on C Street? It's hard to say.

* I assume you've seen it, but "The Daily Show" did the definitive take-down the other day of the media (read: Dobbs) and the Birther nonsense.

* Delaying House business because of the "Boehner Beach Party" seems like a bad idea.

* Tweet of the Day: "Dear @ChuckGrassley: Next time, learn the facts about health reform: http://bit.ly/iL8Vn (Also, learn to spell 'Pelosi')"

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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TALKS WITH BLUE DOGS BACK ON?.... As of a couple of hours ago, talks between Henry Waxman and Blue Dog Democrats had not just collapsed, they were permanently finished. Mike Ross said today's discussion "will be the last meeting we have."

As of about an hour ago, there's been some movement back towards the negotiating table.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) convened an emergency meeting of the Democrats on his panel Friday afternoon to try to revive the health care reform bill after his talks with conservative Blue Dog Democrats broke down.

A visibly angry Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), the Blue Dog health care task force chairman, said Waxman reneged on deals the two sides had previously agreed on: a powerful independent Medicare commission proposed by President Barack Obama that would control costs, and adopting Senate language on a public insurance option that would require negotiated rates with providers rather than rates based on Medicare.

"As far as I'm concerned, I want to continue talking and see if we can bring all the Democrats together," Waxman said en route to a meeting. "We'll do our best."

He added, however, that he's still prepared to have the bill bypass his committee and head straight to the floor.

It's unclear whether an "emergency meeting" will do any good. For that matter, since it's late on a Friday afternoon, and the various members were under the impression that talks were finished, it's not even clear exactly who's still on the Hill to participate in any additional discussions.

At a minimum, I guess it's fair to say we're dealing with a fluid situation, which is changing all the time. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer's (D-Md.) told reporters there's still a chance the chamber will vote on a reform bill next week, which seems hard to believe given the various developments this week, but at this point, expect the unexpected.

Steve Benen 5:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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CNN KEEPS SCRAMBLING TO DEAL WITH DOBBS FIASCO.... Adam Serwer noted yesterday that the whole Birther movement "is probably hurting CNN more than it's hurting the GOP." That's a very persuasive point. The fact that the Republican base has more than its share of nuts is well established, but CNN wants to be taken seriously, and Lou Dobbs' strange obsession with nonsense makes that difficult.

According to a Media Bistro report today, CNN President Jon Klein contacted some "Lou Dobbs Tonight" staffers yesterday to explain that the Birther story is baseless. Klein reminded the staffers that he asked CNN researchers to investigate the matter, and found that the allegations are baseless. "It seems this story is dead," Klein said in his email, "because anyone who still is not convinced doesn't really have a legitimate beef."

But Dobbs is still Dobbs, and the legitimacy of a story has no bearing on what he puts on the air.

Specifically, Klein told the show's staffers that Dobbs "should be sure" to explain to CNN viewers that the Hawaii Health Department went paperless in 2001, but the official record of Obama's birth is now an official electronic record, just as all birth records in Hawaii are for those born after 1908.

Dobbs interpreted those instructions from the head of CNN by telling viewers:

[A] number of Americans are asking, why not? The left-wing media has attacked me because I simply asked the question. Meanwhile, the state of Hawaii says it can't release a paper copy of the president's original birth certificate because they say the state government discarded the original document when the health department records went electronic some eight years ago.

That explanation, however, has not satisfied some critics. Joining me now....

And with that, Dobbs did yet another segment on the imaginary story -- the one the president of CNN declared "dead" -- including an interview with a right-wing congressman supporting the Birther legislation.

The Southern Poverty Law Center argued today that it's time for CNN to show Dobbs the door. That would likely make Dobbs something of a conservative martyr, but a) he'd quickly get picked up for Fox News; and b) it's a chance I'd be willing to take.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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TALKS WITH BLUE DOGS COLLAPSE.... Rep. Mike Ross (D) of Arkansas, the point person on health care for the conservative Blue Dog Democrats, told Bloomberg's Al Hunt earlier that Congress "will meet the president's goal of passing meaningful and substantive health-care reform" this year.

As of this afternoon, he's not saying that anymore.

Closed-door negotiations over health care reform between House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and conservative Blue Dog Democrats broke down Friday afternoon and appeared dead.

A visibly angry Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), the Blue Dog health care task force chairman, said Waxman reneged on deals the two sides had previously agreed on: an independent Medicare commission and adopting Senate language on a public insurance option. He also said Waxman's threats to bring the bill straight to the floor -- and bypass a markup in Energy and Commerce -- were not helpful.

"We are actually trying to save the bill and we are trying to save our party," Ross said after the meeting ended.

Perhaps the two sides can find some additional areas of agreement in their next meeting? That's unlikely -- Ross said today's discussion "will be the last meeting we have."

House Democratic leaders certainly made an effort to work with the conservative Democrats on some kind of solution. Blue Dog members, most notably Ross, have spent much of the last couple of weeks in lengthy negotiations, trying to work out deals with the White House, the leadership, and Waxman. As recently as Wednesday, Ross heralded a "significant breakthrough" thanks to administration officials' efforts on MedPac. As recently as this morning, there was another "significant breakthrough" on regional Medicare disparities.

But after many hours of talks, the Blue Dogs wanted to move the legislation even further to the right, and Waxman and Democratic leaders simply could go as far as the conservatives insisted. Blue Dogs, Waxman said, wanted to "eviscerate" the reform bill.

So, what happens next? At this point, it seems likely the leadership will simply bring the tri-committee bill to the floor, bypassing the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Blue Dog Rep. Charlie Melancon (D) of Louisiana, who was reportedly livid this afternoon, said 40 to 45 conservative Dems would oppose health care reform -- enough to defeat the bill -- and said Democratic leaders will "find out they have more problems with the Blue Dogs."

Stay tuned.

Steve Benen 3:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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OBAMA TALKS TO CAMBRIDGE SERGEANT, PRESS CORPS.... With the media engaged in something close to a frenzy over the Henry Louis Gates Jr. arrest and the president's remarks this week about it, President Obama took some steps today to try to defuse the situation.

Obama apparently talked to Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer who took Gates into custody, directly this afternoon, and by all indications, the two had a genial chat. The president, soon after, spoke to reporters from the White House briefing room, and talked about his impression of Crowley as an "outstanding officer" and a "good man."

Obama also conceded that he "contributed" to the ratcheting up of the discussion about the controversy, with a "choice of words" that could have been "calibrated differently." He added, however, that he continues to believe, based on what he's heard, that there was an "overreaction" on both sides of the incident.

Towards the end of the president's comments to the media, Obama suggested Crowley, Gates, and he may share a beer at the White House at some point, and the president passed along the police sergeant's request that the media get off his lawn.

Obama's decision to weigh in on the matter again will, of course, feed the media beast, but the truth is, news outlets would be obsessing about it today whether the president addressed the matter or not.

Time will tell if this defuses the issue, but for what it's worth, I think Obama did the right thing talking to Crowley directly, and, at a minimum, clarifying what he meant to say on Wednesday.

Here's hoping the matter has been, can be, will be put to rest.

Steve Benen 3:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (102)

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SOMEONE TAKE HIS BLACKBERRY AWAY.... Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, told Bloomberg's Al Hunt today that he thinks the odds of passing health care reform this year are "very, very good."

And yet, he keeps tweeting messages that suggest he's not exactly committed to meaningful reform.

"PTL BluDogs Keep barkin Pelosie bill is Govt takeovr of healthCare Breaks Obama promise"keep what u hv" Puts Wash Burocrats in chrg MUSTSTOP." [emphasis and typos in the original]

I see. The ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee takes a break from health care negotiations to offer borderline-incoherent Twitter messages about "government takeovers" and "Washington bureaucrats."

Seriously? Efforts to make this guy happy are holding up health care reform in the Senate? He's the key to "bipartisan" health care reform?

It's no wonder the Senate won't vote before the recess.

Steve Benen 2:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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FINEMAN EXPLAINS GOP HEALTH CARE STRATEGY.... Newsweek's Howard Fineman was on MSNBC's "Countdown" last night, and talked a bit about how the congressional minority is approaching the debate over health care reform. He was a little more candid than usual.

He initially talked about the Republican Party now being run by a new "RNC" -- "Rush, Newt, [Liz] Cheney" -- that is more committed stoking "racial fears and resentments" and talking about "where Barack Obama was born."

Fineman added, "I talked to people on the Hill all day today. Talked to Republicans as well as Democrats. Republicans claims they have a plan. They don't. They claim they're going to have a plan. They won't. Their whole strategy ... is to stand on the sidelines with their arms folded while the Democrats try to work this thing out. That's their whole strategy."

He concluded by saying President Obama is "on the right side" of this debate, and the GOP is "on the wrong" side.

This isn't exactly shocking news to those who've been watching the debate unfold, but it was nice to hear it mentioned on the air, especially from a media figure who doesn't often chastise Republicans so candidly.

My only caveat is that Republicans aren't exactly "standing on the sidelines with their arms folded." When it comes to genuine policy work and the heavy lifting of governing, that's clearly true. But when it comes to politics, I suspect Dems would be thrilled if the GOP simply stayed out of the way with their arms folded. Instead, they're churning out a whole lot of lies, misleading the public, and confusing the media.

Steve Benen 2:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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LEAPFROGGING THE BLUE DOGS?.... A good health care bill has already passed the House Ways and Means Committee and the Education and Labor Committee. The legislation hasn't progressed to the floor yet because it has not yet passed the Energy and Commerce Committee*. And we're still waiting on Energy and Commerce because it has seven conservative Blue Dog Dems who aren't satisfied with the package.

Democratic leaders have spent a whole lot of time this week trying to respond to the Blue Dogs' concerns, but the negotiations haven't produced a resolution. This afternoon, there's talk that the leadership may just skip the Energy and Commerce Committee altogether.

Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) says there is "no alternative" but to have healthcare legislation bypass his Energy and Commerce Committee if Blue Dog Democrats don't accept a deal worked out Friday.

Waxman is hoping the inclusion of a study on Medicare reimbursement rates in the healthcare overhaul will be enough to placate the centrist Democrats, who say the government program short-changes hospitals and physicians in their rural districts.

If that's not, the seven Blue Dogs could join with the committee's Republicans to "eviscerate" healthcare reform, and that's something Waxman will not tolerate.

"I won't allow them to hand over control of our committee to Republicans," Waxman told reporters. "I don't see what other alternative we have, because we're not going to let them empower Republicans on the committee."

It's unclear at this point if this is a genuine threat, or a negotiating ploy. We should know more after the committee's Democratic members meet privately in about an hour.

Keep in mind, though, that if the leadership "leapfrogs" the Energy and Commerce Committee because leaders can't overcome Blue Dog opposition, it will, in the words of one Blue Dog member, "clearly ruffle some feathers." And by that, he/she likely means that Blue Dog opposition on the House floor will be that much more galvanized. Whether that might be enough to defeat the bill remains unclear.

For what it's worth, Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (D-Conn.) has scheduled a full-caucus meeting for today, during which party leaders will reportedly go through bill "section by section and answer every question members have."

* corrected

Steve Benen 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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NOONAN OFFERS CREATIVE REASONS TO OPPOSE REFORM.... The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan makes her case against health care reform today, and she touches on a few arguments that aren't part of the usual conservative talking points. Alas, that's not necessarily a good thing.

Steve M. does a nice job going through the column in detail, but this point from Noonan, in particular, stood out for me.

[There are] doctors throughout the country who give patients a break, who quietly underbill someone they know is in trouble, or don't charge for their services. Also the emergency rooms that provide excellent service for the uninsured in medical crisis. People don't talk about this much because they're afraid if they do they'll lose it, that some government genius will come along and make it illegal for a doctor not to charge or a hospital to fudge around, with mercy, in its billing. People are afraid of losing the parts of the system that sometimes work -- the unquantifiable parts, the human parts.

According to Noonan, these "human parts" "lessen, or will lessen, support for full health-care reform."

I really doubt that. Reform may be a bad idea because some charitable physicians, in some areas, in some instances, might, once in a while, extend arbitrary breaks to some patients? I'll admit I never thought of this, but only because it's kind of nutty.

Noonan goes on to argue that reform couldn't possibly save money, because she doesn't understand how it could. She proceeds to share an imaginary conversation.

I suspect voters, the past few weeks, have been giving themselves an internal Q-and-A that goes something like this:

Will whatever health care bill is produced by Congress increase the deficit? "Of course." Will it mean tax increases? "Of course." Will it mean new fees of fines? "Probably." Can I afford it right now? "No, I'm already getting clobbered." Will it make the marketplace freer and better? "Probably not." Is our health care system in crisis? "Yeah, it has been for years." Is it the most pressing crisis right now? "No, the economy is." Will a health-care bill improve the economy? "I doubt it."

Noonan doesn't actually support any of these dubious claims, most of which are false, but she's nevertheless confident telling us she thinks this is what Americans are thinking.

What a strange column.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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FRIDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP....Today's installment of campaign-related news items that wouldn't generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers.

* Sen. Arlen Specter and Rep. Joe Sestak, the Dems vying for the Democratic Senate nomination in Pennsylvania next year, will appear at the Netroots Nation conference on Friday, August 14. That's bound to be interesting.

* As Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) prepares to step down half-way through her only term in office, her support nationwide continues to sink, and most Americans now view her negatively.

* It looks like Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) may face a primary challenge after all, with state Comptroller Dan Hynes eyeing the race.

* While the GOP establishment continues to favor state attorney general Kelly Ayotte's (R) Senate campaign in New Hampshire, former gubernatorial nominee Ovide LaMontagne continues to move forward with plans for his own campaign, including some new staffing moves yesterday.

* Former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder (D), who has always been unpredictable, is apparently in no hurry to support state Sen. Creigh Deeds' (D) gubernatorial campaign, despite requests from Obama's team.

* Trouble in California? A Rasmussen poll shows Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) leading Carly Fiorina (R) in a general-election match-up, 45% to 41%.

* In a setback for DCCC recruiting, state Sen. Darrel Aubertine has decided not to run to replace Rep. John McHugh (R) in New York's 23rd.

* Sen. Jim DeMint's (R) seat in South Carolina is presumably fairly safe, but in light of his recent antics, the DSCC is taking another look at the race, and has begun conversations with state Sen. Brad Hutto about a possible campaign. Hutto was in DC yesterday for a meeting with DSCC executive director J.B. Poersch.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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FEAR IS A POWERFUL MOTIVATOR.... Ryan Grim has an interesting item this morning, noting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's comments on the political impact of health care reform, and her apparent belief that electoral fear is helping drive Republican opposition.

"When the democrats -- and hopefully bipartisanly -- pass this health care reform, this is bigger than anything most of us have ever done in our political lives," Pelosi said.

Stopping health care reform could indeed be the Democratic "Waterloo," as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) recently put it. But its successful passage it could be a similar catastrophe for the GOP because they will be seen as the party that opposed the most significant legislation of decades.

"Republicans know that passing real health care reform, meaningful health care reform for the American people, which is relevant to their lives [and] solves their problems, is politically powerful, and they must stop it," she said. "[T]hey will do everything they can to stop it, not only because they disagree philosophically, but because they know politically that this is so very powerful."

Grimm noted that by some estimates, about 100,000 Americans per congressional district would get coverage who currently lack it. And that kind of "direct improvement to people's lives" tends to shape political attitudes. GOP lawmakers, the Speaker explained, "know this is the most noticeable initiative that Congress can take, that improves the lives of the American people, and they must stop it."

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa argued the other day that the public would likely blame Republicans if reform efforts fall apart, but Pelosi's vision of the landscape strikes me as more plausible.

Let's put the polls aside, at least for a moment, because they can be misleading. Generic questions about whether Americans support "health care reform" produce encouraging results, but there's a degree of superficiality to the numbers -- a few dishonest television ads can sway opinions fairly quickly.

Instead, consider the idea that the consequences of passing reform, after a few generations of attempts, would almost certainly be a huge boon to the majority, especially once the changes take place and unfounded fears prove baseless. It's why Bill Kristol demanded that Republicans block reform 15 years ago; it's one of the reasons why the right is fighting so hard now; and it's why negotiating with the minority in good faith seems like an enormous, and likely counter-productive, risk.

It creates an obvious incentive for the GOP -- kill reform or suffer electoral consequences -- and fear is a powerful motivator.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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AN AVERSION TO SUBSTANCE.... MSNBC's First Read had an item yesterday about the president's prime-time news conference, which it called a "snoozer," and criticized Obama for his depth and substantive responses. (via DougJ)

"Honest question: Is there a point when the president knows too much about an issue?" First Read asked. "He got into the weeds a number of times on a number of different aspects of health care, which is what his diehard supporters love, but might not grab the attention of the average viewer."

Apparently, the president may have done more to impress if he'd talked down to the country.

Paul Krugman is right to seem frustrated.

The talking heads on cable TV panned President Obama's Wednesday press conference. You see, he didn't offer a lot of folksy anecdotes.

Shame on them. The health care system is in crisis. The fate of America's middle class hangs in the balance. And there on our TVs was a president with an impressive command of the issues, who truly understands the stakes.

This might be less frustrating if it weren't so common. There are notable exceptions, but too many major media figures not only steer clear of policy details, they seem genuinely annoyed by those who prefer more substance in the discourse.

It leads to "honest" questions, such as whether the president would be better off in the reform debate if he knew less about the issue.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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MORE BIRTHER MADNESS.... On yesterday's "Hardball," Chris Matthews returned once again to the Birthers' bizarre obsession with President Obama's birth, and talked to G. Gordon Liddy about the "issue." Liddy said the president is an "illegal alien," and to bolster his claim, added, "I've got the deposition of the step-grandmother who said she witnessed it."

This is one of the more popular claims from the lunatic fringe, and it was debunked quite a while ago. But in case anyone who cares about reality is curious, or has forgotten why this is nonsense, there is no "deposition" and the step-grandmother actually said Obama was born in Hawaii.

Salon's Alex Koppelman highlighted reality.

What Liddy was referring to is actually an affidavit filed by a street preacher named Ron McRae, who conducted an interview with Sarah Obama, the second wife of President Obama's grandfather, through a translator. [...]

In that interview, Sarah Obama does in fact say at one point that she was there for her grandson's birth. But that was a mistake, a confusion in translation. As soon as a jubilant McRae began to press her for further details about her grandson being born in Kenya, the family realized the mistake and corrected him. And corrected him. And corrected him.

No matter, though, because people who believe in a conspiracy theory simply hear what they want to hear. So some Birther sites have posted transcripts and YouTube clips that end abruptly with the mistranslation and don't include the corrections.

It's almost as if these right-wing activists are trying to perpetrate a fraud.

In related news, Dave Weigel reports today that the McCain/Palin campaign considered the matter late during last year's presidential campaign, and found that there was nothing to the fringe allegations.

Of course, I'm sure the activists will now tell us that McCain/Palin was in on the conspiracy. That's generally the level of discourse we're dealing with here.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (120)

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SELECTIVE MEMORIES.... ThinkProgress' Faiz Shakir was on MSNBC yesterday, and raised a point that often goes overlooked. "Remember back in October, November, December, January of this year, when Karl Rove and so many Republican pundits were going on TV and saying the market is failing because of President Obama?" Faiz asked. "That the market was reacting because President Obama was now in office? What happened to that?"

The Washington Examiner's J.P. Freire wasn't impressed. "I think that's a brilliant strawman you made up," Freire responded. "I can't remember anyone saying that."

Memories can be tricky sometimes, can't they?

Over the first seven weeks of the Obama presidency, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, just one of many Wall Street indexes, dropped from 7,949.08 to 6,547.04. A wide variety of conservatives said this was necessarily evidence that the White House's economic policies were a mess, if not an outright failure, and that the president didn't know what he was doing. The Wall Street Journal ran an entire editorial on this in early March.

As 2009 opened, three weeks before Barack Obama took office, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 9034 on January 2, its highest level since the autumn panic. Yesterday the Dow fell another 4.24% to 6763, for an overall decline of 25% in two months and to its lowest level since 1997. The dismaying message here is that President Obama's policies have become part of the economy's problem.

Americans have welcomed the Obama era in the same spirit of hope the President campaigned on. But after five weeks in office, it's become clear that Mr. Obama's policies are slowing, if not stopping, what would otherwise be the normal process of economic recovery. [...]

So what has happened in the last two months? The economy has received no great new outside shock.... What is new is the unveiling of Mr. Obama's agenda and his approach to governance.

Faiz has a variety of similar observations from the likes of Karl Rove and Lou Dobbs. The argument was also repeated by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Fred Barnes. It was one of Mitt Romney's favorite talking points for a while, too.

"I can't remember anyone saying that"? I can't remember any conservatives not saying that.

At least for now, the markets have recovered from their Spring lows, and as of yesterday, are back to around January levels. If the president's conservative critics were right in March, the recent upswing is necessarily evidence of a sound White House economic agenda, and I'm anxiously awaiting the WSJ editorial heralding President Obama as sort of financial genius.

Of course, all of this is quite silly, and using the Dow as some kind of financial approval rating for the administration is foolish.

But conservatives have been awfully silly about this, first blaming Obama for the markets' downturn, and second, in Freire's case, pretending the criticism never happened.

Steve Benen 9:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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THE ON-AGAIN, OFF-AGAIN GOP ALTERNATIVE.... Late Wednesday, Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), chairman of the House GOP Health Care Solutions Group, said House Republicans would not release a health care reform alternative. Despite several weeks of promises about a superior plan, Blunt said the minority party's focus was on attacking the Democratic plan, and there was no need to "confuse the focus" or "divert attention."

About 24 hours later, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) had a different message.

[Boehner] declined to say when Republicans would release their bill in a conference call.

"We're continuing to put the final touches on our bill as the Democrats are continuing to put the finishing touches on their bill," Boehner said.

On Tuesday, Boehner had blamed delays in releasing the GOP bill on difficulty in getting scoring from the Congressional Budget Office, which scores Democratic bills first. Boehner said then that the bill is "continuing to come together, and we hope to see it soon."

So, on Wednesday, there is no GOP plan and the party saw no point in releasing one. On Thursday, the GOP plan is nearly finished and may be released after all.

Greg Sargent asked a good question: "Did Blunt know about this bill before suggesting Republicans might not release anything, or was a bill nearly completed without the knowledge of the House GOP Health Care Solutions Group's supreme leader?"

Either way, whether GOP leaders realize it or not, I still think the release of a Republican alternative is a Democratic trap. After all, the majority is baiting the minority with taunts ("It's easy to attack, but where's the GOP plan?"), precisely because Dems would love to have a new target.

It would offer everyone a chance to compare two competing approaches to reform, and Democrats are confident their policy would be better. They're almost certainly right.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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WITH EYES WIDE OPEN.... Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) acknowledged yesterday that the Senate would not vote on health care reform before the August recess. He told reporters, "Working with the Republicans, one of the things that they asked for was to have more time. I don't think it's unreasonable."

That's certainly generous of the Majority Leader, but whether or not "more time" is "reasonable" is dependent entirely on why the minority wants the delay. If it's because serious, sincere lawmakers feel like they can improve legislation and get it passed, great. If it's because the GOP is playing a partisan game and plans to use delays to kill reform, there's no reason for Reid to characterize this as "reasonable."

Consider Sen. James Inhofe's (R) remarks this week. The right-wing Oklahoman appeared on one far-right radio show this week and explained, "[F]or those out there who ... would like to have something optimistic to look at, we are plotting the demise on a week by week basis of where Bill Clinton was in 1993 and where Obama is today and his demise ratio is greater than Clinton's was in 1993."

Appearing on another conservative radio show, Inhofe went on to say that health care reform "is life threatening," and killing it could help GOP candidates.

"I think, you know, I just hope the President keeps talking about it, keeps trying to rush it through. We can stall it. And that's going to be a huge gain for those of us who want to turn this thing over in the 2010 election."

Now, the opposition party is supposed to oppose the majority agenda. They're not usually quite as callous as Inhofe, but if Republicans want to use delays to kill reform, and then try to capitalize in the midterms, there's an obvious coherence to the strategy.

What's worth remembering, though, is that the Democratic majority keeps trying to negotiate with Republicans. One GOP senator says his party is "plotting the demise" of the reform effort, which will be a "huge gain" in elections. Another GOP senator is plotting the president's "Waterloo," so he can "break" Obama. Another GOP senator concedes that at least half of the party's opposition to reform is partisan politics. Another GOP senator, deeply involved in the negotiations, boasted that he's so offended by the idea of a public option, "I take pride with being an obstructionist."

"Working with the Republicans, one of the things that they asked for was to have more time. I don't think it's unreasonable," Reid said. Perhaps, given the plain and transparent strategy at play, the problem is "working with the Republicans."

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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July 23, 2009

THURSDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* An unexpected rise in home sales and drop in the share of foreclosures on the market sent stocks soaring on Wall Street.

* North Korea has taken to taunting and mocking Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. What officials hopes to accomplish with this is unclear.

* As corruption scandals go, this one out of New Jersey is a real doozy.

* By October, the U.S. expects to have 160 million vaccines ready in response to the H1N1 virus.

* Bryant Neal Vinas, a 26-year-old American who helped al Qaeda, is now cooperating with U.S. authorities and is likely to provide valuable intelligence.

* House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) refuses to apologize for his bogus attacks against Speaker Pelosi regarding the CIA.

* The White House released materials last night, documenting meetings with health industry officials over the last several months. Officials had initially resisted the disclosure, though there's nothing especially scandalous in the records.

* Organizing for America is ramping up its organizing efforts, including support for a public option as one of the key principles to health care reform.

* The next time you hear a GOP lawmaker brag that the "Lewin Group" is "independent" and "non-partisan," keep mind that it's owned by a health insurance company.

* Lou Dobbs keeps digging.

* Scandal-plagued Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) has lost his chief of staff.

* Wouldn't it be great if we could go a few days without hearing of another racist anti-Obama email being circulated by a prominent conservative activist/official? Too much to ask?

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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OBAMA: 'I WANT IT DONE BY THE FALL'.... Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced today that the Senate will not take up health care reform until after the August recess. Soon after, President Obama spoke at a town-hall event in Ohio with a few thoughts on the matter.

"[W]e just heard today, well, we may not be able to get the bill out of the Senate by the end of August or the beginning of August," Obama said. "That's ok. I just want people to keep on working. Just keep working.

"I want the bill to get out of the committees, and then I want that bill to go to the floors, and then I want that bill to be reconciled between the House and the Senate, and then I want to sign a bill. And I want it done by the end of this year. I want it done by the fall.

"Whenever I hear people say it's happening to soon, I think that's a little odd. We've been talking about health reform since the days of Harry Truman, and he's saying reform is coming too soon. 'Too soon'?"

August is bound to be interesting.

Steve Benen 5:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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OBAMA STICKS TO HIS GUNS ON GATES REMARKS.... It's tempting to think the most important part of last night's White House press conference would be President Obama's responses to questions about health care. Alas, he answered a question about Skip Gates' arrest in Cambridge, and now reporters and Republicans seem awfully excited about it.

What's more, since the president is still talking about it, we can expect the interest in this to continue again tomorrow.

President Obama today stood by his comments that the Cambridge, Mass. police department acted "stupidly" in its arrest of Henry Louis Gates, telling ABC News' Terry Moran that the Harvard University professor should not have been arrested.

"I have to say I am surprised by the controversy surrounding my statement because I think it was a pretty straight forward commentary that you probably don't need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged man who uses a cane, whose in his own home," Obama told Moran.

In an exclusive interview to air on Nightlight tonight, the president said it doesn't make sense to him that the situation escalated to the point that Gates was arrested.

"I think that I have extraordinary respect for the difficulties of the job that police officers do," the president added. "And my suspicion is that words were exchanged between the police officer and Mr. Gates and that everybody should have just settled down and cooler heads should have prevailed. That's my suspicion."

Obama added that the arresting officer is an "outstanding police officer," but under the circumstances, he doesn't think it makes sense "to arrest a guy in his own home if he's not causing a serious disturbance."

That, I suspect, won't make any of the various angry parties feel any better. Sgt. James Crowley is upset. So is his lawyer. So is the Fraternal Order of Police. The union representative of the Boston Patrolmen Association said the president's comments are "unforgiveable."

The House Republican campaign committee hopes to exploit this, and Rush Limbaugh wants white people to think the Obama administration is out to get them.

Our political discourse can be very frustrating sometimes.

As for my own take on this, I don't know all of the details of the arrest, but I'm hard pressed to imagine why an older guy who walks with a cane, and who showed identification showing that he was, in fact, in his own house, needed to be arrested and taken away in handcuffs. The president's remarks last night did not strike me as especially outrageous.

But all things being equal, I would have preferred to see the president steer clear of the matter. He's usually pretty disciplined, but his remarks about a local police matter have become a distraction -- at a time when a distraction is not at all helpful. Obama's follow-up remarks today give news outlets another excuse to avoid discussion of substantive policy matters, and focus even more on this issue, to the delight of Republicans.

Joe Klein's take sounded about right to me: "...Obama wasn't exactly being smart when he allowed himself to answer this question at length. It was an unusual lapse of discipline on his part, giving my colleagues an excuse to resurrect all the tired old stuff about Obama and race -- which is understandable since this situation is personal and emotional; the health care negotiations are technical and abstract. Obama should have said, 'Skip Gates is a friend of mine. He's not a very disorderly sort and I'm glad the charges have been dropped.' But then, the guy is human."

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (109)

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CONNECTING HEALTH CARE COSTS TO JOB LOSSES.... President Obama talked last night about the way the current health care system serves as a drag on Americans' wages and incomes. An interesting new study suggests rising health care costs are also contributing to job losses.

In a first-of-its-kind study, the non-profit Rand Corp linked the rapid growth in U.S. health care costs to job losses and lower output. The study, published online by the journal Health Services Research, gives weight to President Barack Obama's dire warnings about the impact of rising costs if Congress does not enact health care reform.

Greg Sargent added, "It's true, as Business Week says, that the finding that health care costs hurt the economy finding gives weight to Obama's arguments. More to the point, though, it undercuts a core GOP claim: That Obama's health care reform plan will prove devastating to the economy. This study, by contrast, finds that doing nothing is the real danger. This seems like a useful talking point for the pro-reform forces, given that Business Week seems to approve of the findings and isn't exactly a bastion of diehard commies."

Perhaps members of Congress can pick up a copy of the Rand report. They should have plenty of time to read it carefully over the month of August.

Steve Benen 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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THE NATION'S GLOBAL STANDING.... It was fairly common last fall to consider America's standing in the world in the context of the U.S. presidential election. It was largely a given that the Bush/Cheney administration was not respected in much of the world, and had done considerable damage to our reputation. President Obama was poised to improve our standing and undo some of what went wrong.

Obama has only been in office for six months, but for the most part, it seems the early international signals are encouraging.

A new global survey has found a vast improvement in views of the United States since the election of President Barack Obama. But it also finds broad opposition to one of his key policies -- sending more troops to Afghanistan -- and confirms a drop in confidence in the United States among Israelis.

Mr. Obama, according to the survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, enjoys greater confidence among Germans than does Chancellor Angela Merkel, and among the French than President Nicolas Sarkozy. His election in itself, pollsters found, helped restore the United States' image abroad to levels unseen since the Clinton years.

Improved attitudes toward the United States were most marked in Western Europe, but also evident in Asia, Africa and Latin America, as well as some predominantly Muslim countries.

In some cases, the improvements in American credibility were almost hard to believe. In England, for example, just 16% of Britons trusted the U.S. leaders to do the "right thing" in world affairs last year. Now, the number is 86%. The increase "was slightly larger in both Germany and France," the NYT added.

The results were not universally positive, and in some Middle Eastern countries, anti-American animosity remains high. However, confidence that the United States will do the "right thing" improved in every Middle Eastern country involved in the study -- except Israel, where the numbers were largely the same as last year -- and for the first time since Pew began asking, "people in Turkey, Egypt, and Indonesia -- all predominantly Muslim nations -- expressed greater confidence in the American president than in Osama bin Laden."

Obviously, those numbers can change. What's more, while Americans have transitioned from post-election excitement to the hard slog of governing during a deep recession, international audiences are very likely immune to the day-to-day challenges in U.S. politics.

That said, for those who hoped to see America's standing improve with the change in administrations, we appear to be taking steps in the right direction.

Steve Benen 3:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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JINDAL'S SHAMELESSNESS.... More than a few Republican officials who excoriated President Obama's stimulus package have suddenly discovered the political benefits of spending projects in their state and/or district. But I don't think anyone has been quite as shameless as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R).

Jindal, in a very memorable national address, rejected the very idea of the recovery bill, saying government is incapable of "rescu[ing] us from the economic storms raging all around us." He mocked the stimulus for being "larded with wasteful spending," including "something called volcano monitoring."

This week, Jindal boasted that "things are looking up" in Louisiana, no thanks to the "nearly trillion-dollar stimulus that has not stimulated."

With that in mind, Lee Fang reports on Jindal's tour of his home state, where he's promoting his economic policies and handing out money -- which he received from the stimulus package he loathes.

As he travels to each community, Jindal has been gaining many positive headlines by sponsoring press events where he gives out jumbo-sized checks to towns and parishes. [...]

Despite the fact that the checks contain millions of dollars of Recovery Act funds for job training programs, housing assistance programs, homelessness prevention programs, police training, criminal justice technology upgrades, and community development block grants, Jindal has been printing his own name on the checks and taking credit for the money.

For example, Jindal presented Lafayette with yet another jumbo-sized check that contained at least $2,125,584 in Recovery Act funds. Though the money came from spending policies authorized by the Recovery Act, Jindal did not appear to credit the Recovery Act at all. And although the state stands to gain nearly $8 billion in federal funding from the Recovery Act, Jindal was one of several GOP governors to try to block the measure earlier this year.

Look, if Jindal wants to apologize for trashing the stimulus bill, I'm sure the president would accept. If Jindal wants to acknowledge now that the recovery bill he detested is actually doing a lot of good in his home state, it wouldn't surprise me if Dems were gracious about the concession.

But at this point, Jindal's shamelessness is embarrassing. He's shaking his fist at the administration with one hand, and grabbing money from the administration with the other.

Steve Benen 2:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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SO MUCH FOR THE AUGUST DEADLINE.... The writing, it seems, was on the wall. Yesterday, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) signaled that a pre-recess vote on health care reform was unlikely, with members preferring to "take a little longer to get it right." Even President Obama started talking more about getting this done "this year," rather than "by August."

Today, it became official.

The top Democrat in the Senate says lawmakers won't vote until after August on health care, a blow to President Barack Obama's ambitious timetable.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters Thursday the Finance Committee will act on its portion of the bill before Congress' monthlong break. Then Reid will merge that bill with separate legislation already passed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

The Nevada Democrat says the decision to delay a vote was made Wednesday night in the hopes of getting a final bipartisan bill.

Remember, the Republican strategy, which they've openly acknowledged, has been to force the delay in order to improve their chances of killing the bill. Conservatives and other opponents of reform will see this as a tactical victory, and evidence that the larger effort is in peril. It will be up to Democrats and reform advocates to prove them wrong.

Jonathan Cohn noted a couple of weeks ago that the recess is made up of four long weeks "in which special interests can bang away at legislation, running ads and ginning up grassroots opposition. They're going to do that anyway, of course, even if Congress meets the deadline. But it'll be a lot harder to kill reform altogether if bills have already passed each house and all that awaits is Conference Committee negotiations."

What's more, the post-recess session will be, for lack of a better word, busy. The White House has said all along it expects a bill out of Congress by October. After senators return from the recess, setting aside weeks of debate for health care reform will be very difficult. And no one seems to believe the effort will have any chance if it's pushed off until 2010.

At this point, Reid is counting on the Finance Committee to at least get its work done before the chamber breaks, at which point the unpleasant task of combining the Finance and HELP bills can begin in earnest.

Steve Benen 1:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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PUSHING THE ENVELOPE ON HEALTH CARE SCARE TACTICS.... Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), the ranking member of the House Budget Committee and a guy rumored to take policy matters seriously, has a lengthy item in the American Spectator today, arguing that reforming the health care system is, believe it or not, un-American. At a minimum, he says, reform contradicts the "American character."

In fact, Ryan makes the case that Comparative Effectiveness Research -- knowing which medical treatments work, and sharing that information with providers -- would bring the U.S. system in line with the British health care system. And because Britain has "a rationing bureaucracy" in place, reforming the U.S. system would mean government control over the length of Americans' lives.

The idea that the government should make decisions about how long people should live is deeply offensive to everything America stands for. It is no answer to say that health care resources are limited and will be rationed one way or another.

Under systems of market freedom, the limited amount of all services and goods, including health care, are rationed by individuals and their personal caregivers as they allocate their own resources among many competing producers. But should government do this, based on financial spreadsheets and political pressure groups? I believe this is morally and politically abhorrent to all Americans because it denies our most basic personal rights.

Yep, if we reform the broken system that's bankrupting the government, businesses, and families, government may "make decisions about how long people should live." Ryan finds that idea "offensive." I would too if this was in any way grounded in reality.

If you're thinking this nonsense is starting to sound like the foolishness we heard from conservative activists decades ago when Medicare was being formed, then we're on the same page.

Indeed, it's worth noting that as Republican desperation has become more palpable, there's a preoccupation with the "reform = literal death" meme. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) thinks reform will "end up killing more people than it saves." Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.) thinks reform will tell senior citizens to "drop dead." Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) argued that a public option "is gonna kill people." A variety of right-wing House Republicans have given floor speeches saying Americans may "die" if the Democratic proposals become law.

It's almost a cartoonish kind of demagoguery. To parody the most shameless of scare tactics would be to characterize opponents as saying, "You're all going to die!" Given reality, the line between Republican tactics and exaggerated satire is practically non-existent.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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THURSDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP....Today's installment of campaign-related news items that wouldn't generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers.

* In Connecticut, a new Quinnipiac poll shows former Rep. Rob Simmons (R) continuing to lead incumbent Sen. Chris Dodd (D), 48% to 39%. Most notably, independents in Connecticut currently favor Simmons by a two-to-one margin.

* He's been running for a while now, but Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D) will officially kick off his Senate campaign on Sunday, and then hit the road on a seven-city swing. With Madigan and Schakowsky out of contention, Giannoulias is arguably the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.

* Speaking of Illinois, businessman Christopher Kennedy, one of Robert Kennedy's sons, was reportedly interested in the Senate race, but may now be eyeing a gubernatorial campaign.

* We knew former Sen. Mike DeWine (R) would seek statewide office in Ohio next year; we just didn't know which one. DeWine announced yesterday he's running to be state attorney general.

* It's a Republican polling firm, but Strategic Vision has Chris Christie (R) leading Gov. Jon Corzine (D) in the New Jersey's gubernatorial race, 53% to 38%.

* And in Alabama, Republican Les Phillip hopes to take on Rep. Parker Griffith (D), and recently picked up an endorsement from Mike Huckabee to impress the party base. The endorsement, however, proved to be extremely expensive for Philip -- he paid Huckabee a $33,990 speaking fee, a $600 photography fee, and about $9,000 to host the event itself. It led the Republican congressional hopeful to report negative fundraising for the quarter.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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THE DEFENDER OF OUR DISCOURSE.... A whole lot of people have exploited Sen. Jim DeMint's (R-S.C.) "Waterloo" remarks this week, and had a fair amount of success. The right-wing senator's remarks were callous and craven, and his rivals have taken advantage of the opportunity he handed them.

Apparently, DeMint isn't enjoying the attention. (via Christopher Orr)

Sen. Jim DeMint sharply responded to a Democratic National Committee ad Wednesday that criticized the South Carolina Republican for stating that defeating President Obama's health care plan "will be his Waterloo."

The ad states, "Sen. Jim DeMint is playing politics with our health care, putting the special interests in Washington ahead of South Carolina families and businesses. The only plan Jim DeMint supports is no plan at all."

DeMint said the ad was full of "false personal attacks."

"It's disappointing that President Obama has lowered the discourse of this important debate with false personal attacks," he said in a statement.

Yes, if there's one lawmaker who can credibly stand up in support of a better, more honorable, political discourse, it's Jim DeMint. It was, after all, DeMint who said, "If we're able to stop Obama on this it will be his Waterloo. It will break him."

Two weeks ago, DeMint told an audience at the National Press Club that the United States is currently "about where Germany was before World War II." Last week, DeMint said, "I am not going to be able to persuade my colleagues to do the right things, so I am just going to have to create pain." Three weeks ago, DeMint told a far-right magazine that "most members of Congress lean socialist," and described Social Security, Medicare, and the existence of a public school system as threats to a functioning democracy.

And these are just some of his "greatest hits" from this month.

DeMint thinks Obama has "lowered the discourse"? Tell us another one, senator.

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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WILL RETURNS TO AN EMPTY WELL.... It's tempting to think Washington Post columnist George Will would just steer clear of writing about the environment. It's not a subject he understands well, and just about every time Will presents his conservative take on issues like global warming, he ends up publishing claims that fail under scrutiny.

Will, however, is a glutton for punishment. His new column explores the fact global leaders seem anxious to address climate change, but haven't come to any meaningful policy agreements. That's largely true, though Will's mistake is to consider this a positive development.

Eventually, Will presents his point:

When New York Times columnist Tom Friedman called upon "young Americans" to "get a million people on the Washington Mall calling for a price on carbon," another columnist, Mark Steyn, responded: "If you're 29, there has been no global warming for your entire adult life. If you're graduating high school, there has been no global warming since you entered first grade."

Which could explain why the Mall does not reverberate with youthful clamors about carbon.

The links are in the original. Will's had some trouble substantiating some of his environmental claims this year, so the columnist links to Steyn's National Review item, presumably to bolster the observation. ("See? Steyn really did make the case that there "has been no global warming this century.")

The problem, of course, is that Steyn -- a conservative media figure, not a climate scientist -- is mistaken. Indeed, the Steyn column Will approves of has already been debunked.

I imagine Will has been around long enough that the Post's editors probably give him free reign rein to publish whatever he pleases. But given that Will keeps making silly claims about global warming, maybe red flags should go up in the editors' offices when Will submits another column about environmental policy?

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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CNN'S DOBBS PROBLEM.... CNN's Lou Dobbs has, by all appearances, gone mad. He now questions the citizenship status of the president on a daily basis, and tells his audience that he's a victim of a "liberal media" conspiracy.

CNN has taken to debunking its own host over and over again.

In the wake of Lou Dobbs' repeated claims on the July 15 edition of his radio show that President Obama needs to "produce a birth certificate" and that Obama's birth certificate posted online has "some issues," several of Dobbs' CNN colleagues as well as other members of the media have debunked Obama birth certificate theories, often ridiculing those who embrace such theories as "nut jobs" who advance "ludicrous" claims that are "more conspiratorial than factual." Indeed, according to the Los Angeles Times, CNN distanced itself from Dobbs' comments. Reporter James Rainey wrote: "[O]ne CNN employee reminded me several times that Dobbs' most pointed assertions were made on his radio program, which is unconnected to CNN."

Nonetheless, Dobbs has continued to repeat the "birther" claims on both CNN and his radio show, stating on the July 20 edition of his CNN program that the birth certificate questions offered by "passionate supporters" "won't go away because they haven't been dealt with, it seems possible to, straightforwardly and quickly," and saying on the July 21 edition of his CNN show, "We had people, including reporters from the LA Times, calling up because I referred to this. ... Instead of calling the White House to ask why they didn't do it, they're calling me to ask why I said I don't know what the reality is. No one does." Additionally, on the July 21 edition of his radio show, Dobbs criticized "certain quarters of the national liberal media that are just absolutely trying to knock down the issue of President Obama's birth certificate," stating that they are "focused on being subservient and servile to this presidency rather than being inquisitive and doing their jobs with, you know, the White House."

The L.A .Times' James Rainey spoke to Brooks Jackson, director of Annenberg Political Fact Check and a reporter with 34 years in the business, including 20 at CNN. Jackson said, "CNN should be ashamed of itself for putting some of that stuff on the air."

Yes, it should. For all the network's efforts to characterize itself as the real, unbiased cable news outlet, it continues to give Lou Dobbs a high-profile platform for obvious, unsupported madness. It makes Dobbs look like a loon, but more important, it's a painful embarrassment to CNN.

A network spokesperson distanced CNN from Dobbs' crazed radio show, and told Rainey, "On CNN, Lou is an independent reporter who covers stories that people are talking about, and often showcases issues that aren't being covered by the mainstream media."

For a network that keeps giving very large paychecks to a television personality who is misleading its audience with transparent craziness, this explanation needs some work.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (84)

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A 'SOLUTIONS GROUP' WITH NO SOLUTIONS.... When House Republicans go on the attack against health care reform, one of the more common responses is to ask, "OK, but where's the Republican plan?" It's easy to attack; it's challenging to be productive.

Last night, The Hill reported that the GOP caucus has effectively given up on offering an alternative, and will instead stick to attacking.

Republicans who had promised last month to offer a healthcare reform alternative are now suggesting no such bill will be introduced.

Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said, "Our bill is never going to get to the floor, so why confuse the focus? We clearly have principles; we could have language, but why start diverting attention from this really bad piece of work they've got to whatever we're offering right now?"

Blunt, who is running for Senate, is chairman of the House GOP Health Care Solutions Group. Cantor made similar comments to The Hill in June, saying Republicans would eventually offer legislative language on healthcare reform.

Democrats on Wednesday called out Republicans, reminding reporters in an e-mail that Blunt had guaranteed that the GOP would introduce a bill.

All things being equal, the GOP is probably making the right call by failing to offer an alternative. In fact, if I were a Republican strategist, I'd probably advise the party to do exactly this. Producing a GOP reform plan would not only give Democrats a target, it would offer people a chance to compare the two approaches to the issue, and in a side-by-side match-up, it's hardly a stretch to think the Dems would come out on top.

What's more, the Republican track record on alternative solutions is truly abysmal. The GOP budget alternative was a humiliating failure (you may recall, it lacked numbers). The GOP stimulus alternative -- tax cuts and a five-years spending freeze -- was so ridiculous, even some conservatives labeled it "insane." With this in mind, there's no need for the party to humiliate itself with a health care plan.

But this route is not without costs. For one thing, Republican leaders promised to offer an alternative, and it's embarrassing to have to go back on this promise. For another, by failing to even try to play a constructive role, it's that much easier to characterize the minority as the "party of no."

Indeed, we're left with a dynamic in which the "GOP Health Care Solutions Group" has decided not to offer any health care solutions. For a party that has already lost its policy credibility, this won't help.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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BAUCUS KEEPS TALKING, DEMS KEEP WAITING.... One of the more frustrating lingering obstacles to health care reform is the Senate Finance Committee, which has hosted bipartisan negotiations for quite a long while now, without producing a bill. Two weeks ago, multiple news outlets reported that the Democratic leadership had seen enough -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) sent word to Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to stop "chasing Republican votes" and start moving a bill out of committee.

Fifteen days later, very little has changed. The Senate is still waiting on the Finance Committee; Baucus is still prioritizing Republican satisfaction; and Democratic policymakers are still annoyed.

Senate Democrats are increasingly frustrated by the secrecy and duration of Finance Chairman Max Baucus' (D-Mont.) bipartisan talks on health care reform, with some saying it could undermine Democratic support for the bill.

Democrats both on and off the Finance Committee said the briefings they get about the six negotiators' progress are too vague. Plus, they say, without a bill in hand, they cannot defend or sell the package to a wary media and public.

"At some point, [Baucus is] going to have to worry about getting Democratic votes," said one Democratic Senator, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "If they think that we'll take whatever it is that comes out because we want to get something passed, they're wrong." [...]

"The report that we get is the same one we get week after week after week: 'We're close. We're close. We're close,'" said the Democratic Senator.

Before yesterday, the bipartisan group engaged in negotiations included Baucus, Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota, Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico, Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa, Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine, Mike Enzi (R) of Wyoming, and Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah. Hatch, of course, walked away yesterday. The remaining six* will continue talks today.

Baucus hopes to strike some kind of deal, at which point "he will brief his caucus in detail." In other words, Senate Democrats don't yet know exactly what it is Baucus is prepared to give up to gain the support of a handful of Senate Republicans.

I'm not surprised there's growing frustration; I'm surprised the frustration isn't louder.

There's also the matter of geography -- the six senators involved in the talks all represent rural states with small populations and few, if any, urban areas. A Democratic senator described this as "a real problem."

Conrad said the senators involved in the talks are "very aware of that, and we're trying to come up with a proposal that will resonate with colleagues all across the country."

For now, I guess we'll just have to take their word for it?

* corrected

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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PRIME-TIME POLICY TALK.... Press-conference analysis is a bit like art criticism -- capable, knowledgeable observers can watch the exact same thing at the same time, and come away with very different impressions about what they've seen.

President Obama held an hour-long press conference at the White House last night, and the reactions are all over the map. Paul Krugman really liked what he saw, and was very impressed. Kevin Drum was unimpressed and disappointed. Joe Klein thought Obama was great; publius thought Obama was underwhelming. Jonathan Cohn liked what he saw and praised the president's willingness "to speak to America like adults"; Howard Fineman did not like what he saw and found the presser boring.

For what it's worth, I'm in the impressed camp. Obama's command of the substance of this debate was obvious, and he hit every point I wanted to see him make.

Yesterday, the NYT ran a piece about health care reform noting that many Americans are watching this policy debate unfold and are asking themselves, "What's in it for me?" By last night, the president was approaching the discussion in the exact same way: "I realize that with all the charges and criticisms that are being thrown around in Washington, a lot of Americans may be wondering: What's in this for me? How does my family stand to benefit from health-insurance reform?" Obama proceeded to answer those questions reasonably well, and with quite a bit of detail.

The president succeeded in acknowledging public anxiety, correcting misperceptions, and presenting the need for reform in personal ways. He made a plausible, if deliberately incomplete, case for hurrying the process along. Obama has a habit of taking on detractors' criticism directly, without sounding defensive, and turning the attacks around to his advantage. We saw that play out many times last night.

The president also exuded confidence about the task at hand. Major media outlets have made it seem as if the White House has been under siege for weeks by reform skeptics, but Obama didn't look like a guy who's been beaten up; he looked like a guy who was going to win.

As a substantive matter, I'm not sure how much actual news the press conference generated. Obama once again made a plug for paying for reform through limiting "itemized deductions for the wealthiest Americans," which Congress doesn't seem to like, but he added that the idea of surtax meets his general "principle."

I thought Obama was probably at his strongest with these remarks:

"If somebody told you that there is a plan out there that is guaranteed to double your health-care costs over the next 10 years, that's guaranteed to result in more Americans losing their health care, and that is by far the biggest contributor to our federal deficit, I think most people would be opposed to that. Well, that's the status quo. That's what we have right now. So if we don't change, we can't expect a different result.

"And that's why I think this is so important -- not only for those families out there who are struggling and who need some protection from abuses in the insurance industry or need some protection from skyrocketing costs, but it's also important for our economy.

"And by the way, it's important for families' wages and incomes. One of the things that doesn't get talked about is the fact that when premiums are going up, and the costs to employers are going up, that's money that could be going into people's wages and incomes. And over the last decade, we basically saw middle-class families; their incomes and wages flatlined. Part of the reason is, because health-care costs are gobbling that up."

The more the president makes the case this way, the better off his chances of success are.

As for some of the lingering questions, Obama once again touted the benefits of a public plan, but did not insist that it be part of the package passed by Congress. While he emphasized the need to tackle reform quickly, the president did not reiterate the pre-recess August deadline and made no mention of asking lawmakers to work through August.

What did you think?

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (64)

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July 22, 2009

WEDNESDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* As far as President Obama is concerned, U.S. withdrawal policy in Iraq is still on schedule.

* Today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that the United States "would not offer North Korea any sweeteners to return to talks and would consider extending a 'defense umbrella' over the Middle East if Iran does not heed calls to halt its nuclear weapons program."

* Pakistan is worried that the U.S. offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan will force militants across the border, and Pakistan doesn't have the troops needed to stop them.

* As far as Speaker Pelosi is concerned, there are enough votes in the House to pass health care reform.

* On a related note, Pelosi believes the House can and should keep working through the August recess.

* It's hard to reconcile moves like these with pre-inauguration promises of more transparency: "Invoking an argument used by President George W. Bush, the Obama administration has turned down a request from a watchdog group for a list of health industry executives who have visited the White House to discuss the massive healthcare overhaul."

* When it came to Democrats voting on the Thune amendment, whether the senator represented a "blue" or a "red" state made a big difference.

* No matter which version of health care reform advances, expect an individual mandate.

* Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) became the fifth Senate Republican to announce his support for Judge Sonya Sotomayor's nomination.

* How did Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl end up in the hands of the enemy?

* And why won't Ralph Peters stop saying stupid things about Bergdahl being taken hostage?

* South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) is leaving the country again, this time for a European vacation.

* Of all the compensation in the United States, more than a third is now going to "executives and other highly compensated employees."

* Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) is backing off his F-22 demands.

* If you're looking for a full transcription of the White House call with bloggers on Monday, you're in luck.

* For some reason, that "fool me once" expression seems to trip up conservatives. I'm not sure why.

* That "$23 trillion bailout" nonsense keeps making the rounds. That's unfortunate.

* And finally, be sure to take a look at "Palin's Resignation: The Edited Version." It turns out, Vanity Fair can do more to annoy the Alaska governor after all.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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TESTING THE SKILLS OF THE PROFESSOR IN CHIEF.... President Obama, even before he was president, has always been good at explaining complex ideas in an accessible way, without talking down to his audience. When it comes to the debate over health care reform, that's a valuable skill, but it's already being tested.

For the tens of millions of Americans with no insurance, it's an easy, straightforward pitch -- they want coverage, and they'll get it. For the millions of Americans covered by a government program (Medicare, the VA system), reform may not seem entirely relevant. And for the rest of the country, many of whom are asking "what's in it for me" right now, selling reform is arguably trickier than it sounds.

The NYT's David Leonhardt, who's done some terrific work on the reform debate, had another interesting piece on this today, noting that most Americans may not have the first idea what reform will mean to them personally, except that it might cost their government more to cover those who are currently lacking insurance. Leonhardt makes the case that these folks may not realize what they're already paying for.

Our health care system is engineered, deliberately or not, to resist change. The people who pay for it -- you and I -- often don't realize that they're paying for it. Money comes out of our paychecks, in withheld taxes and insurance premiums, before we ever see it. It then flows to doctors, hospitals and drug makers without our realizing that it was our money to begin with.

The doctors, hospitals and drug makers use the money to treat us, and we of course do see those treatments. If anything, we want more of them. They are supposed to make us healthy, and they appear to be free. What's not to like?

The immediate task facing Mr. Obama -- in his news conference on Wednesday night and beyond -- is to explain that the health care system doesn't really work the way it seems to. He won't be able to put it in such blunt terms. But he will need to explain how a typical household, one that has insurance and thinks it always will, is being harmed.

The United States now devotes one-sixth of its economy to medicine. Divvy that up, and health care will cost the typical household roughly $15,000 this year, including the often-invisible contributions by employers. That is almost twice as much as two decades ago (adjusting for inflation). It's about $6,500 more than in other rich countries, on average.

We may not be aware of this stealth $6,500 health care tax, but if you take a moment to think, it makes sense. Over the last 20 years, health costs have soared, and incomes have grown painfully slowly. The two trends are directly connected: employers had to spend more money on benefits, leaving less for raises.

In exchange for the $6,500 tax, we receive many things. We get cutting-edge research and heroic surgeries. But we also get fabulous amounts of waste -- bureaucratic and medical.

One thing we don't get is better health than other rich countries, whether it's Canada, France, Japan or many others.

Ezra Klein has more on this, noting that the employer tax exclusion has "created a fractured, expensive, inefficient health-care system. But people think they benefit from this subsidy. And why not? It's countertintuitive to say that something that's making your health-care coverage cheaper than it would otherwise be this year is also making it everybody's health-care coverage, including yours, a lot more expensive over time. The key to explaining all this, Leonhardt says, is connecting it to stagnant wages."

The White House hasn't really tried to make this case to the already-insured Americans wondering what reform will mean for them. Maybe tonight we'll start to hear more about this.

Steve Benen 4:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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RAISING THE BAR.... Passing health care reform in the Senate with, say, 52 votes would be viewed as something of a failure. Passing reform with 58 votes, the conventional wisdom tells us, would make the vote "partisan." Passing reform with 61 or 62 votes, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa said recently, wouldn't be quite good enough, because it would mean only a couple of Republicans sided with the majority.

As of today, Grassley has a new number in mind.

The final healthcare reform bill to make its way out of the Senate should have as many as 80 members voting for passage, one of the lead Republican negotiators of the health package said Wednesday.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, said it's his preference to see the vast majority of his colleagues on board with a final healthcare bill.

"It ought to be from 80 people in the center of the Senate, I would think," Grassley said during a news conference with Iowa reporters.

That's not a typo. Grassley told reporters reform ought to have 80 votes, which would come from his idea of what constitutes the "center."

That'd be quite a feat, given that Republicans want to use health care to "break" the president, make this Obama's "Waterloo," and by one GOP senator's own admission, at least half of Republican opposition to reform is based on nothing but partisan politics.

Also note the extent to which Grassley is hung up on process. What matters is the size of the majority, he says, not what's in the bill.

I'm reminded of a recent item from Matt Yglesias, on the "recursive loops" of Grassley's "bipartisanship."

By definition any bill that 60 Senators vote for has broad legislative support, which one assumes is the virtue of a bipartisan bill. And yet despite that fact, a new consensus is emerging that for a bill to be "really" bipartisan, it's not good enough to acquire the vote of the 41st-most-conservative Senator (Ben Nelson) or even the 40th- and 39th-most-conservative Senators (Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe). You also need an additional even more conservative Senator. And now we have Chuck Grassley signaling that his commitment to this weird principle is so strong that he would vote against a bill of which he otherwise approves unless a Senator who even more conservative than Grassley agrees to vote for it.

But what's the point of this? Who does this help? The way bipartisan bills happen is that you forge a compromise with the moderate members of the other party. As it happens, there are only two moderate Republicans in the Senate. But that should be understood as the GOP's problem, not the Democrats' problem. If the GOP ran more moderate nominees, there might be more Republican Senators and then, as a matter of course, bipartisan legislation would require a broader coalition.

That was when Grassley was saying a 62-vote majority isn't good enough. Now he's throwing around 80.

Steve Benen 4:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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RYAN FALLS SHORT OF SOME 'PRO-LIFE' STANDARDS.... Rep. Tim Ryan (D) of Ohio has always been an opponent on abortion rights. Just this week, he was one of five House Democrats to side with congressional Republicans on preventing funding for abortion as part of health care reform.

It's tempting to think, then, that Ryan would be a key ally for Democratic groups opposed to abortion rights. But it seems that's not the case.

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) has been, in his words, "booted" from the national advisory board of Democrats For Life of America. The group's mission is to elect and support pro-life Democrats; Ryan served on the board for four years but the relationship had recently soured when he co-sponsored the "Preventing Unintended Pregnancies, Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act":

"Ryan said he tried to convince officials with Democrats For Life of America, which he referred to Monday as a 'fringe group,' that the use of contraception is needed as part of any plan to reduce unintended pregnancies but that failed."

It's a reminder of why searching for compromise with some elements of the pro-life movement is so difficult. In this case, Ryan supports the "Preventing Unintended Pregnancies, Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act" precisely because it would reduce the number of abortions while improving the reproductive health of millions of women. The measure is generally seen as the ideal way to strike some common ground -- by improving women's access to contraception and education, policymakers could help reduce unwanted pregnancies and cut down on the number of abortions.

But in this case, Ryan's support for prevention made him insufficiently "pro-life." In some circles, contraception is still, even now, a problem.

Fortunately, this hasn't prompted Ryan to change his position. "I can't figure out for the life of me how to stop pregnancies without contraception," he said. "Don't be mad at me for wanting to solve the problem."

Update: Democrats For Life of America has sent over a statement claiming that Ryan's departure was unrelated to his position on contraception. "DFLA does not take a position on contraception," the statement reads. "Despite rumors to the contrary, we do not oppose contraception. We believe that preventing pregnancy is an important part of reducing the abortion rate in America. There are several ways to address prevention, but there is no clear consensus because of ethical, religious or personal reasons."

The statement added that the group supports "The Pregnant Women Support Act" as an alternative to the "Preventing Unintended Pregnancies, Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act."

Steve Benen 3:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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HATCH TAKES A WALK.... One of the senators involved in "bipartisan" health care talks has decided to give up.

Republican Senator Orrin Hatch said he is ending his participation in bipartisan talks aimed at compromise health-care legislation, a setback in President Barack Obama's call for a measure lawmakers in both political parties might support.

"Right now, with some of the provisions in there, I just can't do it," Hatch told reporters in Washington today. The Utah senator said he can't support a measure that costs as much as $1 trillion, and opposes other provisions he sees as likely to be included in a final measure.

I don't know whether Hatch is likely to take heat for this, but I think this is exactly the right move. Indeed, it's common sense -- the Senate majority wants to take on a pretty major overhaul of the national health care system. It's going to be expensive; it's likely to include some kind of public option; and to make it deficit neutral, it's going to include some changes to the tax code. Hatch saw the way this is headed and decided to jump off the moving train.

It's a setback for bipartisanship, and a step forward for rational policy making. Conservative Republicans who don't want to make sweeping, progressive changes to the system should walk away. Chances are, other conservative Republicans will follow Hatch out the door, and that's fine, too.

The problem isn't that Hatch can't support health care reform, the problem is that policymakers have spent considerable time and energy trying to make the legislation worse in order to make Hatch happy. Negotiations on policy details should be more productive/constructive now that Hatch isn't at the table.

The parties, after all, are supposed to disagree.

Steve Benen 2:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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THUNE'S GUN MEASURE FALLS SHORT.... Following up on this morning's item, the Thune amendment on carrying concealed firearms across state lines needed 60 votes to be attached to the military's budget bill. Despite strong NRA backing, the measure came up just short.

In a narrow defeat for gun rights groups like the National Rifle Association, today the United States Senate voted against a proposal that would have allowed certain gun owners to bring concealed weapons across state lines.

The Senate's 58 to 39 vote fell just short of the 60 votes needed to tack on the contentious amendment to a massive defense policy bill.... The amendment would have let people with concealed weapons permits carry their guns into other states as long as they followed that state's laws about where concealed weapons are permissible.

The AP report noted, "The vote reversed recent trends where Republicans and gun rights Democrats from rural states joined to push pro-gun rights issues and block gun control legislation." That's true; the NRA hasn't lost many of these votes, and by all indications, the group and its allies were fairly optimistic about today's outcome.

Looking over the roll call, this was hardly a party-line vote. The 58 senators in the majority included 20 Democrats. What's more, two Republicans -- Dick Lugar of Indiana and George Voinovich of Ohio -- broke ranks and voted with most Democrats.

The Hill added that while this was a rare setback for the NRA, the vote was also a big win for mayors: "One less-noticed aspect of Wednesday's vote: The influence of a little-known coalition of U.S. mayors who worked hard against the amendment. Mayors Against Illegal Guns, co-chaired by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, lobbied senators far more intensely than other recent gun votes in the Senate. Lindsay Ellenbogen, a spokesman for Bloomberg, said the group 'got out there and got our voice heard.'"

It's unlikely to matter, but perhaps a vote like this might help the Republican caucus to think about the utility of mandating 60-vote supermajorities on nearly every issue of interest? I doubt it -- the caucus is already gearing up for health care filibusters.

Steve Benen 2:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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SNOWE FALLS ON HEALTH CARE REFORM.... It seemed encouraging, at least at first. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine couldn't appear at a health care reform rally in her home state over the weekend, but a staffer from Snowe's office read an official statement from the senator. "I believe that the reforms we are creating will result in more competitive, affordable and innovative options for Mainers, yet we can all agree that we must not leave universal access to chance," Snowe's statement said, according to one report. "That is why I also support a public plan which must be available from day one."

Great news? Not quite. Snowe's office sent Brian Beutler the complete quote from the prepared text:

"I believe that the reforms we are creating will result in more competitive, affordable and innovative options for Mainers, yet we can all agree that we must not leave universal access to chance. That is why I support a public plan which is available from day one -- in any state where private plans fail to ensure guaranteed affordable coverage." [emphasis added]

This, in other words, is the same position Snowe has maintained all along. A public option would get the job done, but she'd prefer to give private insurance companies yet another chance to achieve the same goals that a public plan would accomplish.

"Throughout the entire health care debate, Senator Snowe has emphasized that we must first, reform health insurance, and if plans then fail to offer affordable coverage, a public plan should then be offered from day one," Snowe's press secretary said.

Except, "day one" in this context means, "the day the senator's satisfied that private insurance companies haven't lived up to expectations."

Steve Benen 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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KATRINA WASN'T AN EMERGENCY?.... Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R), a far-right lawmaker from Tennessee, was on the House floor this morning, extolling the virtues of a balanced budget and PAYGO rules. Blackburn lost sight of these concerns during the Bush/Cheney years, but there's a lot of that going around.

But as part of her speech, Blackburn said PAYGO rules are not, in and of themselves, good enough, because lawmakers can point to emergencies or crises that occasionally warrant exceptions to the spending rules. That, Blackburn said, is the problem.

"Let's agree that we're going to have PAYGO enforcement," she told her colleagues. "That we're not going to cry 'emergency' every time we have a Katrina, every time we have a tsunami, every time we have a need for extra spending, that we don't go call for a special appropriation that allows us to circumvent the PAYGO rules."

This is awfully nutty. Chris Harris reminds us that Hurricane Katrina killed 1,464 people in Louisiana alone. "While we can all appreciate the benefits of a balanced budget, those benefits pale in comparison to the virtues of saving lives in the midst of an actual emergency. If saving thousands of lives costs a few extra dollars, so be it. That's why it's an 'emergency.'"

I'm curious what Blackburn would say the next time there is a catastrophe on U.S. soil. "Sorry, PAYGO is more important than the emergency"?

Republican lawmakers are supposed to have some kind of internal check, reminding them to turn down the crazy while speaking in public. It's amazing how often that check doesn't work.

Steve Benen 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) appeared on CNBC's "Squawk Box" this morning for the kind of softball interview one might ordinarily associate with Fox News. One of the two hosts, for example, thanked the Republican "for his leadership" because "we're headed off a fiscal cliff."

The interview wrapped up with this interesting exchange.

Host: Senator, one question, before we go, on health care. How much of this disagreement with the administration is about the policy of health care and how to fix it, and how much of it is Republicans' obviously understandable desire to declaw the president politically. How much does that fit into the equation?

Voinovich: I think it's probably 50-50.

Putting aside the obvious slant of the question, Voinovich's candid response was nevertheless interesting. At least half of the Republican opposition to health care reform, according to a sitting Republican senator, is nothing more than partisan politics.

Good to know.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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WEDNESDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP....Today's installment of campaign-related news items that wouldn't generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers.

* Arlen Specter's re-election campaign in Pennsylvania took a hit this morning, with the release of a new Quinnipiac poll showing his lead over former Rep. Pat Toomey (R), in a hypothetical general-election match-up, shrinking to just one point, 45% to 44%. A couple of months ago, Specter led by 22.

* The same poll showed Specter's primary opponent, Rep. Joe Sestak (D), trailing Toomey by four, 39% to 35%, though Sestak, unlike Specter, is largely unknown to most of the state. Specter also leads Sestak among Pennsylvania Democrats, 55% to 23%.

* And speaking of Pennsylvania, Quinnipiac also found that next year's gubernatorial campaign is wide open. None of the top Democratic candidates had 20% support, and among Republicans, state Attorney General Tom Corbett appears to have the early edge with 38% support.

* Kelly Ayotte's Republican Senate campaign in New Hampshire got some good news this morning, when businessman Fred Tausch said he would end his nascent campaign.

* Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R), apparently hoping to impress the party's right-wing base, announced yesterday that he opposes Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination. Given Florida's large Hispanic population, expect to hear a lot more about this.

* While the Democratic campaign committees have enjoyed stronger fundraising of late over their Republican counterparts, the RNC is still faring better than the DNC.

* The latest survey from Public Policy Polling in Louisiana shows Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) leading Rep. Charlie Melancon (D), 44% to 32%. While the margin will no doubt be encouraging to Republicans, the poll offered several warning signs for Vitter, including the fact that only 38% of respondents believe Vitter deserves another term.

* And in New York, Rep. John McHugh (R) is leaving Congress to become Secretary of the Army, and the NRCC is already launching attacks against the likely Democratic candidate hoping to replace him. McHugh has not yet resigned his seat.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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BABY STEPS.... The House Energy and Commerce Committee was scheduled to consider health care reform yesterday, but the committee's chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), pushed off the vote. Dems have a 36-23 edge in the committee, but Waxman has seven Blue Dogs, and their opposition to reform would give the GOP enough votes to prevail.

So, instead of a vote, committee Democrats went to the White House for a chat. By all accounts, it went relatively well.

Moderate House Democrats and a key committee chairman emerged from a three-hour meeting at the White House on Tuesday with a tentative agreement to give an outside panel -- rather than Congress -- the power to make cuts to government-financed health care programs.

OMB Director Peter Orszag called it "probably the most important piece that can be added" to the health care bill in the House, and the deal between the Blue Dog Coalition and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) was the first positive development Democratic Party leaders could claim since the American Medical Association endorsed their bill last week.

Rep. Mike Ross (D) of Arkansas, the Blue Dogs' point man on health care, called the MedPAC agreement a "significant breakthrough" and evidence that policymakers are "making progress." He added, however, "[W]e've got a long way to go."

Dems on the Energy and Commerce Committee will continue talking today, but probably won't resume formal work on the bill until tomorrow, making the pre-recess deadline that much more of a challenge, though Speaker Pelosi told her caucus yesterday the chamber is still on track. She added that "this is the biggest thing we will do in our lives."

Rep. John Larson of Connecticut, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the chamber, suggested action on the House floor is likely July 29, a week from today.

As for the Senate Finance Committee, Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said the panel had made "significant progress" on a bipartisan proposal, No word, though, on if/when we'll actually see a Finance bill.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (5)

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MOVING FORWARD ON STUDENT LOAN REFORM.... It should be a no-brainer. The student-loan industry is getting government subsidies to provide a service the government can perform for less. The Obama administration has asked Congress to remove the middleman, streamline the process, save taxpayers a lot money, and help more young people get college degrees.

Yesterday, we started seeing some meaningful progress on the issue.

A bill that cleared a House committee Tuesday would largely remove private lenders from the federal student loan industry, generating an estimated $87 billion savings over 10 years to fund more government grants and loans.

The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2009 would eliminate an entire category of student loans issued by private lenders and subsidized by the federal government, vastly expanding direct lending by the government starting next July. Democrats would use the savings to fund a $40 billion increase in federal Pell Grant scholarships over 10 years, $10 billion in community college upgrades and $8 billion in pre-kindergarten changes, among other uses.

Republicans opposed to the legislation say it amounts to a federal takeover of student lending.

Look, the government already controls the entire lending process -- it helps students directly and it subsidizes private companies to direct funds to students. All Obama and his allies want to do is make the process more efficient and cost-effective. And all Republican critics of the idea want to do is keep the middleman in place to maintain the ideological facade of a "private" system.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said yesterday, "We can either keep sending these subsidies to banks and a broken system, or we can start sending them directly to students and their families."

That this is even the subject of controversy is frustrating. Why would GOP lawmakers tout cost savings, improved efficiency, and streamlined government programs, and then vote against reform like this? Is the industry really generating that many campaign contributions, or is this just a reflexive opposition to whatever the Obama administration supports?

The NYT had a good op-ed on this today: "The consolidated program proposed in the bill would in no way expand government. The loans would be handled through colleges. They would be serviced and collected by private companies and nonprofits that are already lining up to get the work. By forcing the companies to compete, and to undergo periodic re-evaluations, Congress could get a good deal for taxpayers and better service for borrowers."

During yesterday's committee vote, two Republicans broke ranks and voted with the Democratic majority. At this point, I'll take that as a sign of progress.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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INSURANCE INDUSTRY CHERRY-PICKS FACTS.... The insurance industry says it would like to see universal coverage for all Americans, just so long as there's no public insurance option. As far as America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) is concerned, there's no need for a public plan -- 77% of Americans "are satisfied with their existing health insurance coverage."

It's a statistic AHIP's president, Karen Ignagni, uses with great frequency. She's apparently hoping we don't take a closer look at the source of the data.

Karen Ignagni, president of America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), invoked the statistic to argue against the creation of a government-run insurance option. But the polls are not that simple, and her assertion reveals how the industry's effort to defend its turf has led it to cherry-pick the facts.

The poll Ignagni was citing actually undercuts her position: By 72 to 20 percent, Americans favor the creation of a public plan, the June survey by the New York Times and CBS News found. People also said that they thought government would do a better job than private insurers of holding down health-care costs and providing coverage.

In addition, data from a Kaiser Family Foundation poll last year, compiled at the request of The Washington Post, suggest that the people who like their health plans the most are the people who use them the least.

The more experience you have with your private health insurer, the less likely you are to be satisfied. What's more, those who are covered under Medicare are just about as satisfied with their plan as those with private insurance -- which, if conservative/industry talking points were true, wouldn't make sense.

In fact, the Washington Post's David Hilzenrath did a nice job summarizing some of the AHIP's most common talking points, and explaining why the industry's spin is, at a minimum, highly misleading.

AHIP says a public option would stunt improvements in quality and safety of patient care, but there's little evidence to show where private insurers have made improvements. AHIP says a public option would limit choices, but Americans are already restricted by limited choices, and in some areas, no choices at all. AHIP warns of bureaucracies in a public option, but there are already burdensome private bureaucracies standing between patients and doctors.

Wait, are we to understand that rhetoric from health insurance companies is unreliable and filled with dubious claims that can't stand up to scrutiny? You don't say.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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SINCE WHEN IS WEIGHT A QUALIFICATION?.... This item, from TPM's David Kurtz, was completely serious.

In what has to be among Fox News' all-time lowlights, Neil Cavuto had a segment a short while ago on whether the new surgeon general nominee, Dr. Regina M. Benjamin, is "too fat" for the post. Seriously. In support of this argument, they had on as a guest some guy wearing a "No Chubbies" T-shirt. Again, I'm serious. Watch.

While the Fox News "discussion" on this was predictably ridiculous, there's apparently widespread discussion over Benjamin's weight. I can't recall ever hearing a comparable "debate" over the physical characteristics of another recent presidential nominee, but the surgeon general nominee's weight has somehow, at least according to some, managed to become a legitimate area of interest.

This ABC News report ran yesterday about whether Benjamin, despite her obvious qualifications, "gives the wrong message" to the country.

[T]he full-figured African-American nominee is ... under fire for being overweight in a nation where 34 percent of all Americans aged 20 and over are obese.

Critics and supporters across the blogsphere have commented on photos of Benjamin's round cheeks, saying she sends the wrong message as the public face of America's health initiatives.

This seems to go well beyond online commentary. Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine who is now a senior lecturer at Harvard University Medical School, told ABC that Benjamin's weight "tends to undermine her credibility." Angell added, "We don't know how much she weighs and just looking at her I would not say she is grotesquely obese or even overweight enough to affect her health. But I do think at a time when a lot of public health concern is about the national epidemic of obesity, having a surgeon general who is noticeably overweight raises questions in people's minds."

I tend to think all of this is overwrought, and not just because I'm uncomfortable with the idea that it's an African-American woman generating this kind of unprecedented scrutiny (remind me, did anyone question whether C. Everett Koop's jowls "sent the wrong message" to the public?).

Dr. Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, had an item on this last week (thanks to K.Z. for the tip), which seemed to strike largely the right note.

"Obesity is an epidemic in the U.S. and growing quickly around the globe," Caplan said. "But people need to relate to the surgeon general, and if she can battle her weight on the job, she will do more to curb obesity then all the salads added to the menus of burger joints everywhere. In fact, if this Alabama physician can connect with fat Americans of all ethnic groups because of her own weight, she stands a very good chance of reaching them about the problem."

"Besides, weight aside, Benjamin does bring some rather impressive bona fides to the job," Caplan added. "I don't know about you, but a doctor who chooses to care selflessly for the poor and who has the respect of her peers as a good clinician is a doctor whom I am willing to listen to -- even if she wears a plus-size lab coat."

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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BIRTHER MADNESS.... Like Adam Serwer, I simply assumed the nuts who questioned President Obama's citizenship would pick some new cause after the inauguration. During the campaign, they had a stronger incentive -- characterize Obama as "the other" and somehow "less American." But after Obama won -- and well after the release of his birth certificate and local newspaper's birth announcement -- the silly little right-wing crusade lost its salience.

Or so I thought.

Limbaugh, of course, is obsessed, but so is CNN's Lou Dobbs, who's not only spouting this nonsense on a nearly daily basis, but started to call the president "undocumented" on the air yesterday, before pulling back slightly. The absurd Birther bill in Congress continues to pick up support from right-wing lawmakers, including Rep. John Campbell (R) of California, who appeared on MSNBC's "Hardball" yesterday to defend the proposal. (Chris Matthews held up the birth certificate on screen before telling Campbell, "What you're doing is appeasing the nutcases.... [Y]ou're verifying the paranoia out there.")

But what really irked me was Liz Cheney who, believe it or not, was on CNN again this week. This time, she told Larry King that the Birthers' efforts are Obama's fault. Asked if she believes this nonsense, Cheney said:

"I think that the Democrats have got more crazies than the Republicans do. But setting that aside, I think that -- you know, one of the reasons I think you see people so concerned about this, I think that, you know, this issue is people are uncomfortable with having, for the first time ever, I think, a president who seems so reluctant to defend the nation overseas. [...]

"I'm saying that people are fundamentally uncomfortable, I think, increasingly uncomfortable with an American president who seems to be afraid to defend America."

Salon's Joan Walsh noted, "I've debated Cheney, so I know she'll do anything from rudely interrupting to lying to make her point, but even I expected her to take King's opportunity to distinguish her brand of Republicanism from the hooligans who run with the Birthers. But she didn't. Wow. The GOP keeps coughing up younger, supposedly more compelling, 'new' leadership, from Sarah Palin to Mark Sanford to, now, Liz Cheney -- and they keep making clear they're not ready for prime time. It's remarkable."

As for the larger issue, whether they realize it or not, Birthers are probably doing themselves far more harm than good. Sure, they're ginning up some excitement among confused activists who don't know better, but they're also making it seem as if the president's most aggressive detractors are stark raving mad.

Michael Medved, a leading far-right voice, recently referred to the Birthers as "the worst enemy of the conservative movement." He added, "It makes us look weird. It makes us look crazy. It makes us look demented. It makes us look sick, troubled, and not suitable for civilized company."

That, apparently, won't deter them.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (106)

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SENATE TO TAKE UP THUNE AMENDMENT.... Yesterday, the Senate took up an amendment on F-22s as part of the military's budget bill. Today, lawmakers will likely consider another amendment, which is even more controversial.

Nearly all states issue licenses to carry concealed firearms, but the criteria for granting such permits vary widely, and it is now, sensibly, up to each state to decide whether to accept another state's permits.

At least 35 states prevent people from carrying concealed weapons if they have certain misdemeanor convictions. At least 31 states prohibit alcohol abusers from obtaining a concealed carry permit and require gun safety training. The Thune amendment would force states with more restrictive standards to accept concealed carry permits from states with less stringent rules -- in effect giving the lax rules national reach.

Passage of the amendment would make it much harder for law enforcement to distinguish between legal and illegal possession of a firearm. It would be a boon for illegal gun traffickers, making it easier to transport weapons across state lines without being caught.

Thune has the enthusiastic backing of the NRA, while some Senate Democrats, hoping to derail the measure with a filibuster, have the support of more than 400 mayors, who took out an ad in yesterday's USA Today to denounce the Thune amendment.

Opponents are being led in large part by Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), but whether they can get 41 votes together remains to be seen. Despite the large Democratic majority, three Senate Democrats - Max Baucus and Jon Tester of Montana and Mark Begich of Alaska - are co-sponsors of the measure, and Sens. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada and Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska both announced their support for the amendment yesterday.

The administration hasn't had much to say about this, suggesting that if the larger spending bill passes with Thune's amendment in the legislation, it will become law.

Postscript: In case anyone's wondering, I think the Thune Amendment is a bad idea, but I'd still rather get rid of the filibuster. If a bad idea enjoys the support of a Senate majority, it should pass. If people with good ideas want to try to undo it at some point in the future, they should do their due diligence. And if they come up short, we'll have the laws we deserve, as passed by our elected representatives.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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July 21, 2009

TUESDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* Pakistan: "Three days of clashes between security forces and militants in northwest Pakistan near the Afghan border left more than 56 militants and six soldiers dead, the military said Tuesday."

* Iraq: "A series of bombings rocked Baghdad on Tuesday, killing at least 15 people and wounding more than 100, as attackers struck at a bustling sheep market, a crowd of impoverished job seekers and a funeral, Iraqi security officials said."

* Afghanistan: "Eight suicide attackers mounted assaults on government compounds in two eastern towns on Tuesday, killing six members of the Afghan security forces and wounding four, officials said."

* Sarah Palin caught violating state ethics laws (again)?

* California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) brokered a deal on the state budget yesterday. The agreement avoids broad-based tax increases, and instead, in the midst of the recession, slashes services for the elderly and the poor, including health care access for seniors and children.

* Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke isn't worried about inflation.

* Reports of new protests continue to come out from Iran.

* Blue Dogs stopped by the White House this afternoon for a chat about health care reform.

* The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, not surprisingly, hopes to derail health care reform efforts.

* President Obama's call with bloggers seemed to go well. (For the record, because I work for a magazine, I was not a part of the call.)

* Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) will not let the Senate vote on qualified State Department nominees because he disapproves of the administration's position on the coup in Honduras.

* The Weekly Standard: "More Partisan Hackery."

* Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) probably ought to get a good legal team together.

* The White House will miss its own deadline on a report detailing the administration's policy on detaining terror suspects.

* USA Today/Gallup has Obama's approval rating at 55%. So does the AP.

* If more cable news shows ran fact-checking segments like this one, I'd watch more cable news shows.

* Harvard's Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested last week after "breaking into" his own Cambridge home. The charges have since been dropped.

* I wonder what the reaction would have been if an MSNBC personality gushed, during an interview, about having voted for the Democratic subject of the interview.

* The media reports about a $23 trillion bailout are wildly irresponsible.

* And finally, Rep. Mike Castle (R) of Delaware, a relative moderate by contemporary GOP standards, held a town-hall meeting recently. That wouldn't be especially noteworthy, were it not for the fact that right-wing activists quickly created a "mob-like atmosphere," pressing Castle on a wide range of bizarre conspiracy theories. Castle was routinely booed for not being nearly conservative enough. It was quite a sight.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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MAYBE THE STIMULUS ISN'T SO BAD AFTER ALL?.... I've lost track of all the labels Republican lawmakers have used to described the administration's stimulus package, but perhaps the most common is "failure." To hear the right tell, the recovery initiative just hasn't done much of anything, and it certainly hasn't created any jobs.

It's an argument that might be more persuasive if it were true. Greg Sargent, for example, flags this item from House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence's home state of Indiana.

More than 2,400 people are now at work on federal stimulus-funded roadway projects in Indiana, according to a state report being released today.

Covering 83 projects and listing a total payroll of $2.8 million, the Indiana Department of Transportation report details only a small fraction of the hundreds of projects so far selected for funding using the $440 million the agency received under the American Relief and Recovery Act.

Economists say it's too early to tell whether the long-term value of President Barack Obama's economy-boosting effort will justify its $787 billion cost. But construction executives say stimulus-funded projects certainly have created jobs and spared layoffs within the industry.

Remember, as far as Pence is concerned, those jobs shouldn't exist. (He argued earlier this year that government spending couldn't possibly create jobs, suggesting these jobs in Indiana must come as quite a surprise.) In fact, they wouldn't exist for quite a long while if Pence had his way, since he inexplicably insisted the best way to deal with the economic crisis is with a five-year spending freeze.

What will be especially interesting to see, though, is how many opponents of the stimulus package suddenly discover how much they like the projects the recovery funds financed. Louisiana Gov. Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), for example, was an ardent critic of the stimulus effort, who now feels comfortable bragging to local Louisiana communities about money made possible by the recovery bill he opposed.

Indeed, this happens quite a bit. House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) hates the stimulus, except for the transportation money it brought to his district. Other House Republicans have bragged about recovery funds headed for their communities, thanks to a bill they voted in lock-step against.

So, how long until Pence starts claiming credit for some of the thousands of jobs brought to Indiana through this "failed" legislation?

Steve Benen 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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THE WRONG SPOKESPERSON FOR THE WRONG ISSUE.... RNC Chairman Michael Steele is pushing as hard as he can to derail health care reform. But the party has to have better spokespersons than this guy.

It started yesterday with a speech at the National Press Club, which went very poorly. Steele not only parroted a consultant's memo word for word, he demonstrated the fact that he doesn't understand health care policy at all. In fact, pressed for any kind of details, Steele conceded he doesn't "do policy."

Today, it got worse. On MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Steele boasted of all of his ideas to bring down health care costs. None of them, Joe Scarborough noted, would actually address the issue.

As the interview continued, Scarborough repeated his question over and over again. "Michael, listen to me, I'm going to ask it again," he pressed. When Steele tried to dodge, Scarborough pressed: "Ok, I'm obviously not being clear." Steele, trying to diffuse the situation, said, "I'm with you Joe. We may sound like we're on opposite sides here, but I'm agreeing with you."

Soon after, Steele appeared on CNN, and struggled with a question about what kind of health care he currently has, unaware of even what company provides his coverage.

This comes the same day we learn that Steele lacked insurance for himself and his family for years, going so far as to tell his kids, "Don't break anything, because Daddy can't afford to fix it."

And this is the guy the Republican National Committee is sending out to take on the White House on health care reform?

Look, I realize that Steele is neither a lawmaker nor a wonk. He's effectively conceded that he's attacking for the sake of attacking, and doesn't really understand the subject at hand. One can reasonably make the argument that it's not Steele's job to be able to speak intelligently about health care. Fine.

But with that in mind, maybe the RNC should find anyone else to talk about health care to national audiences, rather than force Steele to pretend like he knows what he's talking about.

Steve Benen 3:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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CANTOR WANTS A 'JUDEO-CHRISTIAN' FOREIGN POLICY.... I don't expect much in the way of depth from House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), but if he could explain what a "Judeo-Christian" foreign policy would look like, I'd sure appreciate it.

Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told Christian Zionists that U.S. policies in the Middle East must be "firmly grounded" in Judeo-Christian principles.

"Reaching out to the Muslim world may help in creating an environment for peace in the Middle East, but we must insist as Americans that our policies be firmly grounded in the beliefs of the Judeo-Christian tradition upon which this country was founded," said Cantor (R-Va.), the House minority whip and the only Jewish Republican in Congress, in a speech to the Christians United For Israel annual conference in Washington.

Now, Cantor has never been a Jeffersonian when it comes to honoring the separation of church and state, but to argue publicly that the foreign policy of the United States must be "firmly grounded in the beliefs of the Judeo-Christian tradition" is pretty out there for anyone, much less a member of the congressional leadership.

Cantor added that the "real stumbling block" to peace in the Middle East isn't "settlements or Jerusalem or refugees," but rather, "those who vehemently deny the nation of Israel's historical right to the land of Zion."

Remember, a while back, when Republicans would say that Eric Cantor, more than most GOP policymakers, is a credible, serious voice, who deserves to be taken seriously? Good times, good times.

* Update: Jon Chait notes that Cantor's position is "perfectly explicable." Chait adds, "It's also perfectly nuts."

Steve Benen 2:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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GOLDFARB AT HIS MOST GOLDFARB-ESQUE.... Given Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) work on eliminating unnecessary F-22 funding, I sort of expected the Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb, a former McCain aide, to support the majority today.

No such luck.

If there is any consolation to be had here it comes from the fact that there will be a time when this administration's weakness on defense, and the subservience of their enablers in Congress, will reemerge as a national political issue. And at that time, some Republican will run an add [sic] that shows the trillions this government has wasted on pet projects and social experiments and contrast that with the determination that same government showed in killing a crucial weapons system -- because they decided there isn't enough money left for our military to have the very best equipment money can buy.

America is less safe now than it was an hour ago.

OK, let's get into this a bit. On the latter point, it's worth remembering that the F-22 is a bit of a mess. For every hour it spends in the air, it requires more than 30 hours of maintenance. One of its key problems is -- I'm not kidding -- "vulnerability to rain." After years of effort, the plane, in operational flight tests, has met only seven of its 22 "key requirements." It features a radar-absorbing canopy that tends to imprison pilots for hours. It was designed to address Cold War-era national security needs, and has flown a grand total of zero missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Even if we exclude President Obama from the equation, the excess F-22 spending was opposed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates (a Bush/Cheney appointee), the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (a Bush/Cheney appointee), the current Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff, and the leading Democrat and Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. The Senate vote today had 15 GOP members, including some very conservative lawmakers, joining with the majority.

Now, Goldfarb seems to think the F-22 vote will have an effect on the F-35 project. That may or may not be true. But to argue that the F-22 vote means "America is less safe now than it was an hour ago" is silly.

But it's Goldfarb's first point that I find especially insulting. The "consolation" of a common-sense vote in the Senate on planes that don't work and aren't needed is that, someday, Goldfarb thinks there will be a political price to pay for Obama's "weakness."

This falls into a tired and offensive pattern among far-right voices -- laying down markers now so they can blame Obama if/when there's another terrorist attack on U.S. soil. This has been happening pretty consistently for months, and it continues to be ridiculous.

As Jason Zengerle noted when this rhetoric started, "You almost get the sense [these conservatives] are hoping for an attack so that they can blame Obama when it happens."


Steve Benen 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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SENATE DOES THE RIGHT THING ON F-22S.... President Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the current Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff all told Congress not to spend an additional $1.75 billion on F-22 fighter jets the Pentagon neither wants nor needs. For quite a while, it appeared lawmakers were going to spend the money anyway, even in the face of a presidential veto threat.

To their credit, the Senate backed down this afternoon, and agreed with the administration.

The Senate voted Tuesday to kill the nation's premier fighter jet program, embracing by a 58-40 vote margin the argument of President Obama and his top military advisers that the F22 is no longer needed for the nation's defense and a costly drag on the Pentagon's budget in an era of small wars and growing counter-insurgency efforts.

The decision was a key policy victory for Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who has been campaigning against the plane since April as a centerpiece of his effort to "fundamentally reshape the priorities of America's defense establishment and reform the way the Pentagon does business -- in particular, the weapons we buy, and how we buy them," as he put it in a Chicago speech last Thursday.

The 58-40 vote came in support of an amendment to remove funding from a larger defense spending bill for the planes. The overall bill is now expected to pass, and while the House bill included some funding for unnecessary F-22s, the final measure is now expected to head to the president's desk without the wasteful spending.

The truth is, it never should have gotten this far in the first place. Lawmakers, lobbyists, and the "military industrial complex" had just become accustomed to spending excess funds on unneeded and unnecessary defense projects. Gates, to his credit, has said it's time to fix the system, and the White House not only decided to press its commitment to change on this F-22 issue, it drew a line in the sand and told Congress not to cross it.

It's a win for Obama and Gates, but just as important, it's a win for military priorities, fiscal discipline, and changing how the system operates.

Also, take a look at the roll call on this one. Most Senate votes offer a clear partisan pattern. On this vote, there were 58 senators in the majority -- 43 from the Democratic caucus and 15 from the GOP caucus.

There's some of that bipartisanship the establishment has been waiting for.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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NOTHING SECRET ABOUT IT.... The Huffington Post's Sam Stein obtained a copy of a private RNC memo, detailing the party's strategy for defeating President Obama's health care reform campaign. As Stein noted, "While documents like these commonly are passed around behind the scenes by like-minded partisans on both sides of the aisle they usually don't make their way into the public."

That's true. What I found interesting about the memo, though, was just how few surprises there were. The Republican strategy against health care reform is entirely transparent. It's like watching a football team that doesn't bother huddling to call a play in advance, but instead just tells the other team exactly what they're about to do.

Reading over the 12-page RNC memo, we learn that there are key phrases Republicans are supposed to use ...

Obama's plan for health care is deemed an "experiment" and a "risk" that could bankrupt the country and dangerously change the doctor-patient relationship.

... while trying to slow the reform process down so they can kill legislation ...

"The Republican National Committee will engage in every activity we can to slow down this mad rush while promoting sensible alternatives that address health care costs and preserve quality," the memo affirmatively declares.

... while resisting the very idea of reform itself.

As for a Republican alternative to the president's agenda, the RNC memo doesn't offer much in the way of details, save to make the argument that the status quo isn't as bad as it is being painted.

In other words, Republicans are saying the same things in private that they're saying in public -- and they're effectively daring the majority to overcome their opposition.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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TUESDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP....Today's installment of campaign-related news items that wouldn't generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers.

* Rep. Carolyn Maloney's (D) Senate campaign in New York ran into trouble yesterday when, in relaying a quote from someone else, she used the n-word. She later apologized: "It's no excuse, but I was so caught up in relaying the story exactly as it was told to me that, in doing so, I repeated a word that should never be repeated."

* Despite rumors to the contrary, former Florida state House Speaker Marco Rubio (R), at least for now, insists he will not end his Senate campaign. Rubio faces long odds in a Republican primary against Gov. Charlie Crist (R).

* Former New Hampshire Attorney General Kelly Ayotte (R) officially launched an "exploratory committee" for her Senate campaign yesterday.

* The DCCC outraised the NRCC in June, $7.15 million to $3.1 million. For the year to date, the DCCC leads, $30.84 million to $17.55 million.

* In the other chamber, the DSCC raised $6.2 million in June, as compared to the NRSC's $3.4 million. The Dems' Senate campaign committee, however, is carrying far more debt that its Republican counterpart.

* The latest Siena College Research Institute poll shows a slight uptick in New York Gov. David Paterson's (D) public standing, but not enough to offer him serious hope. In the new survey, 36% of New Yorkers have a favorable view of Paterson, up from 27% in May. In a hypothetical primary match-up against New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (D), Paterson still trails by 42 points.

* I don't think Rep. Joe Sestak (D) cares one bit that Gov. Ed Rendell (D) doesn't want him to run for the Senate.

* And in Michigan, the field of Republican gubernatorial hopefuls got a little more crowded yesterday when Rick Snyder, a former president of Gateway Computers, threw his hat into the ring. It will be Snyder's first attempt at elected office.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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FIRST HAM, THEN A DOOR.... There's nothing wrong with the administration's conservative detractors looking for misguided stimulus expenditures. The White House has said the money would be spent wisely, and if far-right activists want to watch the administration like a hawk, making sure there's a legitimate explanation for every penny, fine.

But could they at least get their facts straight before throwing a fit?

Earlier, we talked about the right's claim that the administration used $1.19 million of taxpayer funds to buy just two pounds of ham. In the real world where the grown-ups live, the Department of Agriculture actually spent $1.19 million of taxpayer funds to buy 760,000 pounds of ham -- that's 380 tons -- to be distributed to local organizations that assist low-income Americans through food banks, food pantries, and soup kitchens.

Also yesterday, Drudge said $1.4 million in recovery funds went to "repair a door" at Dyess Air Force Base's "bldg 5112." Fox News' Glenn Beck was outraged, and said this is proof that "they're just peeing your money away."

"Wow, what happened to that door?" Beck asked. "That's a lot of repairing, you know. Can we buy a new one, and cheaper?"

Wouldn't you know it, that's completely wrong.

[U]nder the "View all project descriptions" link on the page to which the Drudge Report linked, Recovery.gov actually states that the government awarded AFCO Technologies nearly $1.2 million to replace gas mains on the base, and $246,100 to repair doors in Building 5112. A Department of Defense document listing American Recovery and Reinvestment Act projects in Texas states that the doors that were repaired in Building 5112 are "hangar doors."

Moreover, a May 5 press release from the Dyess Air Force Base stated that the money awarded for the gas main project "may have saved eight jobs" and that the base could "now possibly hire two more employees."

So, once again, all of the relevant details of the claim are either demonstrably false or wildly misleading.

Better conservatives, please.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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C STREET'S ANIMAL HOUSE NEEDS A MAKEOVER.... The headlines have been less than kind lately for the secretive "Fellowship" that lives in the red-brick townhouse on Capitol Hill's C Street. Some high-profile members of the so-called "Family" -- Mark Sanford, John Ensign, and Chip Pickering -- have been caught up in sex scandals, despite being far-right, "family-values"-style Republicans, who've spent years moralizing to the rest of us.

Zachary Roth argued yesterday that the Christian fellowship group is engaged in a little "rebranding" this week, with news stories characterizing the evangelical ministry as "a benevolent prayer group that offers 'crucial counseling' to its powerful members, helping keep them on the straight and narrow."

But looking over the reports, Roth concludes the adultery controversies may not be a coincidence.

[T]he re-branding seems only to add to the evidence that C Street and the Fellowship serve first and foremost as a way for Republican family values politicians to discreetly deal with their extra-marital affairs.

Politico reports that the Fellowship focuses on what its leaders call the "'up and out,' or powerful politicians struggling to confront their personal demons." And Hall, the former Democratic congressman, explained to Roll Call what he sees C Street as being for: "These men [Ensign, Sanford, and Pickering] are good men. They made mistakes and they're paying for it. And that's what these ministries are about."

That explanation ... makes clear that dealing with extra-marital affairs is absolutely central to C Street's purpose.

Which, of course, leads to another complicating angle. If lawmakers in this ministry turn to their fellow "Family" members for spiritual guidance, that's obviously a private matter. If, however, these lawmakers also turn to their fellow "Family" members to help cover up personal scandals -- say, with hush-money payments -- then we have members of Congress with first-hand knowledge about another member's wrongdoing.

Tom Coburn thinks "Fellowship" members don't have to talk about these matters. Whether he's right remains to be seen.

And if you missed it, Rachel Maddow had another great segment on C Street last night.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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AN EXTRA MONTH WON'T HELP.... This morning, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine became the fourth Republican senator to endorse Judge Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination, further reinforcing the fact that a GOP filibuster would be pointless and Sotomayor will be confirmed.

The question then becomes a matter of timing. The White House and Senate Democratic leaders see no reason to delay a confirmation vote, and intend to vote on Sotomayor before the Senate breaks for recess. At this point, most Senate Republicans don't see the value in pushing the matter off until September, either.

But for the GOP base, that's not good enough. (via Right Wing Watch)

"...[C]onservatives will not be happy if the GOP rolls over with regard to Obama's politically motivated goal of getting Sotomayor confirmed before the August recess," said Curt Levey, head of the conservative group Committee for Justice.

While some conservatives say that GOP senators effectively laid out inconsistencies in her testimony, activists want the slow-news month of August -- when Congress is on recess -- to build a campaign opposing her nomination.

Charmaine Yoest, head of the anti-abortion group Americans United for Life who testified against Sotomayor, said that an extra month would be helpful to her cause.

"The more time we have to educate people, the more we would continue to emphasize to people that a vote for her is a vote for abortion on demand without any restrictions whatsoever," Yoest said.

These groups really seem to believe that Sotomayor's confirmation is in doubt, and if they could just have a little more time, they can rally the troops and defeat the nomination.

I haven't the foggiest idea how or why they've reached this conclusion. It will be interesting, though, to see whether Republican senators try to go along with their demands.

Steve Benen 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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THE NOT-SO-MYSTERIOUS OMB DELAY.... Yesterday, the White House announced that the Office of Management and Budget's midsummer budget update is going to be delayed a bit. This wasn't especially surprising, but the AP reported, "The release of the update -- usually scheduled for mid-July -- has been put off until the middle of next month, giving rise to speculation the White House is delaying the bad news at least until Congress leaves town on its August 7 summer recess."

That's a little misleading. The only real "speculation" that the administration is trying to bury bad budget news is coming from the media and congressional Republicans. Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina, for example, said yesterday that President Obama "is refusing to release a critical report on the state of our economy, which contains facts essential to this debate. What is he hiding?"

Before these claims go too far around the bend, let's make note of reality here -- OMB midyear reports are frequently delayed during presidential transition years. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs explained this yesterday:

"Look, as happens in virtually every transition year in government, mid-year reviews tend to get pushed back because of the transition of moving people in and out of their former and current jobs. For instance, the mid-session review under the most previous administration took place on August 22. President Clinton's first year in office, the review was released on September the 1st.

"So I think the notion that this is somehow motivated by anything other than a transition from one administration to the next is a little on the silly side."

Those looking for a new scandal will have to look elsewhere.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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HAMMING IT UP.... Far-right blogs and Republican staffers thought they'd found a delicious new anecdote to attack the stimulus package. As is usually the case, they neglected to think it through before making themselves appear silly.

Drudge, running with contracts from the government's stimulus website, claimed that the Obama administration had spent, among other things, $1.19 million on two pounds of ham. Some conservative bloggers, following Drudge's lead, ran with the story. House Minority Leader John Boehner's (R-Ohio) office complained about the "pork" in the stimulus. Republicans sent "blast e-mails of screenshots from the Drudge Report, highlighting the contracts as wasteful spending."

By yesterday afternoon, the Department of Agriculture felt compelled to issue a statement, explaining how terribly wrong conservatives are about this.

Through the Recovery Act, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has made $100 million available to the states for The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which acquires food that is distributed to local organizations that assist the needy -- including food banks, food pantries, and soup kitchens.

The Recovery Act funds referenced in press reports allowed states to purchase ham, cheese and dairy products for these food banks, soup kitchens and food pantries that provide assistance to people who otherwise do not have access to food. This program will help reduce hunger of those hardest hit by the current economic recession.

The references to "2 pound frozen ham sliced" are to the sizes of the packaging. Press reports suggesting that the Recovery Act spent $1.191 million to buy "2 pounds of ham" are wrong. In fact, the contract in question purchased 760,000 pounds of ham for $1.191 million, at a cost of approximately $1.50 per pound. In terms of the dairy purchase referenced, USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA) purchased 837,936 pounds of mozzarella cheese and 4,039,200 pounds of processed cheese. The canned pork purchase was 8,424,000 pounds at a cost of $16,784,000, or approximately $1.99 per pound.

While the principal purpose of these expenditures is to provide food to those hardest hit by these tough times, the purchases also provide a modest economic benefit of benefiting Americans working at food retailers, manufacturers and transportation companies as well as the farmers and ranchers who produce our food supply.

In other words, the conservative activists who pounced on this were thoroughly confused about every relevant detail, including the underlying claim.

I'm curious, though, why these folks don't apply some critical thinking skills to stories like these. When a story seems outlandish, there are four simple words that I find helpful: "That can't be right."

Sure, I realize right-wing bloggers think the Obama administration is some kind of reckless spending machine, so they're inclined to believe the worst. But $1.19 million on just two pounds of ham? That didn't strike conservatives as implausible? Maybe something that warrants a closer look before publication?

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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WAY TO GO, SNOWE?.... If the Democratic campaign for health care reform is going to get any support from Republicans at all, the most likely GOP supporter is Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine. In April, the moderate Republican signaled, for example, at least some support for a public option.

What kind of follow-through can we expect from Snowe? Over the weekend, at a health care reform rally for 600 people in Maine, a staffer from Snowe's office read an official statement from the senator on her position. The statement was purportedly written by Snowe herself.

"Congress must implement long overdue insurance market reforms such as the guaranteed issue of a policy for every American and no refusal or adverse pricing of policies on the basis of health status or gender. We also must insure that those plans include a very strong benefit package, from preventative services to comprehensive medical benefits. And offering extra assistance to families who need help in affording a plan must be part and parcel of any legislation.

"I believe that the reforms we are creating will result in more competitive, affordable and innovative options for Mainers, yet we can all agree that we must not leave universal access to chance. That is why I also support a public plan which must be available from day one. [emphasis added]

"So I urge all of you here today to join me in partnership to secure for our nation that which every other developed nation already embraces, the provision of health security for all of its' citizens. The time has long come, and I promise you I will continue to work to move heaven and earth to make it happen."

Harold Pollack, who first reported the Snowe quote, reminds us not to be too encouraged by the remarks: "Senator Snowe's vision of the public plan option is pretty anemic. She is one of many centrists pushing for more time, which may slow or kill the momentum for a timely bill."

Quite right. But note that when Snowe wants to impress voters in Maine, she not only talks up reform, she sounds downright Schumer-like in endorsing a public option that's "available from day one." The vow, not surprisingly, drew considerable applause. To actually help make it happen would no doubt draw even more gratitude from voters.

There's obviously reason for skepticism here, but Snowe is in a position to make a real difference -- if she wants to. The senator sent the right message to her constituents over the weekend. Whether she follows through, and helps make reform a reality, is now up to her.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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July 20, 2009

MONDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* With 10 days left in July, this month is already the deadliest for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

* New warnings from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei against Iranian dissidents.

* Three weeks after having gone missing, Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl appeared on a Taliban video over the weekend.

* In a rather shocking display, conservative media figure Ralph Peters appeared on Fox News yesterday and, without proof, called Bergdahl "an apparent deserter." Peters added that the Taliban can "save us a lot of legal hassles and legal bills" by killing the American serviceman.

* Israel has not been swayed by Americans requests and will continue with its plans for a planned housing project in east Jerusalem.

* The new U.S. policy on targeting drug trafficking networks in Afghanistan gets a personnel boost.

* Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's trip to India appears to be off to a good start.

* Joe Lieberman told MSNBC today he thinks it's "impossible" to get health care reform through the Senate before the August recess. He neglected to mention that he's one of the reasons the deadline is likely out of reach.

* Defense Secretary Robert Gates plans to increase the size of the Army by 22,000.

* For the House Republican Conference to promote Rep. Todd Tiahrt's (R-Kan.) bizarre anti-abortion speech from last week is pretty ridiculous.

* Violent crime has fallen considerably in most major cities. No one's sure why.

* Lou Dobbs continues to embarrass himself and his employer.

* Audra Shay's election to head the Young Republicans National Federation is so wrong, it's even drawing fire from Joe Scarborough.

* On a related note, the list of conservative officials busted for sending racist emails keeps growing.

* The Apollo 11 crew gets a warm welcome at the White House.

* Remember Fox News' Brian Kilmeade's recent argument, lamenting the lack of racial purity in the United States? He apologized this morning.

* And I'd be remiss if I neglected to mention the passing of legendary journalist Walter Cronkite, who died late Friday at his home in New York. He was 92.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (64)

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KYL'S FAULTY MEMORY.... Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona believes President Obama isn't reaching out to Republicans as much as he used to.

President Obama has become more and more partisan since taking office, the second-ranking Senate Republican charged Monday.

"In the earliest days, he reached out in a bipartisan way to secure passage of administration priorities ... [b]ut the administration has become increasingly partisan in the months since then," Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said in a speech on the Senate floor.

Hmm, I don't remember the "earliest days" of Obama's presidency quite the same way. Obama "reached out in a bipartisan way to secure passage of administration priorities"? Well, he reached out in a bipartisan way, and found that Republicans had no interest in compromise or cooperation. The Senate passed the Lily Ledbetter Act over GOP opposition; the Senate passed the stimulus package over GOP opposition; the Senate passed the budget over GOP opposition; the Senate passed S-CHIP over GOP opposition; etc.

When, exactly, was this golden era?

For that matter, what's changed? The White House invested quite a bit of effort last week, reaching out to Republicans on health care reform, but couldn't find much in the way of support. That's fine, it's the opposition party; it's suppose to oppose the majority's agenda.

But I still don't know what Kyl is whining about here. Obama keeps seeking GOP support, and keeps finding an obstinate minority. Why would Kyl complain about that?

Steve Benen 4:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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WHAT THAT POST/ABC POLL DOES (AND DOES NOT) SAY.... I stopped by the Yahoo News page a few minutes ago and saw the lead headline at the top of the page that reads, "Public support slips for Obama's health plan, poll shows." It quoted a Reuters report that says:

Public support for President Barack Obama's handling of healthcare reform, the pillar of his legislative agenda, has fallen below 50 percent for the first time, a Washington Post-ABC News poll released on Monday said.

I realize the current media narrative is "public turns on health care reform," but let's clarify this a bit, because it's nearly as misleading as the political attacks that have weakened support for reform in the first place.

The Post-ABC poll asked Americans if they approve of President Obama's handling of various issues. While he enjoys majority support in some areas, 49% approve of his handling of health care, 44% do not.

But that doesn't necessarily reflect opposition to "Obama's health plan." Maybe the president's support on this issue has fallen to 49% because some Americans are disappointed Obama hasn't already pushed the bill through Congress. Maybe they don't like the way he's empowered lawmakers to take the lead in writing the bill. Who knows? The poll doesn't really tell us.

The poll does, however, tell us a few relevant details. For example, when given a choice on who Americans trust more on reforming the health care system, 54% prefer the president, while only 34% back congressional Republicans.

Even more important, when the basics of the plan are described to respondents, including Republican-friendly phrasing ("government-run"), a majority of Americans support the reform proposal. This was left out of the Reuters report altogether.

In an article about poll support for "Obama's health plan," Reuters ignored the only question in the poll about support for Obama's health plan. Odd.

Steve Benen 4:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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IN A WAY, IT IS STILL FRESH TODAY.... Over at "The Corner," Jonah Goldberg highlights this 1961 clip from Ronald Reagan, criticizing Medicare. Goldberg said Reagan's criticism of the landmark health care program is, nearly a half-century later, "still fresh today."

As Jonathan Chait explained, "This is true, but not in the way Goldberg thinks."

Listening to the recording now, it's kind of embarrassing to hear how very wrong Reagan's attacks on Medicare were at the time. In 1961, Reagan was a GE spokesperson, known for his conservative politics. When he lashed out at the idea of Medicare, it wasn't surprising, but it was the message itself that was so bizarre.

According to Reagan, Medicare would lead federal officials to dictate where physicians could practice medicine, and open the door to government control over where Americans were allowed to live. In fact, Reagan warned that if Medicare became law, there was a real possibility that the federal government would control where Americans go and what they do for a living.

In a line that may sound familiar to Sarah Palin fans, Reagan added, "[I]f you don't [stop Medicare] and I don't do it, one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it once was like in America when men were free."

With the benefit of hindsight, we now know these crazy warnings were completely wrong. As Chait put it:

You'd think conservatives would be embarrassed about this sort of talk. After all, can there be anybody who doesn't live in a militia compound who believes the passage of Medicare represented the death knell of that freedom in America? Does anybody think this business about the government dictating what city doctors live in has come true? Yet conservatives continue to trumpet it.

Why? Reagan's diatribe is "still fresh" because it's exactly the same sort of rhetoric conservatives employ against health care reform today. I imagine his readers are supposed to consider it "fresh" because they're supposed to substitute "Obamacare" in their head every time Reagan refers to Medicare. This allows them to sustain a mental condition wherein hysterical conservative predictions about the last social reform are forgotten in the specific, but remembered in the general and applied to the next social reform.

Reagan's misguided diatribe from 48 years ago also serves as a reminder that we hear the same arguments from conservatives, over and over again, every time real reform is on the table. Republicans, Fox News, and Limbaugh, for example, reflexively shout "socialized medicine" whenever the issue comes up -- just as the right has done for 75 years.

Steve Benen 3:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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WHOSE WATERLOO?.... ABC News' Jake Tapper reported over the weekend that the White House planned to use Sen. Jim DeMint's (R-S.C.) "waterloo" quote to their advantage in the health care reform debate.

Officials have apparently wasted no time in doing just that. Earlier today, speaking at the Children's Hospital in D.C., President Obama said, "Now, there are some in this town who are content to perpetuate the status quo, are in fact fighting reform on behalf of powerful special interests. There are others who recognize the problem, but believe -- or perhaps, hope -- that we can put off the hard work of insurance reform for another day, another year, another decade."

Without mentioning DeMint's name, the president made effective use of the right-wing senator's comment: "Just the other day, one Republican senator said -- and I'm quoting him now -- 'If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.' Think about that. This isn't about me. This isn't about politics. This is about a health care system that is breaking America's families, breaking America's businesses, and breaking America's economy.

"And we can't afford the politics of delay and defeat when it comes to health care. Not this time. Not now. There are too many lives and livelihoods at stake. There are too many families who will be crushed if insurance premiums continue to rise three times as fast as wages. There are too many businesses that will be forced to shed workers, scale back benefits, or drop coverage unless we get spiraling health care costs under control."

And while I believe it was Ben Smith who first reported the DeMint line, Greg Sargent today published a recording of the remark.

Greg concluded, "You'd think maybe DeMint's quote could end up being a Waterloo of sorts, wouldn't you?"

The homophone error in the title has been corrected. --Mod

Steve Benen 3:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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REFORM OPPONENTS CAN'T DO IT ALONE.... Last week, in a variety of television appearances, Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina said he'd like to see the health care reform push slow down. DeMint proceeded to tell a conservative conference call what he really hoped to accomplish: "If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him."

Today, RNC Chairman Michael Steele endorsed this approach.

At the end of the address he was asked by the Huffington Post whether he agreed with Sen. Jim DeMint's (R-S.C.) assessment that health care reform could be Obama's Waterloo -- a chance for the Republican Party to break the president politically. "I think that's a good way to put it," he responded.

There seems to be a pattern. If the right can force a delay, then the right can defeat reform and deliver a serious blow to the White House. It's the strategy GOP consultant and CNN personality Alex Castellanos presented for his party: "If we slow this sausage-making process down, we can defeat it."

Bill Kristol is obviously on board with this, saying today there will be "plenty of time to work [on health care] next year," just so long as Republicans "go for the kill" now.

The strategy is surprisingly transparent -- slow things down, kill real reform, crush Obama.

Now, as a tactical matter, this makes sense. DeMint, Steele, Castellanos, and Kristol are Republicans, who a) don't support health care reform; and b) are committed to undermining the majority party and the president. Opposition parties are supposed to oppose, so these characters are playing their appropriate role. (The real-world consequences for Americans and their families would be devastating, of course, if the GOP approach is successful, but I'm speaking only to the political strategy.)

I just like to point out, from time to time, that these folks can't succeed on their own. They simply don't have the votes. They can call for delays, changes, watered down bills, obstructionism, etc., but Democrats are in a position to finally reform health care anyway.

The only way for this Republican strategy to succeed -- literally, the only way -- is for Democrats to help them. The GOP has its plan, but no way to execute it effectively. They've already been turned out by the electorate.

Success or failure of health care reform will be dependent entirely on whether members of the governing party side with members of the minority party.

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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A TEST OF MIKE ROSS' COMMITMENT.... Over the last several days, Rep. Mike Ross' (D-Ark.) opinions on health care reform have become pretty important. Ross is, of course, a leading conservative Democrat, the chairman of the Blue Dog Health Care Task Force, and the man well positioned to help kill reform in the House, if he so chooses.

It's worth noting, then, that Ross said over the weekend that conservatives will be "sorely disappointed" if they're counting on Ross and his Blue Dog colleagues to kill health care reform.

[Ross] said that that the coalition would seek to "resuscitate" the House healthcare reform through amendments in the House Energy and Commerce Committee's markup of the bill this week.

"There's some folks from the right that have been calling my office very pleased that they perceive I'm trying to kill healthcare," Ross said during an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) on Saturday. "At the end of the day, I suspect they're going to be sorely disappointed, because none of us within the Blue Dog Coalition are trying to kill healthcare reform."

He added that he and other conservative Dems are "in no way ... watering down the bill."

Ross told Roll Call over the weekend, "One of the biggest reasons I ran for Congress was because I wanted to reform health care." He talked about "owning a family pharmacy" before entering politics, and seeing low-income Arkansans struggle with health care costs.

I'm not going to question Ross' sincerity. I do think his concerns about reform are contradictory and hard to decipher. I also think the congressman might question why it is, exactly, that folks on the right keep calling his office to thank him for trying to kill health care reform.

But in the end, either Ross and his Blue Dog colleagues will help make reform a reality or they won't. Either they'll play a constructive role or they won't. Either Ross will help carry the bill across the finish line or he'll help kill the best chance for reform in generations.

Ross says he's committed to reform and making this happen. Here's his chance to prove it.

Steve Benen 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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STEELE: 'I DON'T DO POLICY'.... I can appreciate why Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele appeared at the National Press Club this morning to bash the president and trash the idea of health care reform. It's a key week in the larger reform effort; President Obama is going to be pushing hard; and it stands to reason the RNC would take an active role in pushing back in the other direction.

But would it have killed Steele to read up a little bit on the issue before his appearance?

The RNC chairman said a plan that features competition between private and public insurance constitutes "socialism," which doesn't make any sense. Asked if Republicans support an individual requirement to get health care, he didn't understand the question. Steele said health care reform is part of the Democratic agenda to put "a big-government wish list on America's credit card," which sounded silly coming just a couple of days after the president once again vowed that reform would not add to the deficit.

At one point, the Republican Party chairman was asked about a CBO score that said the war in Iraq would cost $2.75 trillion, while his party fears health care reform that costs less than half that. Steele replied that health care is different because "the costs of health care is something up close and right here."

Eventually, Steele more or less conceded that he didn't know what he was talking about..

[H]is address was short on details. Pressed repeatedly during the question and answer session why the GOP had not actually released its plan for health care reform -- and then on specific policy proposals -- Steele demurred to his GOP colleagues in Congress.

"Look I don't do policy," he said. "I'm not a legislator. My point in coming here was to establish a tone."

But if Steele doesn't "do policy," then maybe he shouldn't host a press event in which he tries to discuss policy. Or perhaps he should read remarks about policy written by someone else, and then leave before asked to explore his position in any real detail.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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A CONVERSATION ON INNOVATIVE ENTREPRENEURSHIP.... In the previous issue of the Washington Monthly, we had a special report on entrepreneurship. The New America Foundation is hosting a discussion right now from their D.C. offices.

The featured speakers include Paul Glastris, the Washington Monthly's Editor-in-Chief; Robert Litan, Vice President for Research and Policy at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation; Monthly editor Mariah Blake; and Wired senior editor and NAF Fellow Nicholas Thompson. The discussion will be moderated by David Gray, director of the New America Foundation's Workforce and Family Program.

Here's a live webcast for those who cannot attend the event.

Steve Benen 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (3)

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MONDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP....Today's installment of campaign-related news items that wouldn't generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers.

* As expected, Rep. Mark Kirk (R) is now officially a U.S. Senate candidate in Illinois.

* On a related note, Kirk was prepared to walk away from the campaign if he had to face a primary challenge, but as it turns out, Kirk's plan didn't go well. He's slated to face former Judge Don Lowery in a GOP primary, though I assume Lowery will be pressured to stand aside.

* Heating up in Pennsylvania: "Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) spent his first two months as a Democrat quietly introducing himself to his new party colleagues. Now that he's made some headway, the former Republican has come out guns blazing against one of them -- Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), the two-term congressman who refuses to concede the Democratic Senate nomination."

* And speaking of Pennsylvania, Gov. Ed Rendell (D) still wants Sestak to skip the primary race.

* Using Twitter this morning, New Jersey gubernatorial hopeful Chris Christie (R) announced Sheriff Kim Guadagno will be his running mate.

* The recent sex scandal has not been good for Sen. John Ensign's (R) standing in his home state of Nevada. A poll by the Las Vegas Review-Journal shows his approval rating down to 31%. More encouraging for the senator, though, were results showing that a majority of Nevada residents do not believe he should resign.

* In statewide campaigns, Florida Democrats haven't had much to cheer about in a long while. There are some early signs, however, that the party will enter 2010 stronger than usual.

* The stage is just about set for next year's gubernatorial campaign in New Mexico.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (5)

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FISCAL HYPOCRISY.... Yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell addressed the costs of health care reform. "If you're going to do something as comprehensive as the president wants to do," the Kentucky Republican said, "you ought to pay for it."

Jonathan Cohn agrees, but finds McConnell sudden interest in fiscal responsibility interesting.

...It's important that reform pay for itself. Still, I don't recall McConnell being quite so insistent about fiscal responsibility when he voted for the Bush tax cuts. Nor do I recall him agitating for tax increases to pay for the war with Iraq. In fact, I'm pretty sure most Republicans had very little use for arguments about fiscal responsibility when it was their initiatives on the agenda.

Gee, could it be that McConnell and the Republicans just don't care what happens to people when they can't pay for their medical care?

The record is strikingly clear. When Bush/Cheney slashed taxes by well over $1 trillion, Republicans said there was no reason to worry about paying for it. When Bush/Cheney started the war in Afghanistan, Republicans said there was no reason to worry about paying for it. When Bush/Cheney started the war in Iraq, Republicans said there was no reason to worry about paying for it. When Bush/Cheney added Medicare Part D, Republicans said there was no reason to worry about paying for it.

It's not that their efforts at paying for it came up short, it's that they didn't even try. The notion of fiscal responsibility was simply deemed irrelevant -- an inconvenient detail for unnamed people in the future to worry about.

And now, these exact same policymakers are, with a straight face, complaining bitterly about the fiscal habits of Democrats who are -- in case anyone's forgotten -- actually trying to pay for much-needed health care reform.

There's just one angle I'd add to this, though. While Cohn is clearly right about the selective concerns from McConnell and congressional Republicans, let's also not forget that there are a handful of Democrats who have the same problem. Ben Nelson and Max Baucus, for example, both voted for Bush's tax cuts, funding for both of the Bush-launched wars, and spending on Bush's Medicare Part D, without so much as a hint about how to pay for them.

Now, Nelson and Baucus are suddenly deeply concerned about whether the country can really afford health care reform, and in Nelson's case, whether Democrats should even be allowed to vote on their own reform plan in the Senate.

It's maddening.

Steve Benen 11:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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OH, NOW THERE'S A 'CHORUS'.... Newsweek has a good piece in its new issue on economist Joseph Stiglitz and the fact that the White House hasn't sought his input much, despite his prescient understanding of the global financial meltdown. It's worth reading.

There was one paragraph, though, that caught my eye.

Stiglitz had been hammering at Obama's economic team for its handling of the financial crisis. He wrote that the stimulus program was too small to be effective -- a criticism that has since swelled into a chorus, though Obama says he's not adding more money.

Oh, sure. Now the media has noticed there's a "chorus" that says the stimulus package wasn't big enough. There was a sizable group saying the same thing in January and February, but they were ignored, especially by major news outlets, who turned instead to Republicans over and over again.

While the debate was ongoing, the political establishment considered this a fight pitting those who supported the stimulus as it was against those who wanted it to be smaller. The "chorus" that was correct -- the ones calling for a bigger, more ambitious stimulus -- was not part of the equation, and the dynamic led to a weaker recovery effort, thanks to demands from moderate Senate Republicans. (To this day, we hear GOP lawmakers complaining about Obama's "$1 trillion stimulus," despite the fact that the stimulus was nowhere near $1 trillion.)

The criticism hasn't necessarily "swelled into a chorus"; the chorus' members have been there the whole time, wondering why no one took their prescient advice seriously.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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KRISTOL: PARTY LIKE IT'S 1994.... Everyone no doubt remembers Bill Kristol's now-infamous advice to congressional Republicans when then-President Bill Clinton pushed health care reform in 1993 and 1994. Kristol said the GOP should overlook the policy and the consequences for Americans, and just "kill" the initiative outright. To do otherwise would be to risk more Democratic gains, and put Republicans in a difficult position indefinitely.

With that in mind, it's worth noting that Kristol is offering similar advice once again. Here's the Weekly Standard editor this morning.

With Obamacare on the ropes, there will be a temptation for opponents to let up on their criticism, and to try to appear constructive, or at least responsible. There will be a tendency to want to let the Democrats' plans sink of their own weight, to emphasize that the critics have been pushing sound reform ideas all along and suggest it's not too late for a bipartisan compromise over the next couple of weeks or months.

My advice, for what it's worth: Resist the temptation. This is no time to pull punches. Go for the kill. [...]

Throw the kitchen sink at the legislation now on the table, drive a stake through its heart (I apologize for the mixed metaphors), and kill it.

This isn't the identical message from '93. Then, in a private memo, Kristol made no effort to hide his motivations -- Republicans, for their own good, had to put the party's interests above the country's. The GOP had to stop the Democratic reform campaign because it was a Democratic reform campaign.

Today's message, in a public post instead of a private memo, is at least framed in a less callous way. Kristol ostensibly believes the Democratic proposal(s) are wrong, and believes once the current reform efforts are destroyed, then the political world can rally behind a Republican-style reform package that protects insurance companies and protects the very wealthy from an additional tax burden.

I can hardly wait.

Kristol concluded, "We have plenty of time to work next year on sensible and targeted health reform in a bipartisan way."

Spare me. Bill Kristol is suddenly concerned with "bipartisan" solutions to health care? For crying out loud, does Kristol actually expect people to take this seriously?

Steve Benen 9:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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PELOSI SIGNALS MOVEMENT ON SURTAX.... As of last week, most of the House Democratic leadership was prepared to pay for health care reform with a graduated surcharge, or "surtax," on the very wealthiest Americans. As written, it would apply to only 1.2% of Americans, leaving the vast majority unaffected.

Yesterday, House Speaker Pelosi signaled her willingness to narrow this even more.

Trying to sell a historic health bill to a balky caucus, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told POLITICO in an interview that she wants to soften a proposed surcharge on the wealthy so that it applies only to families that make $1 million or more.

The change could help mollify the conservative Democrats who expect to have a tough time selling the package back home. Their support is the single biggest key to meeting the speaker's goal of having health care reform pass the House by the August recess.

The bill now moving through the House would raise taxes for individuals with annual adjusted gross incomes of $280,000, or families that make $350,000 or more.

"I'd like it to go higher than it is," Pelosi said Friday.

The speaker would like the trigger raised to $500,000 for individuals and $1 million for families, "so it's a millionaire's tax," she said. "When someone hears, '2,' they think, 'Oh, I could be there,' because they don't know the $280,000 is for one person.

"It sounds like you're in the neighborhood. So I just want to remove all doubt. You hear '$500,000 a year,' you think, 'My God, that's not me.'"

The details of this are a little unclear. Would Pelosi seek higher surcharges on millionaires, or seek additional revenue streams to make up the difference?

Either way, part of me wonders whether this was the goal all along -- start with a surtax on families that make $350,000 or more, wait for the uproar, and then negotiate the figure upwards.

Whether this will constitute welcome progress among Blue Dogs remains to be seen.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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PRESIDENT'S SUPPORT STILL SOFTENING.... A new Washington Post-ABC News poll offers some discouraging news for the White House, but not all of the news was bad.

Overall, President Obama's approval rating stands at 59%, similar to the latest results from Gallup. It's the first time he's slipped below the 60% plateau in this poll, but all things being equal, 59% is still fairly strong support. The president's approval ratings on specific issue areas has slipped -- his strongest support is on U.S. policy in Afghanistan, his weakest is in dealing with the budget deficit -- but his leadership attributes remain high.


The president's GOP detractors will no doubt be pleased by these results, but on some key areas, Obama is still strongly favored over Republicans. While the gaps have narrowed a bit, the president has a 23-point lead over the minority part on economic policy, a 20-point lead on health care, and a 19-point lead on the deficit. Overall, just 36% approve of how Republicans in Congress are doing their job -- 11 percentage points lower than the congressional majority.

By comparison, at this point in Clinton's first term, Republicans were far more competitive -- Clinton led the GOP, for example, on the economy by just five points (45% to 40%) at this point in 1993.

Specifically on health care, poll respondents were asked, "Thinking about health care, one proposal to insure nearly everyone would require all Americans to have health insurance or pay a penalty on their income tax, excluding those with lower incomes. It would require most employers to offer health coverage or pay a fee. There would be a government-run plan to compete with private insurers. And income taxes on people earning more than 280-thousand dollars a year would be raised to help fund the program. Taken together, would you support or oppose this plan? Do you feel that way strongly or somewhat?"

Despite the wording of the question, 54% said they support this plan as it was described. The support was higher among Democrats and independents.

Overall, it's obvious that Obama's support has slipped, which is not surprising. Economic conditions are still awful in much of the country; the president has not had a major legislative success story in a while; and it's understandable that the public would start to feel anxious and impatient.

But in context, a 59% approval rating is quite strong under the circumstances, and Obama's leads over the GOP should send a signal to policymakers about which direction the nation would prefer to go.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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REJECTING THE IDEA OF AN OVERHAUL.... Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky was on "Meet the Press" yesterday, talking about his opposition to the health care reform proposal(s). That's fine; he's the opposition leader. Of course he's going to oppose the majority's agenda.

But what I found interesting was the way in which McConnell defended the structure of the status quo.

"[W]e have the finest health care in the world now. We need to focus on the two problems that we have, cost and access, not sort of scrap the entire healthcare system of the United States. [...]

"So let's focus on access and cost and not try to scrap the whole system."

Hearing this reminded me quite a bit of John McCain insisting that the "fundamentals of the economy are strong" just as the economy was collapsing last fall. McConnell argued that the fundamentals of the health care system are fine. He didn't go quite as far as Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who argued we have the finest health care system since the dawn of time, but McConnell continues to think the system is, at its core, fine. A few tax cuts here, a few tax cuts there, throw in some restrictions on lawsuits, and voila, problem solved. There's no need for major change, when some tinkering will get the job done.

McConnell proceeded to complain bitterly about the shortcomings of the Canadian system -- which has no relevance, since the Democratic plan in no way resembles the Canadian model -- and talk about the "billions" we're wasting on "junk lawsuits."

When David Gregory asked about the 47 million Americans go without health insurance, McConnell replied, "Well, they don't go without health care," because they can just go to the emergency room.

In other words, the Senate Minority Leader just fundamentally disagrees with the very idea of overhauling the system. That's certainly his right. But perhaps this should serve as a reminder to the Senate majority -- Republicans don't want health care reform. Making a plan worse just to satisfy their demands doesn't make any sense.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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July 19, 2009

WITH SO MUCH ON THE LINE.... In 1993, Bill Kristol privately advised congressional Republicans to do whatever it took to "kill" the Clinton health care reform initiative. It wasn't that the policy proposal was a bad idea; it was that passage would help the Democratic Party for years to come. The GOP, he said, for the sake of its own future, couldn't compromise or negotiate with the majority.

Sixteen years later, a wide variety of Democrats are working hard to convince Republicans to support reform, despite the built-in incentive for seeing reform fail. Mark Kleiman noted that a few too many Democrats seem to have forgotten the recent past, and worse, seem oblivious to the larger electoral dynamic.

For Gingrich and his allies, the health care debate wasn't really about health care: it was about destroying the power of a Democratic President.

It's not surprising that the Republicans have remembered that lesson, but it's disappointing that the "centrist" Democrats have forgotten it. This bill is make or break for the Democratic Party....

Matt Yglesias added:

In 1993, we had a new president elected on a promise of providing access to high-quality affordable health care to all Americans. In 1994, that promise went down in flames. The result of that failure was not only substantively bad, but politically disastrous for Democrats. Now it's 2009 and we have a new president elected on a promise of providing access to high-quality affordable health care for all Americans. It's pretty clear that Republicans remember that dealing a humiliating blow to said president by blocking reform will be politically useful to them.

And it's curious that many centrist Democrats -- particular those now eager to delay action on a bill and give special interests and the right more time to kill it -- don't seem to remember this.

All of this sounds about right. Republicans don't want to reform the health care system and don't want President Obama to be the president who finally delivers the overhaul Americans have been waiting for over the last several decades. The GOP has every possible reason to see this initiative fail, but that hasn't stopped some Democrats from a) insisting that Republican support for a reform effort they oppose is paramount; and b) making it easier to see their own party's efforts fail.

It occurs to me, then, that there's at least a possibility that "centrist" Democrats -- Blue Dogs, New Democrats, Lieberman, et al -- might not see failure as such a horrible option here. In other words, they may realize that coming up short on health care, letting this opportunity slip away, and hurting millions of Americans in the process may be devastating for the Democratic majority, but these same "centrist" Democrats may prefer a smaller majority, or perhaps even a GOP majority to "balance" the Democratic president. They may very well disagree with the party's leadership on most issues, and think the best course of action is taking away their power by undermining the party's agenda.

It seems odd that these "centrist" Democrats would forget the lessons of 1993 and 1994. But alternatively, are we sure they have forgotten those lessons, or have they learned those lessons all too well?

Steve Benen 12:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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ORSZAG SETS THE RECORD STRAIGHT.... Fox News' Chris Wallace asked OMB Director Peter Orszag this morning if the administration will be "rationing" health care by establishing a commission of doctors and medical experts to oversee medical practices. Orszag, thankfully, called this a "canard" and pointed to the status quo.

"The fact of the matter is, right now, politicians and insurance companies are making decisions," Orszag explained. "We're saying, we want doctors to be making decisions."

Wallace said once these physicians start "making decisions," they'll be in the business of telling consumers which medical treatments they can and cannot have. So, Orszag turned the question around: "Do you think that politicians are currently rationing care? Or insurance companies are currently rationing care? There are no set of decisions that this commission would have that is not currently resting with either members of Congress or insurance companies."

Now, Orszag rejected the idea that the status quo, in fact, "rations" medical care. I disagree with that. But his larger point is fair -- if the current system is already rationing care, then the concerns about doctors and medical experts overseeing medical practices would itself be a valuable improvement on the status quo.

Expect to have this come up quite a bit. On "Meet the Press," David Gregory asked HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius if federal bureaucrats may not want to pay for some medical procedures.

It may not happen to hosts of national news programs much, but in reality, plenty of Americans find that their insurance companies decide not to pay for treatments all the time. In fact, they have a financial incentive to do just that.

Who gave media anchors the idea that insurance companies reflexively approve payments on everything?

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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THE APOLOGY TOUR CONTINUES.... South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) has spent a whole lot of time apologizing lately, but he apparently believes repetition is the key to forgiveness. Today, the scandal-plagued conservative, who I believe is in the midst of yet another vacation from his duties, has an 800-word op-ed in The State, South Carolina's largest newspaper, in order to let folks know he's still really, really sorry.

Most of the piece details all of the many valuable lessons Sanford has learned since he humiliated himself. He's gained "perspective" and learned "what really matters." He's come to realize that "forgiveness and grace really do matter." He's been "humbled and broken as never before," which in turn will make him "a better father, husband, friend and advocate."

So, anything in there about the governor bowing out gracefully? Apparently not.

It's in the spirit of making good from bad that I am committing to you and the larger family of South Carolinians to use this experience both to trust God in his larger work of changing me and, from my end, to work to becoming a better and more effective leader.

I think all that has transpired will be particularly relevant in the way I deal with the legislative body and other state leaders going forward. Micah 6:8 asks us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly, and as I begin these steps into the last 18 months of this administration, it will indeed be with a more contrite and humble spirit.

I've realized that as much as I have and will continue to advocate for things ranging from restructuring to responsible spending to school choice, my approach needs to be less about my will and more about looking for ways to more humbly present the greater principals [sic] and ideas at play.

Sanford will, in other words, keep pushing the same conservative agenda, but this time, with a meeker, "less strident" persona. The embarrassment -- for Sanford and the state -- will continue.

It's not altogether clear what the point of the op-ed is. Politically, Sanford was likely to keep his job anyway, now that his party is prepared to "move on" and talk of impeachment has subsided.

Presumably, the goal was to just keep the apologies coming, while letting the political world know that the governor won't go away until his term is complete.

Steve Benen 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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WHAT BOUSTANY CONSIDERS AN 'INTERESTING DEVELOPMENT'.... The demands of conservative Blue Dog Democrats in health care reform have been odd and contradictory. But their capacity to kill this rare opportunity remains great, and they can still make matters even worse.

Some centrist House Democrats have reached out to Republicans to explore breaking with their party leadership on healthcare and crafting a reform bill with the rival GOP, one congressman claimed Saturday.

Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) asserted that an "interesting development" is taking place underway that, if true, could effectively remove Democratic leadership from the driver's seat on healthcare reform legislation in the House.

"There's an interesting development occurring behind the scenes, wherein moderate Democrats -- so-called "Blue Dog" Democrats -- and business-friendly new Democrats are actually starting to have conversations with us to build a coalition from the center outward, to actually really come up with substantive and well-founded healthcare reform," Boustany said during an appearance on Fox News. "And that's the only way to do this."

Really? That's the "only" way to reform the system? For conservatives in one party to join up with conservatives in the other party, in order to undermine months of progress? Funny, I can think of other ways to reform the broken system.

Boustany added that "Republicans agree" with the idea of health care reform, just so long as it "doesn't disrupt the whole system."

In other words, Boustany and other conservatives will make sure the status quo (read: insurance companies) is protected. Again.

And thanks to the so-called "Gang of Six" and their demands for delays, opponents of real reform will have all of August to make this rare opportunity that much more difficult.

Steve Benen 9:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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JERRY JONES, HELPING 'THE COUNTRY AND THIS WORLD'.... The NFL's Dallas Cowboys are poised to begin playing in a rather extraordinary new building. The stadium is 3 million square feet, and triple the size of the team's old home. It cost $1.12 billion to construct.

But Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, whose $1.6 billion team is the most valuable in American sports, turned to local taxpayers to give the franchise a hand.

[Jones] said repeatedly during a lengthy interview that he was sensitive to his fans' economic woes -- although he has not cut prices. He said he was also sensitive to criticism that Arlington had better ways to spend its $325 million contribution from tax increases than to guarantee that Jones, a rich oilman, could get richer with more revenue from the new stadium.

"The mayor sold out and the council went right along," said James Runzheimer, a local lawyer who opposed the tax increase passed in November 2004 during better economic days. "We don't provide basic infrastructure, yet we subsidize a team."

Jones says Cowboys Stadium will be its own stimulus package that will help "the country and this world" dig out of the recession.

Is that so. A building in Arlington, Texas, is going to improve not only the economic conditions of the United States, but also the world.

Somehow, I seriously doubt that. Indeed, the NYT noted, "[M]ost studies show little economic impact from new stadiums." Dave Brockington added, "The common argument forwarded by proponents, that the stadium itself serves as an economic motor for the neighborhood, city, region, and even state, has rarely found support in the literature."

What's more, the local community used eminent domain to clear the area of residential and commercial property. Jones boasts that the affected landowners "came out really well on eminent domain," neglecting to note that they would have been screwed if they hadn't hired good lawyers to help them get better compensation.

I'm also curious about just how many families in the area will even be able to afford a ticket. Prices in the taxpayer-subsidized facility range from $59 to $340 a game.

One can, however, purchase tickets to stand on platforms and staircases above the end zones for $29 a head.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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GATES' TIME FRAME FOR AFGHANISTAN.... Following up on Peter Bergen's much-discussed piece in the July/August issue of the Washington Monthly on U.S. policy in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates elaborated for the first time yesterday on his own expectations for progress in the war-torn country.

After eight years, U.S.-led forces must show progress in Afghanistan by next summer to avoid the public perception that the conflict has become unwinnable, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in a sharp critique of the war effort.

Gates said that victory was a "long-term prospect" under any scenario and that the U.S. would not win the war in a year's time. However, U.S. forces must begin to turn the situation around in a year, he said, or face the likely loss of public support.

"After the Iraq experience, nobody is prepared to have a long slog where it is not apparent we are making headway," Gates said in an interview. "The troops are tired; the American people are pretty tired."

Gates did not elaborate on what, exactly, would happen if conditions in Afghanistan have not improved a year from now, but the Defense Secretary nevertheless talked about the time frame he has in mind for progress in the country, defended the new U.S. policy that offers promise after deterioration in recent years, and conceded that an indefinite war is untenable -- politically and strategically.

On a related note, the Washington Post's Pamela Constable had a very interesting piece on Afghanistan yesterday, highlighting some of the recent changes in the country, at least as far as our efforts are concerned.

When the U.S. Marines burst into Khan Neshin with guns blazing early this month, they quickly defeated insurgent forces in the volatile district of southern Helmand province and declared it Taliban-free.

But the military assault also left a void that urgently needed to be filled and a host of problems that posed very different challenges. There was no sign of official services or control in the long-conflicted region: no aid agencies, no judges to settle land disputes and no officials to register voters for presidential elections next month.

The Marines, drawing on their experiences in Iraq and working closely with British forces and newly arrived teams of U.S. civilian specialists, did not let Khan Neshin languish for long. Within several days they had sent in a small international "stabilization team," installed a new Afghan district governor and raised an Afghan flag in the central market.

"This fight must not be focused on the Taliban but on the people," said Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marine expeditionary force in Helmand, speaking Thursday at a base near this provincial capital. As soon as an area is cleared of insurgents, he said, "the key is how to quickly reach into a community that has been terrorized, that is not sure whether the Taliban will come back and whether we will stay."

This is, of course, one story from one area, which U.S. officials hope will serve as a "model" for a broader new policy. But the Afghan government is still struggling, services are still scarce, and a new U.S. approach to disrupting the poppy trade by focusing on interdiction of drug traffickers is "trickier and more dangerous" than the previous eradication policy.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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July 18, 2009

NOT BACKING DOWN.... Following up on the last item, here's the provocative line from President Obama's multimedia address this morning:

"I don't believe that government can or should run health care. But I also don't think insurance companies should have free reign to do as they please. That's why any plan I sign must include an insurance exchange: a one-stop shopping marketplace where you can compare the benefits, cost and track records of a variety of plans -- including a public option to increase competition and keep insurance companies honest -- and choose what's best for your family."

Now, for the last several weeks, administration officials have walked a careful line on this. The president and his team have said they'd like a public option, they support a public option, and they believe a public option makes sense. When asked, however, whether they'd still support a reform package even if it doesn't have a public option, the White House tends to say, "We don't want to draw any lines in the sand."

This morning, we heard a different message. These weekly addresses are written pretty carefully -- it's not just the president riffing or speaking extemporaneously during a media interview -- and it seems pretty clear that "any plan" that reaches the president's desk "must include" an exchange with consumer options, and those choices need to include a public option.

The president didn't include an explicit veto threat, but it's my understanding that "any plan" and "must include" are phrases meant to serve as a step forward on White House policy.

Also note the larger context here. With skeptical Blue Dogs, CBO pushback, and Senate "centrists" slamming on the brakes, one might expect the administration to start abandoning key priorities and preparing to accept a watered down package that would be easier to pass.

Instead, we have OFA taking out ads targeting Senate Dems and House Dems, while the president is making it pretty clear that he expects to see the very same public option that Republicans and "centrists" have a problem with.

Obama, in other words, is pushing back. When one might expect him to start walking back expectations, he's playing a little hardball. Good.

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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FACT-CHECKER IN CHIEF.... President Obama had a few interesting things to say about health care reform in his weekly multi-media address today, his fifth in the last seven weeks to emphasize the importance of reforming the system.

The president noted, for example, the importance of "seizing this opportunity," and ignoring "the same special interests and their agents in Congress" who make "the same old arguments, and use the same scare tactics that have stopped reform before because they profit from this relentless escalation in health care costs." Obama did not, however, reference the pre-recess August deadline, which now appears practically impossible.

But it was more important to see the president play the role of fact-checker. He noted that Americans are bound to hear a lot of talk and see a lot of ads attacking reform, and realized that some "might begin to wonder whether there's a grain of truth to what they're saying." So, Obama highlighted some of the more common talking points, only to knock them down.

"First, the same folks who controlled the White House and Congress for the past eight years as we ran up record deficits will argue -- believe it or not -- that health reform will lead to record deficits," he said. "That's simply not true. Our proposals cut hundreds of billions of dollars in unnecessary spending and unwarranted giveaways to insurance companies in Medicare and Medicaid. They change incentives so providers will give patients the best care, not just the most expensive care, which will mean big savings over time. And we have urged Congress to include a proposal for a standing commission of doctors and medical experts to oversee cost-saving measures. [...]

"Those who oppose reform will also tell you that under our plan, you won't get to choose your doctor -- that some bureaucrat will choose for you. That's also not true. Michelle and I don't want anyone telling us who our family's doctor should be -- and no one should decide that for you either. Under our proposals, if you like your doctor, you keep your doctor. If you like your current insurance, you keep that insurance. Period, end of story.

"Finally, opponents of health reform warn that this is all some big plot for socialized medicine or government-run health care with long lines and rationed care. That's not true either. I don't believe that government can or should run health care. But I also don't think insurance companies should have free reign to do as they please. That's why any plan I sign must include an insurance exchange: a one-stop shopping marketplace where you can compare the benefits, cost and track records of a variety of plans - including a public option to increase competition and keep insurance companies honest - and choose what's best for your family."

Now, that last point is of particular interest, because it might be new. The president said reform has to include an insurance exchange, which shouldn't face too much resistance on the Hill. But he also said the exchange should feature a public option.

Is this a new line in the sand, saying that reform must feature a public option in order to get his signature? I'm honestly not sure. An insurance exchange could, in theory, include nothing but private plans. Maybe the two points -- an exchange and a public plan -- were meant to be connected in a new way, maybe not.

I'm working on getting clarification on the issue. Either way, the weekly address sounded just about all of the right notes.

Steve Benen 11:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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THE CBO'S WORD IS GOSPEL, EXCEPT WHEN IT ISN'T.... This week, the Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf helped push health care reform off track. Republicans seized on CBO cost concerns to argue that the nation simply can't afford the reform proposal.

I've noted on a few occasions lately that Republican lawmakers love the CBO, just so long as the office is telling them what they want to hear. When the CBO challenges GOP assumptions, the office is, in Eric Cantor's words, "losing its credibility."

Sam Stein adds to this with a great example from 2003.

Perhaps the biggest caution flag for treating CBO numbers as gospel -- and one of the more illuminating benchmarks from which to compare the current debate over health care costs -- is the Iraq War.

In October 2003, the CBO was asked to do a study about the costs of the Iraq War. According to varying scenarios of troop deployment the total price tag ranged from $85 billion to $200 billion over a ten-year period. A year later, the projected costs had risen further. Having already spent $123 billion, the CBO was now estimating that the prosecution of both Iraq and Afghanistan would total roughly $1.1 trillion over the subsequent ten years. [...]

By 2007, as the Iraq War had spiraled out of control, and with the surge of troops just beginning to take place, the price tag had jumped even more dramatically. The CBO was now projecting that the government would have to spend as much as $1.7 trillion over the next ten years on Iraq and Afghanistan. With interest, the number rose to $2.4 trillion -- $1.9 trillion of which was for Afghanistan alone.

Certainly, the costs of a war -- especially one as poorly managed as Iraq -- are far more difficult to predict than that for health care legislation. But, at the same time it is worth noting that the 2007 CBO projection for the ten-year cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are roughly double the prospective 10-year cost projections for health care reform.

Now, it's possible that, in 2003, these Republican policymakers simply didn't trust the Congressional Budget Office to provide accurate cost estimates. It's also possible that they simply didn't care -- the war was so important and worthwhile, the U.S. should pay any price and borrow any sum just to make it possible. The war, in other words, was necessary.

Either way, it casts Republican credibility on CBO estimates in an interesting light six years later.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is concern in some religious right corners over expansion of federal hate-crimes law. Democrats in Congress are moving on including protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans, and the legislation is progressing nicely. The expansion has been endorsed by the Obama Justice Department, and the White House has said the president will sign the bill into law.

U.S. News' Dan Gilgoff reports this week that some conservative religious groups aren't just throwing a fit, they're making bogus claims intended to scare other faith communities.

[C]onservative Christian groups, who've led the charge against expanding the federal hate crimes law since the mid-1990s, are stepping up warnings that the bill threatens religious liberties, including the freedom of clergy to condemn homosexuality. "What you say from the pulpit could literally become illegal," the Family Research Council wrote in a recent letter to pastors. The conservative Alliance Defense Fund has received more calls and E-mails on what the hate crimes bill means for pastors than on any other issue in recent months.

As religious conservatives mount a last-ditch effort to derail the bill, however, legal experts say the legislation narrowly focuses on violent acts and that pastors' speech remains protected by the First Amendment. And some religious activists acknowledge that they're less concerned about the immediate effects of expanding hate crimes protections than about the broader message it sends.

"This is the first time you would have written into law a government disapproval of a religious belief held by the majority of Americans -- that homosexuality is sinful," says Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund. "It's more of a slippery slope argument than about the law itself."

That's at least more intellectually honest than telling faith communities, "The government will penalize you if you're a pastor who criticizes gays from your pulpit." I find the slippery slope argument to be wildly unpersuasive -- a slippery slope towards what, exactly? -- but I'm glad to see at least some acknowledgement that the talking points warning of dire consequences are baseless.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* The issue of religious liberty came up briefly during Judge Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings this week. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) brought up a case in which she ruled that a prison violated a Muslim inmate's rights when officials denied him access to religious meals marking the end of Ramadan. Sotomayor explained, "[I]t is a very important and central part of our democratic society that we do give freedom of religion, the practice of religion, that the Constitution restricts the state from establishing a religion, and that we have freedom of expression in speech, as well." That's not much to go on, but it seemed at least relatively encouraging.

* In Connecticut, a Roman Catholic diocese has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to consider whether it can keep sex abuse documents hidden from public view. A state court has ordered the Bridgeport Diocese to release more than 12,000 pages of documents resulting from more than 20 lawsuits. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, church officials believe they have a First Amendment right to keep the materials, which help document how church leaders handled abuse allegations, from the public.

* And Episcopal bishops had a big debate this week on gay marriage, and ended up giving "latitude" to bishops who wish to bless same-sex unions, especially in states that have embraced marriage-equality laws. The Episcopal Church declined, however, to develop an official rite for gay marriage.

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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OFA EYES HOUSE DEMS, TOO.... On Wednesday, Organizing for America, the outgrowth of the Obama presidential campaign, launched its first television ad, targeting senators in eight targeted states: Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Ohio. It wasn't subtle. The ad might as well have begun, "Dear Sens. Lincoln, Martinez, Bayh, Landrieu, Nelson, Snowe, Collins, Conrad, and Voinovich...."

As it turns out, senators aren't the only ones being targeted. Ben Smith reported last night, "The ad doesn't say this, but a look at the media markets indicates that the White House political operation hasn't backed off targeting Democrats -- and indeed, has stepped up that program. The ad will appear in 15 markets, all of them within districts of members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the key body for a health care bill. All 15 are occupied by members seen as swing voters inside the committee, and 12 of those 15 members are Democrats."

Smith added, "The markets where the ad will run, according to the DNC press release, are: Savannah, Palm Springs, Seattle, Nashville, Bloomington, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Charlotte, Little Rock, Columbus, Marquette, Grand Rapids and Medford."

To a certain extent, it may seem discouraging that Organizing for America and the DNC have to worry about Democratic votes at all. After all, at this point, with this historic opportunity within reach, one would like to think Dems would be on the same page, and wouldn't need pressure to do the right thing.

But there are conservative Dems on the Hill, and their reluctance to change is obvious. I'm glad OFA isn't hesitating to lean on these, shall we say, skeptics of reform. They're certainly going to get plenty of pressure from the right, so perhaps these ads will help establish some kind of lobbying equilibrium.

Steve Benen 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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THEATRICAL, BUT NOT EDUCATIONAL.... The confirmation hearings for Judge Sonia Sotomayor produced quite a bit of political theater in the Senate this week, and all the players put on a good show. But after watching the proceedings carefully all week, Slate's Dahlia Lithwick explained that no one has actually learned anything about the Supreme Court nominee.

The fact that almost everybody in the media has interpreted these four days of hearings in precisely the same way tells me this was really outstanding scripted television. There's no ambiguity about what happened here this week -- only a lingering question about whether the "real" Sonia Sotomayor is best divined by looking at her judicial record or a line from her speeches. We can debate that question -- who is the "real" Sonia Sotomayor? -- until the cows come home, and we will never know the answer. This process was never going to give us that answer. She'll let us know soon enough, I imagine.

The amazing thing, come to think of it, is that after four long days of testimony and questions and expert panels, our collective knowledge about this nominee has actually decreased. Abortion rights advocates and gun groups on both sides are about equally anxious now. Liberals are more nervous than ever about her pro-prosecution zeal. Conservatives have no idea whatsoever what she thinks about gay marriage. When folks complain about the confirmation system, they generally say we learn nothing about the nominee. In this particular case, most of us have actually had to un-learn what we thought we knew about her going in.

This whole process was designed to divine the unknowable from a nominee determined not to be known. We'd likely do better with a Magic 8 Ball.

Best of all, we knew this would happen. There was no mystery about how the process would play out -- the script had been written and passed around years ago. It's a bit like those who watch car racing in the hopes of seeing a spectacular crash, only in this case, the crash comes when someone says something unexpected. There were a few perilous moments, with bizarre questions/statements from Sessions, Coburn, and Kyl, but the nominee herself navigated the lanes with ease.

Which, of course, was entirely expected. It was precisely why Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told her on Monday, "Unless you have a complete meltdown, you're going to get confirmed ... and I don't think you will" have a meltdown.

At this point, then, it's probably worth considering why the hearings are held at all, and what a more sensible confirmation process might look like.

Steve Benen 9:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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THE POTENTIAL FOR PAIN FROM THE GANG OF SIX.... Yesterday, six Senate "centrists" insisted that any momentum health care reform might have had come to a complete stop. The group -- two Republicans, three Democrats, and Joe Lieberman -- said lawmakers need more time. It wasn't entirely clear what they intend to do with more time, but they want it anyway.

Paul Krugman thinks these "centrists" have the capacity to kill the entire reform campaign.

Will the destructive center kill health care reform? It looks all too possible.

What's especially galling is the hypocrisy of their claimed reason for delaying progress -- concern about the fiscal burden. After all, in the past most of them have shown no concern at all for the nation's long-term fiscal outlook.

Case in point: the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003, which denied Medicare the right to bargain for lower drug prices, locked in overpayments to private insurance companies, and did nothing, nothing at all, to pay for its proposed outlays. How many of these six self-proclaimed defenders of solvency voted no on the crucial procedural vote? One. (Joe Lieberman, to my surprise.) [...]

If the Gang of Six really does kill reform, remember their names; they will bear the responsibility for vast, unnecessary suffering over the years to come.

Krugman's point about the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 is of particular interest, because the votes are illustrative. This was a terrific example of the wrong way to tackle any kind of health care reform -- Bush demanded the change and asked Congress to act quickly; Republicans didn't even try to figure out a way to pay for hundreds of billions of dollars in new costs; insurance companies made a bundle; and "centrist" Democrats, hoping to prove how bipartisan they are, went along.

Now that real reform is within reach, however, some of these same senators have suddenly discovered concerns they didn't have when Bush was doing the asking.

Postscript: This is, by the way, especially interesting when it comes to Roy Blunt of Missouri. In 2003, Blunt not only voted for the Bush Medicare proposal, it was also his job to cajole other House Republicans into voting for it. Six years later, Blunt no longer thinks Medicare should have even been created in the first place.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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HE CAN'T COUNT, EITHER.... Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, on Fox News yesterday:

"They love going back to George Bush and his deficit that was inherited. Great. I'll take George Bush's deficit right now of a trillion dollars over the 10 trillion dollars that this administration has created in just six months."

Even for Steele, that's pretty awful. Nate Carlile offers the confused party chair a quick primer on reality.

...Bush inherited a budget surplus of $128 billion in 2001. Budget experts projected a $710 billion surplus for 2009 when he came into office. But the deficit soon exploded, thanks largely to the Bush tax cuts -- which accounted for 42 percent of the deficit. When Bush left office, he handed President Obama a projected $1.2 trillion budget deficit for this year, the largest ever.

As for the debt, when President Bush took office, it was $5.73 trillion. When he left, it was $10.7 trillion.

I can appreciate why the RNC might find these inconvenient details embarrassing. This is the party, after all, that pretends to care about deficits, fiscal discipline, and balanced budgets. If I were the head of the RNC, I'd have a hard time defending the Republican record on this, too.

But c'mon. Obama created a $10 trillion deficit in six months? If Steele wants to be taken at all seriously, he should at least try to come close to reality.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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A 'REASONABLE APPROACH' TO PAYING FOR REFORM.... It's not my first choice for paying for health care reform (this is), but the House is moving forward with a proposal to apply a graduated surcharge, or "surtax," on the very wealthiest Americans. The indispensable Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released a report yesterday on the proposal and deemed it a "reasonable approach" to paying for reform. (thanks to K.F. for passing this along)

The House surcharge proposal is reasonable and well-targeted. In recent decades, incomes have grown disproportionately for households at the top of the income scale, while their tax burden has fallen substantially. Moreover, despite charges to the contrary, the proposal would have only a small impact on small businesses. The congressional Joint Tax Committee estimates that it would have no impact at all on 96 percent of small business owners -- broadly defined as any taxpayer with as little as $1 of business income -- and that only half of the 4 percent of small business owners who would be affected derive more than a third of their income from a business. At the same time, the House plan would enhance the ability of small businesses to offer affordable, quality health insurance to their employees.

And while 96% of small business would be unaffected, so too would 98.8% of taxpayers.

Those remaining 1.2% would pay a higher rate, but as the CBPP report explains very well, these are the same very wealthy Americans who've done extremely well for themselves over the last quarter century. The richest taxpayers would pay slightly more, and in exchange, we can finally improve a broken health care system, and bring coverage to tens of millions of Americans who haven't fared as well as the very wealthy in recent years.

And what of the small businesses? While 96% of small businesses would feel no impact at all, the CBPP analysis also found that the reform package would extend key benefits to these businesses. For example, the House Democratic plan would "eliminate insurers' ability to increase premiums for small businesses based on their workers' health status and other factors," "allow small businesses to buy health coverage through a new health insurance exchange in order to lower administrative costs and ensure access to quality plans," and "provide tax credits for the smallest firms to help them offer coverage."

Some details to consider as the debate progresses.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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By: Hilzoy

Last Post

I had all kinds of ideas for things I wanted to write before I left, but between last-minute packing and phone calls from friends and family, it didn't happen. So I'll just say a few things quickly.

As I said before, one of the things that led me to start blogging in the first place was the fact that I thought the country had gone crazy, and one of the things that particularly bothered me was the sheer level of invective and hatred that people seemed to feel comfortable directing at one another. I hated this, not just in itself, but because I thought: this harms us all.

A democracy is essentially about determining the course of our nation together. To do that, it helps a lot to have a good citizenry. A good citizenry is informed, serious about things that are worth taking seriously, and not liable to be led off course by demagogues. (Everyone doesn't have to be like this, but you need a critical mass of people who are.) But I've always thought that a good citizenry is also composed of people who assume, until proven wrong, that many of the people who disagree with them are acting in good faith.

This matters for policy: you're unlikely to choose sound policies if you assume that anyone who disagrees with you is a depraved, corrupt imbecile. It's hard to learn anything from people you have completely written off. But it's also corrosive to any kind of community or dialogue to assume the worst about large numbers of people you've never met. It makes you less willing to try to take their problems seriously, and to try to figure out how they might be solved, or to try to understand what's driving them.

I hate it when people do this to me. I never wanted to do it to them.

The thing is, it's hard to see how to try to help create a better citizenry. It's not something that can be accomplished by enacting a policy, the way covering the uninsured is. It's a matter of individual moral choices, and as far as I can see, the only way in which we can have a better citizenry is to make the best choices we can, and to try to help other people when it's in our power to do so. I once had a friend who decided that she would research all the down-ticket offices, candidates for judgeships, etc. -- the races we all vote on without having a clue who we're voting for -- and distribute the information she found to anyone who wanted it. She was helping out in the way I have in mind.

When I started blogging, I thought: with all the craziness and vitriol that's flying around, it's worth at least trying to do something like that. I wanted to make it as easy as possible for people to be informed, by covering stories that weren't being covered, and by always linking to my primary sources, so that only one of us had to spend time figuring out how to find some bill or GAO report, for instance; and to fact-check claims that struck me as dubious, and that were being accepted.

But I also wanted to try, if at all possible, to treat people, and most especially my political opponents, with respect, except where respect had been clearly forfeited. (Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, I'm thinking of you.) Because, as I said, I think it's just corrosive to democracy if people are not willing to extend the benefit of the doubt to one another. Besides, it's uncharitable and wrong, and besides that, perhaps some people would survive in a world in which no one was ever more generous to them than they deserve, but I am quite sure that I would not.

That was one of the things I wanted to try to do. I wasn't particularly confident that I'd succeed at all, but I thought: the least I can do is try. It might be a complete failure. It might be that the idea of me trying to do this is just laughable, and that if I had the self-awareness God gave an oyster, I'd be rolling on the floor laughing. Still, I thought, if it doesn't work, the fault will probably be mine, and I'll learn something. (One thing about blogging: you have to be willing to regard criticism as a learning experience, because your shortcomings, including the ones you don't know about and will be mortified to discover, are always in plain view.)

I think that democracy, like any kind of community, takes effort. It needs to be maintained. People need to work at it. And the last five years have made me realize, yet again, that even when things seem really bad, they are not hopeless. There is always something you can do. Even when you're not expecting it, you'll get an email from Moe Lane asking: would you like to join our blog?

All you can do is try. And as my grandmother used to say to us: it is not worthy of humanity to give up.


I also want to thank everyone who commented on the various goodbye threads at ObWi, the Monthly, and elsewhere, my wonderful co-bloggers, and all the people who have commented over the years. It means more to me than I can tell you. But I've always felt that I got much more than I gave from the communities at both blogs, and I'm more grateful than I can say.

Thank you.

Hilzoy 1:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (63)

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July 17, 2009
By: Hilzoy


Here's an interesting catch by Merrill Goozner:

"The House bill would create an internet accessible database that includes all health-related payments to physicians by corporations including gifts, food, or entertainment; travel or trips; honoraria; research funding or grants; education or conference funding; consulting fees; ownership or investment interests; and royalties or license fees. If I'm reading the bill correctly, it says anything over $5 must be reported. (From pg. 635 of the bill.)"

I believe the relevant section of the bill is 1451, and it does seem to say that. This is really good news. There is a lot of money sloshing around in health care. There are advisory boards, speakers' bureaus, conferences conveniently held in beach resorts, educational (and "educational") events, dinners courtesy of drug companies, gifts, etc., etc., etc. And that's not counting things like industry-sponsored research.

A lot of this is just marketing, sometimes disguised and sometimes not. Making it public would have two very good effects. First, and most obviously, it would allow people to discover any conflicts of interest that their doctors might have. Second, it might shame people. If you're an "opinion leader", or in some other way a good catch for a company, it's possible to get very considerable amounts of money from these sorts of things. If it came out that some doctors were getting, say, hundreds of thousands of dollars, not for doing research but for various marketing-esque activities, I suspect that those doctors might become less greedy.

And that would be a good thing. Most people don't think that they would allow their judgment to be corrupted by something like a fancy dinner with a flattering sales rep, or even an all-expenses paid trip to an industry-sponsored conference at Waikiki. But there's a fair amount of research that shows that accepting a gift from someone does affect your judgment, whether you're aware of it or not. (Why else would pharmaceutical companies give all these gifts?)

Making these gifts public is an excellent thing. Good for the House committees for writing it into their bill.

Hilzoy 7:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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FRIDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* Deadly blast in Indonesia: "Eight people were killed Friday in two separate explosions at the J.W. Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in central Jakarta, just over a week after the world's most populous majority-Muslim nation held a peaceful presidential election."

* Unrest continues in Iran: "Security forces used tear gas and batons to break up opposition demonstrations during and after the Friday Prayer at Tehran University, witnesses said, as the leading opposition cleric, urging national unity, harshly assailed the government's handling of what he termed a 'crisis.'"

* Sen. Dick Lugar (R) of Indiana announced his support for Judge Sonia Sotomayor's nomination today. Soon after, other Republicans, including Florida's Mel Martinez and Maine's Olympia Snowe, followed suit.

* Following up on an earlier item, health care reform has passed both the House Ways and Means Committee and the House Education and Labor Committee. Energy and Commerce, however, remains the more difficult challenge.

* Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) apparently doesn't want President Obama to talk about health care. Imagine, just for a moment, how much closer we'd be to real reform if the 60-seat Dem majority didn't care what Grassley thinks.

* Home construction went up more than expected in June.

* There are no metro areas in the U.S. in recovery yet, but MSNBC and Moody's Economy.com have identified 23 of the nation's metro areas "nearing the bottom of the recession."

* If you missed President Obama's speech at the NAACP event last night in New York, it's worth watching. When you're done, check out Adam Serwer's great post on this.

* An expanded hate-crimes measure takes one step closer to becoming law.

* Joel Sawyer, who has served as South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's communications director, resigned today. That was a very good idea.

* Paul Krugman explains the problem with Goldman Sachs' record quarterly profits.

* EFCA without card check? T.A. Frank presented the idea in this very magazine not too long ago, and it seems to be the basis for a new Senate "compromise."

* It's about time: "Foreigners who have HIV would be allowed to travel and immigrate to the United States under a plan by federal health officials to lift a 22-year ban on infected visitors that critics say was unnecessary from the start."

* Under the circumstances, I think The Hill may not have much of a choice but to drop David Keene's column.

* Fascinating discussion between Glenn Greenwald and Chuck Todd on investigating Bush-era torture. Take a wild guess who made the more compelling case.

* Were Chinese intelligence officers given access to Uighur detainees at Gitmo?

* Don't go away mad, Lou Dobbs, just go away.

* Why am I pessimistic about the new Pecora Commission? Two words: Bill Thomas.

* And finally, one of these days, the GOP is going to learn something about modern technology: "A Republican National Committee online game that challenges players to spend trillions of dollars was taken down today after reports that it offered some objectionable items for sale - including sexually explicit, anti-Semitic and anti-Latino items."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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By: Hilzoy

Stop Me Before I Politicize Again!

Glenn Greenwald has had an interesting back and forth with Chuck Todd about comments Todd made on MSNBC's Morning Joe, in which he said, among other things, that the question whether torture should be investigated were "cable catnip" that threatens to distract us from important issues, and that it is "very dangerous" to investigate such things. You can read his comments and watch the video here. The transcript of Glenn's subsequent podcast with Todd is here.

It's quite something. Todd repeatedly argues that it would be much too messy and political to actually hold government officials accountable for breaking the law. For instance, when Glenn asks why we shouldn't prosecute such officials when we think they've broken the law, Todd replies:

"I agree, in a perfect world -- Glenn, in a perfect world, yes. And if you could also guarantee me, that this wouldn't become a show trial, and wouldn't be put, and created so that we had nightly debates about it, that is the ideal way to handle this."

Why only in a perfect world? And what, as Glenn asks, is wrong with "nightly debate about whether our government committed crimes" -- at least when there's credible evidence that it did?

It's worth reading the podcast transcript in its entirety. Here I just want to make three points. First, the idea that we should not prosecute government officials who break the law whenever it would cause some sort of political fight amounts to the view that we should never prosecute government officials who break the law at all. And this idea is incredibly dangerous. We are supposed to have a government that is bound by law. If no member of the government is ever prosecuted when there's evidence that s/he broke the law, then the only reason why government officials would obey the law is their own conscience and sense of duty. Sometimes that's sufficient, but we'd be fools to rely on it.

Second, the idea that we should not prosecute politicians who break the law is just one more example of the idea that people with power should be able to live by different rules. When someone borrows an ordinary person's car and, unbeknownst to her, uses it to sell drugs, sending her to jail is "being tough on crime"; when a government official abuses his office, even hinting at prosecution is just "cable catnip" and a sign that you're a member of "the hard left".

This idea is odious, and it's antithetical to everything this country is supposed to stand for. People with power and privilege have a lot of advantages already. In particular, they will probably always do better in the legal system than the rest of us, since they can afford to hire very good lawyers. For that very reason, we should resist with all our might the idea that they should be given even more privileges.

Third: the reason why Chuck Todd seems to think that it would be "dangerous" to prosecute government officials when there is evidence that they have broken the law is that it might turn into what he calls "a political trial", and might even become "political footballs". I do not believe that this is a good reason not to investigate crimes. (Lots of trials become "political footballs": the trial of the officers who beat Rodney King, for instance, or Marion Barry's trial for crack cocaine. Does anyone think that we should simply have given those officers or Marion Barry a pass?) But politicized trials do do damage, and so it's worth asking: how might we minimize the chances that some trial might be unduly politicized?

The best answer I can think of is: the media might really try to do a good job of explaining the issues. When someone tried to say something misleading, they could call that person out. When prosecution of a government official was unwarranted, they could make that clear. And when there really was a plausible case that a government official had committed a crime, they could make that clear as well.

Which is to say: if Chuck Todd were really worried about trials being politicized, he would be in a wonderful position to prevent that from happening.

But I don't see much evidence that he is interested in that. In the podcast with Glenn, Chuck Todd makes (by my count) plain errors on five important factual questions. He is wrong about the kind of prosecutor under consideration, he is wrong to think that what Holder is proposing to investigate is interrogations that conform to Yoo's legal opinions, he is wrong about the duties of Justice Department lawyers, he was wrong about the legal status of firing the US Attorneys, and he was wrong about the state of American public opinion. And those are just the plain, obvious errors: I'm not counting things like his claim that prosecutions would harm our image abroad, or that there's a serious debate about whether Yoo's memos were defensible.

That's a lot of factual mistakes for one short podcast -- enough to make me think that Chuck Todd is not as concerned as he ought to be about getting it right. If he were, and if he could bring some of his colleagues along, we might not have to worry nearly as much about politicization.

We should expect more of our journalists. They need to get the facts right. They need to figure out the legal issues at stake in a case like this, not just listen to flacks from both sides, throw up their hands, and say "it's not black and white!" If he did a better job, he wouldn't have to worry so much about politicizing the justice system, and he might take pride in the fact that he helped shed light on complicated issues, when he might have just gotten lazy.

Of course, it's not just Chuck Todd, who is, alas, one of the better TV journalists out there. He's just the one who cited the incompetence of his profession as a reason to abandon the rule of law.

Hilzoy 5:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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AT LEAST SOMEONE'S OPTIMISTIC.... Almost all of the talk I've heard over the last 24 hours about health care reform has been negative and pessimistic. For every step forward, there's been a step back. The AMA comes through, but the CBO doesn't. One House committee moves forward, another is slowed by Blue Dogs. Six "centrists" want to delay the entire process in such a way that puts reform itself in peril.

Despite this talk -- or, just as likely, because of this talk -- President Obama delivered a brief set of remarks this afternoon. There wasn't any news, per se, in the remarks, other than the president's apparent confidence that, setbacks notwithstanding, reform really is going to come together this year.

He noted, for example, the "unprecedented progress" we've seen thus far. That's a fair point -- we've never been this close to achieving the reform Americans have been waiting for over the last several decades. Obama also emphasized that reform can and will be deficit-neutral, and that reform isn't really an option with an untenable status quo.

"I realize that the last few miles of any race are the hardest to run," the president said. But, perhaps referencing the unfounded fears of the six "centrist" senators who want to bring the process to a halt, Obama added, "Now is not the time to slow down. And now is certainly not the time to lose heart."

The president went on to say, "[T]hose who are betting against this happening this year are badly mistaken. We are going to get this done. We will reform health care. It will happen -- this year. I am absolutely convinced of that."

Well, that makes one of us.

Note, the president did not re-emphasize the pre-recess deadline, which makes sense given that that Ben Nelson and his Merry Band of Momentum Killers make it unlikely policymakers can meet the timeline the White House was hoping for.

Steve Benen 4:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE LAUNCHES PROBE.... Given what we've learned this week, this seems like the right call.

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee says his panel will investigate whether the CIA broke the law by not telling Congress earlier about a secret program to deploy hit teams to kill individual al-Qaida members.

CIA Director Leon Panetta told the committee about the program on June 24, a day after he first learned of the program and canceled it himself.

Law requires that the House and Senate intelligence committees be kept informed of significant intelligence activities or anticipated activities. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Tex., announced the investigation in a statement Friday.

According to a press release issued by the committee, the investigation "will focus on the core issues of how the congressional intelligence committees and Congress are kept fully and currently informed. To this end, the investigation will examine several issues, including the program discussed during Director Panetta's June 24th notification and whether there was any official decision or direction to withhold information from the Committee."

This week, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said he agreed the agency probably should have briefed lawmakers on the assassination program, but disagrees that the CIA was legally obligated to do so, calling it a "judgment call" under the circumstances. Obviously, a full investigation will determine whether that's the right assessment or not.

Regardless, that the committee's leadership is moving forward with a probe, whether the administration wants one or not, signals the willingness of at least some House Dems to take Bush-era accountability seriously, regardless of the politics as it relates to the White House.

Also, as Greg Sargent noted, it suggests the GOP's concern trolling didn't work: "House Dems are ignoring the insistence by some Republicans and conservatives that continuing to raise questions about the CIA's conduct is bad politically for Democrats. House GOPers have repeatedly sounded the refrain that the continued focus on the CIA by House Dems is very, very bad news for Nancy Pelosi, because it plays into GOP efforts to paint her and Democrats as weak on national security. It seems Dems are forging ahead and ignoring the GOP's well-intentioned advice."

It's almost as if some Democratic leaders believe Republicans don't really have their best interests at heart. Imagine that.

Steve Benen 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... Last week, Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina, arguably the chamber's most right-wing member, told an audience at the National Press Club that the United States is currently "about where Germany was before World War II." Everything about his remarks -- the sense of history, the understanding of current events, the philosophy -- was a special kind of stupid.

But DeMint seems quite pleased with himself, and keeps churning out new and creative insanity.

In an interview with the evangelical World Magazine titled "The Taxpayers' Greatest Ally," Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) had some interesting things to say about his work with his colleagues in the Senate:

"I am not going to be able to persuade my colleagues to do the right things, so I am just going to have to create pain."

Okay, that is a bit intense. However, it may not even be the most intense statement from Sen. DeMint this week. On a conference call this morning, DeMint discussed health care reform: ""This health care issue Is D-Day for freedom in America... If we're able to stop Obama on this it will be his Waterloo. It will break him."

I'm not quite sure what all of this means, but it sounds rather twisted.

Update: An emailer asks why I find DeMint so scary, considering he's the fringe member of a small minority. It's a fair point. But in the larger context, DeMint is one part Cheney, one part Limbaugh, and two parts Jesse Helms. His seat is very likely one of the safest in the chamber, which suggests he's going to be around for a long while, saying insane things and pushing ridiculous ideas into the conservative mainstream.

Steve Benen 3:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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GATES MAKES IT PLAIN.... It's unlikely Congress will care, but Robert Gates offered quite a bit of common sense today.

At a speech today in Chicago, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates lashed out at members of Congress, at the "defense and aerospace industry," and at the "institutional military itself" for trying to keep ultra-expensive, often-useless weapons programs in the Pentagon budget. It's just not right, he said, while the country is fighting two wars in which such gear is clearly not required.

"The grim reality is that with regard to the budget we have entered a zero-sum game. Every defense dollar diverted to fund excess or unneeded capacity... is a dollar that will be unavailable to take care of our people, to win the wars we are in, to deter potential adversaries, and to improve capabilities in areas where America is underinvested and potentially vulnerable. That is a risk that I will not take and one that I cannot accept," he said.

Gates took particular aim at proponents of the futuristic, $250 million-a-pop F-22 stealth dogfighter. Senior military leaders all say they have plenty of the planes, to ward off any potential foe. Congress keeps trying to force the Pentagon to pay for more -- despite the threat of a Presidential veto of any defense bill which contains more F-22 cash. It's typical, he observed, of a Beltway process that keeps defense programs going forever, regardless of their military value. It's exactly why Gates' largely common sense overhaul of the Pentagon's arsenal is, in its own way, so radical.

"If we can't bring ourselves to make this tough but straightforward decision - reflecting the judgment of two very different presidents, two different secretaries of defense, two chairmen of the joint chiefs of staff, and the current Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff, where do we draw the line? And if not now, when? If we can't get this right -- what on earth can we get right? It is time to draw the line on doing Defense business as usual. The President has drawn that line. And that red line with regard to a veto is real."

The United States can either adapt to a new foreign policy landscape, use scarce resources wisely, and be better prepared for the national security threats of the 21st century, or we can follow the lead of lawmakers whose principal goal is how these decisions affect their district.

Noah Shachtman posted the text of Gates' entire speech. It's well worth reading -- and sending a copy of to every lawmaker fighting for more F-22s.

Steve Benen 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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HARRY AND LOUISE ARE BACK, WITH A BETTER MESSAGE.... "There has to be a better way." That was the phrase featured in conservative ads 15 years ago, when conservatives ran "Harry and Louise" ads to undermine health care reform. The ads were simple and effective -- a man and woman, sitting at their kitchen table, blasting the Clinton-backed bill.

As it turns out, Harry and Louise have grown wiser in the ensuing years. The same two actors are once again discussing reform at their kitchen table, and this time, they're right.

The New York Times' Natasha Singer reports today that Families USA and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America -- I know, strange bedfellows -- are sponsoring the $4 million ad campaign, which begins this weekend. The ads will run "on channels like CNN, MSNBC, Fox, Comedy Central and on some network news and Sunday talk shows."

"It sounds simple enough," Harry tells Louise in the ad, just like he said in the first iteration. "A little more cooperation, a little less politics and we can get the job done this time," Louise says.

What's more, it's not the only ad campaign starting this weekend. HCAN and AFSCME are also unveiling a series of new, targeted ads, which will run in nine states and cost about $800,000.

Will they have an effect? Stay tuned.

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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THE SILLY CONFIRMATION PROCESS, PART CXXVII.... This sure does get tiresome.

Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) has placed a "hold" on Robert Perciasepe's nomination to be deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, demanding that the EPA re-analyze a controversial climate bill.

Voinovich announced the hold -- a common practice for minority-party senators seeking leverage over a Cabinet department -- in a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson.

He said he had no objections to Perciasepe, the chief operating officer of the Audubon Society. But he wants the EPA to alter its analysis of a bill, aiming to lower greenhouse-gas emissions, that passed the House in June.

Voinovich knows Perciasepe is qualified for the post to which he's been nominated, and Perciasepe has enough support to be confirmed. It's obvious that Voinovich's hold on Perciasepe has nothing to do with Perciasepe.

The problem has to do with the Waxman-Markey "American Clean Energy and Security" (ACES) Act. The EPA estimates that the bill, if implemented, will cost the average U.S. household about $110 per year. (A CBO analysis came up with a slightly higher figure: $175 per household per year.) Voinovich, hoping to defeat the bill, found the estimate unsatisfying.

So, he's told the EPA that he'll let the Senate vote on Perciasepe's nomination just as soon as the EPA reevaluates ACES's cost and tells him what he wants to hear comes up with a per-household annual cost that he considers "reliable and realistic."

The Senate confirmation process is very, very annoying. As is Sen. Voinovich.

Steve Benen 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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'CENTRISTS' WANT TO SLAM ON THE BRAKES.... Even if lawmakers in both chambers recognize the sense of urgency and work hard to bring health care reform to the floor before the August recess, there's a group of "centrist" senators who prefer to hit the brakes rather than let the legislation proceed.

A bipartisan group of centrist and conservative senators sent a letter to the Democratic and Republican leaders on Friday urging delay in consideration of health care reform.

The letter, obtained by the Huffington Post, was drafted by Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and is also signed by Democratic Reps. Mary Landrieu (La.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.). Independent Joe Lieberman (Conn.), who caucuses with Democrats, signed on, as did Maine Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins -- moderates heavily courted by President Obama.

The organized effort to slow down the process is a blow to the reform effort. Obama has pushed hard for a final vote before the August recess, arguing that delaying until September could slow momentum and risk missing a historic opportunity.

Maybe the six prefer to give opponents of reform more time to kill the effort; perhaps they just didn't want to work too hard over the next few weeks. Regardless of the motivation, these senators -- who already have health care coverage for themselves and their families -- saw the reform campaign generating some momentum, and decided they don't like it. Delay for the sake of delay is the easier path.

As a procedural matter, this makes an enormous difference. The White House has, of course, been pressing for a pre-recess floor vote in both chambers. In light of this new letter from the "centrists," no matter what the bill looks like in the Senate, there are now Democrats who appear likely to help Republican obstructionism, all in the interest of having more time to ... well, whatever it is the "centrists" want with more time.

In other words, with one sad piece of correspondence, these six senators have made a pre-recess vote very unlikely, and undermined the overall campaign.

Steve Benen 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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TIAHRT EMBARRASSES HIMSELF.... Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R) of Kansas took to the floor of the House yesterday to argue that health care reform should exclude funding for abortion. He chose to do so in a pretty insulting way. (TP has the video.)

Arguing to restrict the public funding of abortions within the District of Columbia, Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kans., suggested on Thursday afternoon that if such "financial incentives" were available some 47 years ago, Barack Obama himself may never have been born.

"If you think of it in human terms, there is a financial incentive that will be put in place, paid for by tax dollars, that will encourage women who are -- single parents, living below the poverty level, to have the opportunity for a free abortion," said Tiahrt. "If you take that scenario and apply it to many of the great minds we have today, who would we have been deprived of? Our president grew up in a similar circumstance."

"If that financial incentive was in place, is it possible that his mother may have taken advantage of it?" Tiahrt asked. "Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court justice, if those circumstances were in place, is it possible that we would be denied his great mind? The opportunity to have tax-funded abortions, a financial incentive, is something that I think most of us want to oppose in America and it's certainly deserves a clean up or down vote."

It's hard to even know where to start, but let's go with the obvious. Tiahrt singled out two Americans who, he said, may have been aborted: Barack Obama and Clarence Thomas. So, as far as Tiahrt is concerned, the first two people who come to his mind for the what-if-they-weren't-here argument both just happen to be African-American men.

For that matter, the notion that universal health care will create "incentives" for abortions is foolish, and it's not surprising that Tiahrt didn't even try to back up the claim.

But ultimately, it's just the tasteless quality of Tiahrt's argument that stands out, and which generated boos on the House floor. As Chris Harris noted, "His stance against the public funding of abortions is a perfectly valid view to hold. However, by implying those on the other side of the issue may have caused the President of the United States to be aborted, Tiahrt appears vile and childish -- reflecting poorly on his state, his party and the anti-choice movement."

Tiahrt is in the midst of a very competitive Republican Senate primary right now, and he clearly wants to prove his fealty to the party's far-right base. This, however, isn't the way to do it.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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FRIDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP....Today's installment of campaign-related news items that wouldn't generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers.

* Sen. Arlen Specter has some work to do if he's going to impress the left in advance of next year's Democratic primary. With that in mind, Specter is thinking about attending the Netroots Nation conference in Pittsburgh next month.

* In New Hampshire, the latest Research 2000 poll for Daily Kos shows a very competitive open-seat Senate context next year. In a match-up pitting Rep. Paul Hodes (D) against former Rep. Charlie Bass (R), Hodes leads by five, 42% to 37%. In a match-up pitting Hodes against state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte (R), Ayotte leads by the slimmest of margins, 39% to 38%.

* On a related note, Ayotte may be NRSC's favorite, but it seems very likely she'll have at least one primary challenger.

* New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine's (D) campaign still trails in its re-election fight, but the incumbent hopes to benefit from a rally yesterday alongside President Obama. Corzine told the crowd, "Now, with a partner in the White House, there is no limit to what we can accomplish."

* Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has weighed in on the Democratic primary in New York, and has thrown his support to incumbent Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

* Speaking of the New York race, a new Rasmussen poll shows Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D) leading Gillibrand statewide, 33% to 27%, though about a third of Democrats in the state remain undecided.

* Rep. Mark Kirk (R) will launch his Senate campaign in Illinois on Monday.

* Is Alaska's gubernatorial race a Democratic pick-up opportunity next year? Maybe.

* And in Minnesota, the number of credible Democratic candidates anxious to take on Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) keeps growing.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (6)

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HILZOY.... About a year ago, when I first started at the Monthly, Paul Glastris told me he was bringing on another blogger to join me in the post-Drum era. This was, initially, cause for concern. After all, I'd been blogging for more than five years without a regular co-contributor, and I wasn't at all sure whether it would be awkward sharing blog space with someone else.

Then Paul told me the other blogger would be Hilzoy. I immediately felt better.

Hilzoy isn't just one my favorite bloggers, she's one of those bloggers who, on a nearly-daily basis, makes me think, "Damn, I wish I'd written that."

Every blogger brings certain talents to the process, but Hilzoy offers a rare combination of skills -- she's clever, knowledgeable, and almost preternaturally insightful. She's brought an unrivaled compassion, wisdom, and care to her work. Perhaps most important, Hilzoy is a genuine class act, whose blogging has made a real difference.

Ironically, a year ago, I had trouble imagining blogging alongside someone else. Now that Hilzoy is hanging up her keyboard, I'm saddened at the prospect of blogging without her around.

As regular readers know, today is Hilzoy's last day as a blogger -- believe me, I tried to talk her out of it -- and all of us here at the Monthly wish her the very best.

It's been an honor sharing this space with her over the last year, and here's hoping this isn't the last we've seen of her blogging work. I, for one, am already designing the "Hilzoy Comeback Tour '10" t-shirts, just in case.

After all, if there's one thing I've learned from Hilzoy's blogging over the years, it's that hope is a valuable thing.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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PAT BUCHANAN AT HIS MOST BUCHANAN-ESQUE.... This week, in a twisted piece for Human Events, Pat Buchanan encouraged the Republican Party to engage in more race baiting and insisted that the key to GOP success in the future is doing more to appeal to whites. In the context of this week's events on the Hill, Buchanan urges Republicans to tell whites that "their sons and daughters are pushed aside to make room for the Sonia Sotomayors."

Last night, Rachel Maddow hosted a lively chat with Buchanan about his advice to his party.

The whole thing is worth watching, but I was especially struck, not just by Rachel's composure in the face of ignorance and bigotry, but by Bachanan's transparency. Rachel asked, for example, for his thoughts on 108 out of 110 Supreme Court justices being white. Buchanan replied, "White men were 100% of the people that wrote the Constitution, 100% of the people that signed the Declaration of Independence, 100% of the people who died at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, probably close to 100% of the people who died at Normandy. This has been a country built basically by white folks."

Towards the end of the segment, Buchanan went after Rachel on a more personal level, suggesting she doesn't know about the challenges facing working class people. (He obviously doesn't know anything about her background.) She replied, "I don't need a lecture from you about whether or not I know, what I think about working class Americans... For you to privilege race... and say that what we need to tap politically is white people's racial grievance, you're playing with fire and dating yourself."

As I watched the interview, I was tempted to take notes to start debunking every bogus claim individually, but quickly realized that fact-checking Buchanan tirades is simply too daunting. The error-to-word ratio is overwhelming. That said, Media Matters did a nice job tackling some of Buchanan's more obvious errors in his attacks on Sotomayor's record.

Steve Benen 11:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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PERRY'S TURNS TO THE OPPRESSIVE HAND.... Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) had all kinds of interesting things to say about the federal government in the Spring. In the lead up to the right-wing Tea Parties, Perry complained bitterly about how "tired" he is of the federal government. "I believe the federal government has become oppressive," Perry said. "I believe it's become oppressive in its size, its intrusion into the lives of its citizens, and its interference with the affairs of our state."

The governor added, "We think it's time to draw the line in the sand and tell Washington that no longer are we going to accept their oppressive hand in the state of Texas."

Funny, Perry isn't saying that anymore.

Earlier this year, Texas Governor Rick Perry was one of a handful of Republican governors who refused some federal stimulus funds from President Obama's economic recovery package on the grounds that there were too many strings attached to the money.

Now that the state is dire straits, however, Perry is asking the federal government for a loan to cover the very expenses the rejected stimulus money would have paid for.

Perry, probably thinking more about his upcoming Republican gubernatorial primary than effective government, made a very foolish call. In the Spring, he didn't want $555 million in stimulus funds that would have simply been a grant, which the state wouldn't have to pay back. Now, Perry may ask the federal government for a loan that could reach $650 million, which Texas will have to pay back.

When the governor announced his opposition to the stimulus money for unemployment benefits, he told Fox News, "[T]his was pretty simple for us." Apparently, it wasn't quite simple enough.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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TWO COMMITTEES DOWN, SEVERAL HURDLES TO GO.... This week, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee passed its healthcare overhaul bill, becoming the first congressional committee to move the ball forward. Early this morning, a key House committee followed suit.

The House Ways and Means committee passed the House Democrats health care bill out of committee early Friday morning after a marathon markup that started Thursday morning.

The vote on the so-called "tri-committee bill" was 23-18, with three Democrats voting with all of the committee's Republicans against the bill. The three Democrats voting against the bill were: Ron Kind of Wisconsin, Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota, and John Tanner of Tennessee. Pomeroy and Tanner are blue dogs and Kind is a leader of another group of moderate Democrats, the "New Democrats."

Two other House committees are still marking up the bill. The Education Labor Committee is expected to vote Friday. But a key challenge will come next week at the Energy and Commerce Committee where a group of blue dogs who oppose the bill could block it.

The Ways and Means package financed health care reform through a new surtax on the wealthy, which has drawn fire from conservatives in both chambers (and in both parties).

As for the Blue Dogs, who may yet kill the bill in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, these conservative Dems are threatening to derail the entire reform effort based on concerns that "the bill (a) costs too much overall and (b) will increase the deficit. And their proposed solutions to this are to (a) increase the cost of the bill by neutering the public plan and (b) decrease the quantity of revenue by fiddling with the employer mandate."

And what's the latest from the Senate? There was some talk yesterday that Max Baucus was close to a deal to make conservative Republican senators happy, and that an announcement could come as early as last night. That, apparently, didn't come together. Baucus said he'd made progress satisfying the concerns of the minority party's members, and would renew negotiations on Monday. He added, without explanation, that health care reform "must be bipartisan."

Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, meanwhile, continues to talk to "centrists" in both parties about slowing the process down, and is reportedly preparing a letter to the Senate leadership that will dismiss the importance of a pre-recess August deadline. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is, not surprisingly, saying the same thing.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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WHAT IS IT WITH THOSE C STREET GUYS?.... It seemed odd when Mississippi's Chip Pickering decided not to run for the Senate a few years ago, after Trent Lott's departure. This Roll Call report suggests there was an explanation we weren't aware of.

The wife of former Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.) has filed a complaint in a Mississippi circuit court alleging that Pickering had an extramarital affair while serving in Congress and that his decision not to seek retiring Sen. Trent Lott's (R) seat followed an ultimatum from his mistress.

Leisha Pickering filed an alienation of affection complaint July 14 that alleges her estranged husband conducted an affair with Elizabeth Creekmore-Byrd of Jackson, Miss., while living in the C Street complex in Washington, D.C.

Chip Pickering filed for divorce from Leisha in 2008, but the divorce is not yet final. The couple has five children.

Leisha Pickering alleged in the court document that the Mississippi Republican's decision to leave the House at the end of the 110th Congress came after Creekmore-Byrd told him "as long as he remained in public life that she and he could not have a private life together."

The complaint also asserts that Creekmore-Byrd's ultimatum led to Pickering's decision to not seek the Senate seat vacated by Lott.

Yes, it looks like we have yet another conservative Republican who preached "family values," but couldn't quite meet the personal standards he said others should follow.

But what's especially interesting about Pickering in particular is the fact that he lived in suddenly-infamous C Street house, home to "The Family." It's the same house where other scandal plagued far-right politicians John Ensign and Mark Sanford lived.

Josh Marshall joked, "I don't know about their politics. But these dudes know how to party."

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE UNION: PRINCIPLES FOR SALE.... There's been an ongoing and heated dispute between FedEx and UPS lately, stemming from a labor provision currently being debated on the Hill. In a nutshell, UPS already negotiates union contracts with individual locations, and FedEx may soon be forced to do the same, giving up its one national union contract for its express business.

A fierce fight between the two shipping giants has broken out over this, and American Conservative Union, a major conservative lobbying organization, was, as recently as two weeks ago, on FedEx's side. The ACU said in a recent letter, "We stand with FedEx in opposition to this legislation."

But that wouldn't last. The ACU asked FedEx to pony up a couple million dollars for conservative lobbying expenses. FedEx balked, so two weeks later, the American Conservative Union switched sides, and now backs UPS.

In return for the $2 million, ACU offered a range of services that included: "Producing op-eds and articles written by ACU's Chairman David Keene and / or other members of the ACU's board of directors. (Note that Mr. Keene writes a weekly column that appears in The Hill.)"

The conservative group's remarkable demand -- black-and-white proof of the longtime Washington practice known as "pay for play" -- was contained in a private letter to FedEx that was provided to POLITICO.

The letter exposes the practice by some political interest groups of taking stands not for reasons of pure principle, as their members and supporters might assume, but also in part because a sponsor is paying big money.

It's an interesting look at how this process, usually played out behind closed doors, really works. For a price, a company can buy the loyalty of a conservative organization, its lobbying operation, and perhaps even some media attention. In this case, the ACU's Keene didn't necessarily offer to use his print column for paid advocacy, but the fact that it was mentioned as part of the pitch to FedEx suggests a certain, shall we say, ethical flexibility.

And if one fails to pay that price, wouldn't you know it, the conservative organization finds that maybe it doesn't really agree with your principled position after all.

It's tempting to think a revelation like this would permanently undermine the ACU's reputation, but I can't help but wonder if the D.C. establishment, assuming that "everyone does it," and this is just "how the game is played," will tolerate a scandal like this.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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AP RESPONDS, DEFENDS HEALTH CARE PRICE TAG.... On Tuesday, House Democratic leaders unveiled a health care reform package, which they said cost about $1 trillion over 10 years. A CBO score agreed. On Wednesday, the Associated Press, initially citing an unnamed Democratic staffer, put the cost at $1.5 trillion. Yesterday morning, the AP simply repeated the higher figure as fact, making no mention of the dispute. Other news outlets, following the AP's lead, ran with the $1.5 trillion price tag.

I spoke yesterday with Paul Colford, the AP's Director of Media Relations, who offered this explanation for the wire service's reporting.

The Congressional Budget Office score of $1.04 trillion that the Democrats cite is the figure for the new health insurance "exchange."

However, that is a net figure, including about $237 billion in revenue raised from employer and individual mandates -- fees paid by those who don't provide or purchase care. Thus, if you look at costs, the score on that is about $1.27 trillion.

There is also a separate piece of the bill covering Medicare. It includes about $350 billion in new spending (the biggest single piece is for the so-called "doc fix," which involves the payment rate to doctors under Medicare).

Soon after, the AP published a report, explaining the cost estimates in more detail. It shows the reform package costing $1.65 trillion over 10 years.

I'm encouraged by the fact that the AP acknowledged the questions raised about its reporting, and took the time to communicate directly with bloggers like me. That said, the explanation does not necessarily put the matter to rest.

In fact, some of the original objections remain salient. As Greg Sargent explained yesterday, "[A]gain, the problem is that we don't yet know what the bill will cost in the end. Estimates differ. House Dems argue that it's reckless to assign a hard and fast cost before the CBO has completed its score. Yet the AP keeps describing the bill as a '$1.5 trillion plan,' without registering the Dem objection -- and without including the CBO's initial analysis. Even if you agree that the bill is likely to cost this in the end, it's still reckless of the AP to keep treating this number as established fact, when it simply isn't any such thing."

What's more, I'm also wondering about the timeline of events here. The AP began reporting the higher figure as fact on Wednesday, citing an anonymous staffer. Did the wire service come up with the more detailed analysis before or after it began reporting the number, or did it go back after the fact to justify the earlier reporting? (For that matter, if the more granular look at the costs pointed to a $1.65 trillion estimate, why not use that number?)

At a minimum, given the uncertainty or the process and the estimates involved, it seems only fair for the AP to at least acknowledge the basis of the dispute, rather than characterize the $1.5 trillion figure as established fact.

Steve Benen 8:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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A CONVERSATION ON INNOVATIVE ENTREPRENEURSHIP.... In the previous issue of the Washington Monthly, we had a special report on entrepreneurship. The New America Foundation will host a discussion on this on Monday at their D.C. offices, from 12:15-1:30 p.m. A live webcast will be available for people who cannot attend the event.

Here's information from the invitation:

Will the next economic recovery be a jobs-producing boom like the 1990s, or an employment bust, as many economists now fear? The answer will largely come down to the state of small business, the source of nearly all net job growth in the U.S. economy for decades.

So what can Washington do now to open up new opportunities for America's cutting-edge entrepreneurs? The answer is, plenty. In fact, it is at times of crisis that presidents have the most political leeway to make the bold moves that lead to future growth. Lincoln built the transcontinental railroad during the Civil War. FDR extended electric power throughout the nation in the midst of the Great Depression. These projects transformed American life, making possible huge gains in productivity and the creation of whole new industries. They were the platforms of growth in their day. It's time we built the platforms that are right for our day--from high-speed broadband to a universal health care system that gives entrepreneurs the safety net they need to take risks.

Please join the New America Foundation and Washington Monthly for a spirited conversation on innovative entrepreneurship.

The featured speakers include Paul Glastris, the Washington Monthly's Editor-in-Chief; Robert Litan, Vice President for Research and Policy at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation; Monthly editor Mariah Blake; and Wired senior editor and NAF Fellow Nicholas Thompson. The discussion will be moderated by David Gray, director of the New America Foundation's Workforce and Family Program.

You can RSVP for the event here.

Steve Benen 7:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (2)

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By: Hilzoy

Global Warming: Even More Bad Consequences Than You Thought

This is not good news at all. "Ninety percent of Pakistan's agricultural irrigation depends on rivers that originate in Kashmir." There is a treaty in place dividing Kashmir's waters between Pakistan and India, and it "has survived three wars and nearly 50 years." But guess what:

"The treaty's success depends on the maintenance of a status quo that will be disrupted as the world warms. Traditionally, Kashmir's waters have been naturally regulated by the glaciers in the Himalayas. Precipitation freezes during the coldest months and then melts during the agricultural season. But if global warming continues at its current rate, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates, the glaciers could be mostly gone from the mountains by 2035. Water that once flowed for the planting will flush away in winter floods.

Research by the global NGO ActionAid has found that the effects are already starting to be felt within Kashmir. In the valley, snow rarely falls and almost never sticks. The summertime levels of streams, rivers, springs, and ponds have dropped. In February 2007, melting snow combined with unseasonably heavy rainfall to undermine the mountain slopes; landslides buried the national highway -- the region's only land connection with the rest of India -- for 12 days. (...)

Water is already undermining Pakistan's stability. In recent years, recurring shortages have led to grain shortfalls. In 2008, flour became so scarce it turned into an election issue; the government deployed thousands of troops to guard its wheat stores. As the glaciers melt and the rivers dry, this issue will only become more critical. Pakistan -- unstable, facing dramatic drops in water supplies, caged in by India's vastly superior conventional forces -- will be forced to make one of three choices. It can let its people starve. It can cooperate with India in building dams and reservoirs, handing over control of its waters to the country it regards as the enemy. Or it can ramp up support for the insurgency, gambling that violence can bleed India's resolve without degenerating into full-fledged war. "The idea of ceding territory to India is anathema," says Sumit Ganguly, a professor of political science at Indiana University. "Suffering, particularly for the elite, is unacceptable. So what's the other option? Escalate."

"It's very bad news," he adds, referring to the melting glaciers. "It's extremely grim."

Bear in mind that Pakistan is fairly poor, and its population is increasing fairly rapidly. It badly needs serious economic development, but the combination of corruption, official lack of interest, and the burden of its army make that difficult. Moreover, while it seems obvious to an outside observer like me that Pakistan ought to find some way of making peace with India, and while a lot of Pakistanis seem to agree, the conflict with India is part of the raison d'etre of the army, which will not easily give up one of its main justifications for getting lots of money from the government, and holding a lot of political and economic power. That makes a sane resolution to this problem a lot less likely than it would be otherwise.

As I said: bad news -- and one more reason to try to get serious about dealing with global warming.


Special Pakistan bonus: a video about their amazing decorated trucks and buses. Watch it. The trucks and buses really are that marvelous, and almost all, in Karachi at least, are decorated like this. (h/t)

Hilzoy 1:18 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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July 16, 2009
By: Hilzoy

Good To Know

It's nice to get definitive proof that some bloggers really don't bother to do basic research before posting something, and we got some today. Here's a scary article from Investment Business Daily:

"It didn't take long to run into an "uh-oh" moment when reading the House's "health care for all Americans" bill. Right there on Page 16 is a provision making individual private medical insurance illegal. (...)

Under the Orwellian header of "Protecting The Choice To Keep Current Coverage," the "Limitation On New Enrollment" section of the bill clearly states:

"Except as provided in this paragraph, the individual health insurance issuer offering such coverage does not enroll any individual in such coverage if the first effective date of coverage is on or after the first day" of the year the legislation becomes law.

So we can all keep our coverage, just as promised -- with, of course, exceptions: Those who currently have private individual coverage won't be able to change it. Nor will those who leave a company to work for themselves be free to buy individual plans from private carriers."

That sounds scary! It also sounds completely implausible. So I went and looked at the actual bill, and there that paragraph was, on p. 16, in a section defining the term "Grandfathered Health Insurance Coverage". The fact that it's in a definition might lead readers to conclude that it doesn't mean that you can't buy individual insurance after the bill takes effect, but only that you can't buy such insurance and have it meet the bill's definition of "Grandfathered Health Insurance Coverage". There is a difference.

"Grandfathered Health Insurance" is mentioned in Sec. 102, Sec. 202, and Sec. 401. Unless my search engine has melted down, these are the only mentions of "Grandfathered Health Insurance" in the bill. None of them even comes close to banning private individual insurance. Check for yourselves.

Here are some bloggers who repeated IBD's claims: Instapundit (he updated after a reader pointed out his mistake), Meredith Jessup at Townhall, No Sheeples Here! (sic), Patterico, Gateway Pundit, theblogprof (sic), Ed Morrissey (he updates with a correction, but completely doesn't get why pooling individuals in an exchange lowers premiums. Hint: large risk pool), Say Anything, Michelle Malkin, Jules Crittenden, Right Wing News, Maggie's Farm, The Astute Bloggers (sic).

Since those claims are so obviously false to anyone who reads the actual bill, or even skims the relevant sections, I conclude that these bloggers did not bother to check them out before they posted. Which is to say: they didn't bother to do the most basic, rudimentary research that any blogger ought to do.

Tom Maguire, on the other hand, did, and spotted the mistake. Kudos.

This matters. One of the real mistakes many conservatives made, I think, was to dismiss people who disagreed with them. It's an easy thing to do: by definition, people who disagree with you say things that you think are false, and it's a short step from 'false' to 'obviously mendacious', 'intellectually irresponsible', 'flat-out insane', or something else that means that you just don't have to take the person in question seriously any more. If you want to keep yourself honest, though, you should listen to the people who disagree with you. But since life is short, it's nice to find an actual, objective test for things like intellectual irresponsibility, one that lets you just see that some people are, really and truly, intellectually irresponsible, and thus that you can dismiss them forever, and read them only for laughs, while saving your precious free time for others who deserve it more.

This is just such a test. Tom Maguire passed. The other bloggers I listed failed. That's useful information.

Hilzoy 11:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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By: Hilzoy