Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 28, 2010

QUOTE OF THE DAY.... ABC's "This Week" held its usual roundtable discussion this morning, with Elizabeth Vargas hosting a panel of Cokie Roberts, Sam Donaldson, George Will, and Paul Krugman.

The last topic of conversation was introduced by Vargas this way:

"[O]f course, this weekend, we have a brand-new White House social secretary appointed to replace Desiree Rogers, a close friend of the Obamas who is exiting after a bumpy tenure, I would say. Cokie, you spoke with her. She -- she was highly criticized after the Obamas' first state dinner in which she arrived, looking absolutely gorgeous, but in what some people later said was far too fancy a dress, but most importantly, that was the state dinner that was crashed by the Salahis, who walked in without an invitation when the social secretary's office didn't have people manning the security sites."

This led to a surprisingly long chat about Desiree Rogers.

Krugman sat silently while the discussion went on (and on), before eventually interjecting:

"Can I say that 20 million Americans unemployed, the fact that we're worrying about the status of the White House social secretary....

Donaldson responded, "Paul, welcome to Washington."

Look, I realize that not every discussion on a show like this is going to be substantive, sophisticated, and policy focused. Not every post I write for this site is going to highlight critically important issues, either. There's nothing wrong with including heavier and lighter subjects in the same public affairs forum.

But this panel discussion covered exactly four subjects this morning: health care reform, Charlie Rangel's ethics problem, David Paterson's latest troubles, and the fate of the former White House social secretary (and where she's from, what her clothes looked like, what her next job is likely to be, etc.), which hardly seems relevant to anyone who doesn't actually attend social events at the White House.

In this same discussion, there was nothing about the jobs bill that passed the Senate this week, nothing about the incredibly important Zazi guilty plea this week (and the fact that it makes Republican talking points look ridiculous), nothing about Jim Bunning single-handedly delaying unemployment insurance for those who need it.

I wonder, who was the target audience for the discussion of Desiree Rogers, who most Americans have never heard of, and whose White House position has nothing to do with public policy? The general public or the D.C. cocktail circuit crowd?

Krugman no doubt annoyed the show's producers by mentioning the inanity of the subject matter, but he's right to remind his colleagues of what matters. For Donaldson to "welcome" him "to Washington" was insulting -- to Krugman and the rest of us.

Steve Benen 2:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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WE ALREADY TRIED INCREMENTALISM.... Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) was rewarded for his dishonesty during the White House health care summit with an invitation to appear on ABC's "This Week." He reiterated a point he raised during the bipartisan discussion, and said Congress, as an institution, is simply incapable of passing major legislation on any issue.

"I've watched the comprehensive immigration bill, I've watched the comprehensive economy-wide cap and trade, I've watched the comprehensive health care bill, they fall of their own weight, because we're biting off more than we can chew in a country this big and complex and complicated," Alexander argued. "I think we do better as a country when we go step by step toward a goal."

We talked the other day about one of the reasons this is so unpersuasive. Whether Alexander understands the policy details or not, there are plenty of parts to health care reform, but they're inter-locking. It's easy to say we'll take some steps now, and leave others for later, but to make it so that those with pre-existing conditions aren't discriminated against, for example, we'll need mandates and subsidies. It's like an engine -- the parts don't work unless they're part of a larger whole.

But there's another truth that often goes overlooked. We've been trying to address the problem through Alexander's preferred approach -- incremental, piecemeal reform -- and the system keeps getting worse anyway.

After President Bill Clinton failed to get Congress to pass his health care bill in 1994, Republicans, who then had substantial victories in the House and Senate, worked with him to pass legislation like the health care privacy bill, a children's health insurance program and the Balanced Budget Act, which contained significant changes to the Medicare program. Under President George W. Bush, the Republicans went on to pass a drug benefit under Medicare. "In the space of less than 10 years, you have several major bills," Mr. Butler said. [...]

But President Obama clearly prefers passage of a broader bill. In wrapping up Thursday's session with lawmakers, he and other Democrats warned that an incremental approach was likely to provide too little relief to the people already feeling the effects of a broken system. "It turns out that baby steps don't get you to the place that people need to go," he said.

Alexander keeps saying we should try to do a little bit at a time, overlooking the fact that we've been doing a little bit at a time. He wants to get "step by step"? As Frank McArdle, a consultant with Hewitt Associates explained, "We've had a lot of incremental reforms already."

S-CHIP expansion here, Medicare expansion there. Some insurance reforms here, some expanded access there. This has been the model for 15 years -- since right-wing opposition led to the death of the last attempt at comprehensive reform. Is the system any better as a result of incrementalism? No, it's considerably worse, and deteriorating further with each passing year.

We tried it Alexander's way. Why stick with failure?

In the larger context, I honestly don't know if Alexander is right about what America's institutions are capable of accomplishing. Congress was once able to pass landmark legislation like Social Security and Medicare, but perhaps, in light of Republican obstructionism, Democratic sheepishness, and an effective far-right noise machine, hopes that lawmakers can respond to big problems with equally big solutions are a thing of the past. It's possible we've entered a period in which our challenges are too great, and once-strong American institutions are simply no longer up to the task. We'll have to collectively settle for small ideas from small politicians with small ambitions.

But I nevertheless hold out hope that President Obama and congressional Democrats will prove Alexander and his meek allies wrong. The governing majority can still pass the health care reform package we've been waiting generations for, and prove that the United States can still confront a huge crisis and respond in kind.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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THE CONSEQUENCES OF FAILURE.... A little too much of the media analysis when it comes to health care is about political ramifications. The NYT's Reed Abelson did a great job today exploring the real-world consequences if Democrats fail to follow through.

Suppose Congress and President Obama fail to overhaul the system now, or just tinker around the edges, or start over, as the Republicans propose -- despite the Democrats' latest and possibly last big push that began last week at a marathon televised forum in Washington.

Then "my health care" stays the same, right?

Far from it, health policy analysts and economists of nearly every ideological persuasion agree. The unrelenting rise in medical costs is likely to wreak havoc within the system and beyond it, and pretty much everyone will be affected, directly or indirectly.

"People think if we do nothing, we will have what we have now," said Karen Davis, the president of the Commonwealth Fund, a nonprofit health care research group in New York. "In fact, what we will have is a substantial deterioration in what we have."

The piece covers some familiar ground, but it's a terrific overview. If reform comes up short, costs will soar, budgets will be pushed towards bankruptcy, the ranks of the uninsured will grow, those lacking coverage will die, premiums will get even more unaffordable, and our economic growth and workers' wages will be stunted.

This isn't some wild-eyed speculation; this is simply a reality that no serious person contests.

When I read pieces like this, I sometimes just shake my head at public opposition to reform. We know the system is broken; we know we pay too much and get too little. We know the Republican attacks against reform proposals are wrong. Given the mess we're in, the demand for comprehensive reform should be overwhelming.

And yet, the resistance to sound ideas is fairly intense.

The efficacy of the right-wing noise machine is really a sight to behold.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH.... For Democratic lawmakers who are on the fence about whether to kill health care reform, research like this should have some influence.

As members of the Obama administration and Congress met on Thursday to try to find common ground on health care, a new report warned that without comprehensive legislation, more than 275,000 adults nationwide will die over the next decade because of a lack of health insurance. [...]

An earlier study by the Institute of Medicine estimated that 18,000 people died prematurely in 2000 because they lacked insurance; the Urban Institute updated that figure to 22,000 in 2006. The new study, by liberal advocacy group Families USA, applied the same methodology used in the previous reports to drill down and calculate, on both a national and state-by-state basis, the latest figures.

"This is only the tip of the iceberg, and the most severe consequence, which is death," said Kathleen Stoll, director of health policy at Families USA. In addition, thousands of other citizens, perhaps millions, are experiencing a reduction in the quality of their lives and their health because they lack insurance, she said.

By now, the reasons to pass a reform package into law should be pretty obvious -- the status quo is a dysfunctional mess that burdens families, strains budgets, and undermines the economy.

But for some, we're literally talking about a life-or-death situation. For adult Americans under the age of 65 -- those, in other words, who can't qualify for our wildly popular socialized-medicine program -- 68 people die every day due to lack of coverage. By the end of the decade, it will be 84 Americans per day.

A growing body of research has explored the connection between a lack of health insurance and an increased risk of death. Uninsured people are more likely to skip screenings and other preventive care, so their medical problems are often diagnosed later, when they are more advanced and tougher to treat. The uninsured are also more likely to skimp on necessary medical care, whether it's prescription drugs to keep their blood pressure in check or surgery to clear up clogged arteries.

"The bottom line is that if you don't get a disease picked up early and you don't get necessary treatment, you're more likely to die," said Stan Dorn, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and the author of the organization's earlier study.

It doesn't have to be this way. No other industrialized democracy on the planet tolerates such cruelty.

Pass. The. Damn. Bill.

Steve Benen 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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SHARING TEA.... At first blush, it seems a little silly to hear House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a bold champion of liberalism, suggest she has much in common with "Tea Party" activists, but there's nevertheless something endearing about this message.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she has much in common with the Tea Party.... In a "This Week" interview with ABC's Elizabeth Vargas, Pelosi said, "We share some of the views of the Tea Partiers in terms of the role of special interest in Washington, D.C., as -- it just has to stop. And that's why I've fought the special interest, whether it's on energy, whether it's on health insurance, whether it's on pharmaceuticals and the rest."

Pelosi held to her skepticism about what is behind the movement. "Some of it is orchestrated from the Republican headquarters," Pelosi said. She also added that, "Some of it is hijacking the good intentions of lots of people who share some of our concerns that we have about the role of special interests."

There are multiple factions within this so-called "movement," and it's often challenging to keep track of what it is, exactly, that these activists are so worked up about. Much of the time, the Teabaggers themselves don't really know why they're so angry.

But Pelosi's suggestion that the activists have a fair amount in common with Democrats' progressive ideas is not as foolish as it might seem. The "movement" cares about fiscal responsibility? Then the activists certainly would have no use for Republicans, who added $5 trillion to the debt, left Dems with a $1.3 trillion deficit to clean up, and deliberately decided that they could expand government without paying for it. More recently, the GOP rejected PAYGO and a deficit commission that they proposed. If fiscal responsibility is a top concern, it's entirely reasonable to argue Democrats are the more fiscally responsible party.

The "movement" cares about wealthy interests dictating public policy over the needs of regular Americans? Then the activists certainly would have no use for Republicans, who not only run corporate lobbyists as candidates, but barely make a move without getting lobbyists' permission.

The "movement" cares about taxes? Then the activists certainly would have no use for Republicans, who voted against one of the largest tax-cut packages for the middle class in American history when they opposed the recovery effort a year ago.

The "movement" cares about the size and scope of government? Then the activists certainly would have no use for Republicans, who expanded Medicare and enthusiastically embraced government intercepting Americans' communications without a warrant.

To be sure, much of the Tea Party crowd is well beyond reason, and has embraced delusional and paranoid right-wing fantasies. For these folks, Speaker Pelosi's remarks will likely be laughable.

But for some of the well-intentioned factions, the notion of driving a wedge isn't entirely far-fetched.

Steve Benen 9:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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AN ELUSIVE HOUSE MAJORITY.... When weighing health care reform's legislative prospects, the political world is accustomed to focusing most of its attention on the Senate. It's the upper chamber where obstructionism is easier, and where a powerful bloc of temperamental center-right Dems wields disproportionate power.

But over the next few weeks, the emphasis should shift. Senate approval of a small, health care-related budget fix with 51 votes should prove challenging, but achievable. Indeed, with senators who've frowned on reconciliation coming around, the odds improve nearly every day.

The House is going to be far more difficult. This became obvious this week, and it remains a major point of concern.

The future of President Obama's health care overhaul now rests largely with two blocs of swing Democrats in the House of Representatives -- abortion opponents and fiscal conservatives -- whose indecision signals the difficulties Speaker Nancy Pelosi faces in securing the votes necessary to pass the bill.

With Republicans unified in their opposition, Democrats are drafting plans to try on their own to pass a bill based on one Mr. Obama unveiled before his bipartisan health forum last week. His measure hews closely to the one passed by the Senate in December, but differs markedly from the one passed by the House.

That leaves Ms. Pelosi in the tough spot of trying to keep wavering members of her caucus on board, while persuading some who voted no to switch their votes to yes -- all at a time when Democrats are worried about their prospects for re-election.

When the House approved its bill in November, it garnered 220 votes. One of the votes came from a moderate Republican, Louisiana's Anh "Joseph" Cao, who has since changed his mind. One came from Florida's Robert Wexler who has since left Congress. Another came from Pennsylvania's John Murtha, who passed away earlier this month.

The Democratic leadership, then, has a very heavy lift to make -- it has to keep every other Democratic vote in earned in November, while convincing a few Dem opponents to change their mind. The NYT piece is filled with discouraging quotes from misguided Democrats who seem to think, for a variety of reasons, that a humiliating failure on health care would be acceptable.

So, is it time for panic? Not really. For one thing, several Democratic leaders, including the Majority Whip, are signaling quite a bit of optimism. Asked specifically this morning if she'll get a majority, the Speaker said this morning, "Yes." It's hard to know exactly how much of this is posturing and how much is sincere, but if reform simply isn't going to come to pass, I suspect the predictions would take on a very different tone.

Also keep in mind, some of the Dems voicing their reluctance may be playing for leverage, hoping to get something in exchange for their votes. On-the-fence members often have different motivations, and not all of them have to do with substantive policy differences.

Regardless, expect to see some movement fairly soon. The White House is poised to announce its proposed "path forward" this week, and the House expects to have a legislative plan in place "in a matter of days."

Post Script: In general, a House majority is 218 votes. Because of the vacancies, the new majority threshold is 217. Just a little something to keep in mind.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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DROPPING LIKE FLIES.... In January, much of the media decided that retirements among congressional Democrats were evidence of shifting political winds that will greatly benefit Republicans. In one report from ABC News, Democrats were characterized as "dropping like flies."

In the meantime, Republican retirements not only outnumber Democrats, the GOP total keeps growing.

Another House Republican, Representative John Linder of Georgia, is stepping down at the end of this session, making him the 19th to do so. He announced his decision Saturday morning in his district outside Atlanta.

Mr. Linder, an ally of fellow Georgian Newt Gingrich, was a respected fund-raiser and a reliable Republican vote during his nine terms in the House.... He has been a leading advocate of a national retail sales tax as a substitute for the current tax system and knocked off the conservative Republican Bob Barr in a 2002 primary caused by redistricting. His seat should easily remain in Republican hands.

There's apparently some dispute about exactly how many House Republicans have announced their retirements. Most of the totals I've seen put the number at 19, but National Journal says it's 20. I'm trying to nail down the precise number.

Regardless, the National Republican Congressional Committee is confident that the party will keep the seat in November, and with good cause -- it's solidly "red," with an R+16 partisan voting index.

But it's the larger context that still strikes me as interesting. There are 178 Republicans in the House caucus. There are now 19 House Republicans (and counting) retiring this year, seven more than among Democrats.

As a result, as we talked about a few weeks ago, more than one in 10 House GOP incumbents have decided to give up their seats in a year that's supposed to be a wildly successful one for Republicans.

In fairness, not all retirements are created equal. There's a qualitative difference between stepping down in a competitive district and giving up one's seat in a "sure thing" for one party. When considering questions like the balance of power, retirements are not quite the indicator some in the media would like to believe. This is very likely true in Linder's case -- Dems will struggle badly to compete in Georgia's 7th.

But if you ask anyone at the NRCC or DCCC for an honest opinion, I think they'd agree that when a party is supposed to have the wind at its back, and when that party's leadership is trying to keep retirements to a minimum, having more than 10% of the caucus walk away has to be discouraging.

Indeed, just two weeks ago, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said Democratic retirements are a sign that Dems are "running for the hills because they sold out their constituents and don't want to face them at the ballot box."

With GOP retirements outnumbering Dems' -- by a margin that's growing -- are we to also assume that Republicans don't want to face voters at the ballot box?

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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February 27, 2010

THE GOP'S SILENCE ON REFORM.... White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters yesterday that President Obama will signal the "path forward" on health care reform next week. He was understandably vague about what that means, exactly, but presumably it would include both procedural and policy details, describing what happens next.

Asked about reconciliation, Gibbs said, "I'm going to let him make a decision, and he'll communicate that next week."

The comments served a couple of different purposes, but perhaps most importantly, this was a message to Republicans: we're getting ready to move. You can decide right now whether to work with Dems, or get left behind. The White House initiated a lengthy and public chat -- now it's Republicans' turn. If the GOP has some thoughts on how it can play a constructive role, it can pick up the phone.

More than 48 hours have passed since the start of the bipartisan summit, and it appears Republican leaders and White House officials haven't said another word to one another about the issue.

In another sign that Obama and Dems have already decided to try to pass reform via reconciliation without Republicans, the White House has held no post-summit discussions of any kind with GOP leaders, Republican aides tell me, suggesting Obama advisers are no longer trying to reach a compromise.

Yesterday Robert Gibbs told reporters that Obama would announce the way forward next week, but he wouldn't confirm that Obama and Dems were moving forward with plans to pass reform under reconciliation rules.

But Senior Republican aides on both the House and Senate side say there has been zero communication between the White House and GOP leadership since the President and Congressional leaders walked out of the Blair House on Thursday afternoon.

"No post-summit discussions," a senior House GOP aide emails. "There has been no substantive outreach from the White House." A senior Senate GOP aide echoes: "No discussions."

This isn't especially surprising. Towards the very end of the summit, the president said, "I'd like the Republicans to do a little soul searching and find out are there some things that you'd be willing to embrace that get to this core problem of 30 million people without health insurance and dealing seriously with the preexisting condition issue."

But we know that Republicans don't want to "do a little soul searching," they don't want to compromise, and they don't want to pass health care reform. There's really nothing else to talk about.

The train is leaving the station. If 217 House Dems and 51 Senate Dems are on board, the nation will finally have the health care reform we've been waiting for since the days of Teddy Roosevelt. If not, reform will die, the crisis will worsen, and Democrats will have committed electoral suicide on a grand scale.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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JOBS NOW, DEFICITS LATER.... Lawrence Mishel and David Walker disagree on quite a bit. Mishel is president of the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive organization that, when it comes to the economy, generally supports robust public investment. Walker, the former head of the Government Accountability Office, is president and CEO of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, a far more conservative institution that focuses on deficit reduction and cutting the federal budget.

I wouldn't characterize these two as enemies, necessarily, but when it comes to economic policies and the role of government intervention, they don't often see eye to eye.

With that context in mind, I was very pleased to see Mishel and Walker co-write a piece this week with a message policymakers should take to heart: "Address jobs now and deficits later."

President Barack Obama is in a difficult position when it comes to deficits. Today's high deficits will have to go even higher to help address unemployment. At the same time, many Americans are increasingly concerned about escalating deficits and debt. What's a president to do?

The answer, from a policy perspective, is not that hard: A focus on jobs now is consistent with addressing our deficit problems ahead.

The difficulty is that many politicians and news organizations often cast deficit debates as a dichotomy: You either care about them or you don't.

But this is rarely accurate. The fact that the two of us, who have philosophical differences on the proper role of government, find much to agree on about deficits is a testament to the importance of dropping this useless dichotomy and finally talking about deficits in a reasonable way.

Their piece is well worth reading, and it's a shame it got lost in the shuffle this week. In a sane political world, it would be the basis for broad consensus. It's based on common sense: short-term deficits to improve the economy are more than tolerable; they're necessary. The stimulus has pulled the economy back from the brink, but "there is an economic and a moral imperative" to take additional action that prioritizes job creation.

Once the economy is stronger, Mishel and Walker argues, "structural deficits" will require considerable attention, and the budget gaps are "too substantial" to address without "both sides of the ledger: spending and revenues."

"Revenues," of course, means that taxes are going to have to go up eventually, which is anathema to modern Republican thinking -- taxes can't go up, on anyone, ever.

But for serious observers who want to circumvent the lazy and the hacks, Mishel and Walker offer a sensible vision. Policymakers probably won't care -- our process is badly broken; Republicans won't allow votes on worthwhile ideas; Dems are too afraid on ambitious action; and voters have somehow been convinced that what works does not work -- but I'm glad to see the piece anyway.

Steve Benen 11:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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CRESCENTS BEHIND EVERY CORNER.... Right-wing activist and media personality Frank Gaffney has a real problem with the Missile Defense Agency's website logo. In fact, he thinks it's part of a "nefarious" plot.


Now, he wasn't the first to raise a fuss. Some far-right observers insisted that the agency's logo was made to look too similar to President Obama's campaign logo. But Gaffney went much further, arguing that the "just-unveiled symbolic action" seems to "fit an increasingly obvious and worrying pattern of official U.S. submission to Islam and the theo-political-legal program the latter's authorities call Shariah."

Yes, as Gaffney sees it, when one combines the Islamic crescent and star with the Obama campaign logo, you get this new image for the Missile Defense Agency's letterhead. It's one big conspiracy, which relates somehow to the president's non-existent affiliations to Islam.

Al Kamen, however, looked into this a bit and found that the agency developed the logo three years ago. In other words, the Bush/Cheney administration was, to follow Gaffney's logic, taking the initial steps towards official U.S. submission to Islam and Shariah law.

It's easy to laugh at the stupidity of all of this, but I think Max Bergmann's point is a good one: "Gaffney is a prominent member of the right wing security establishment. He writes a regular column for the Washington Times, is a frequent commentator on cable television, and runs his own right-wing defense organization. Just this past October, at Gaffney's Center for Security Policy 'Keeper of the Flame' annual award dinner, Vice President Cheney was the featured speaker and recipient of the reward. Other guest speakers included Sen. Jon Kyl and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld."

Right. It's tempting to think some paranoid nutjob with bizarre conspiracy theories is irrelevant in modern American politics. But prominent conservatives consider Frank Gaffney a credible figure.

The mainstream of fringe lunacy is one of the key differences between the left and right in contemporary politics. Both sides have their nutty fringe, but only side thinks its whackjobs are sane.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week was a rare White House meeting, between Obama administration officials and prominent atheists. (via Ron Chusid)

President Barack Obama has burnished his Christian credentials, courted Jewish support and preached outreach toward Muslims. On Friday, his administration will host a group that fits none of the above: America's nonbelievers.

The president isn't expected to make an appearance at the meeting with the Secular Coalition for America or to unveil any new policy as a result of it.

Instead, several administration officials will sit down quietly for a morning meeting at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House campus with about 60 workhorses from the coalition's 10 member groups, including the American Atheists and the Council for Secular Humanism. Tina Tchen, the director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, and representatives from the Justice and Health and Human Services departments will participate.

Coalition leaders are billing their visit as an important meeting between a presidential administration and the "nontheist" community.

The Secular Coalition for America called the meeting "the first time in history a presidential administration has met for a policy briefing with the American nontheist community."

The Catholic League, which is offended for a living, condemned the gathering. "People of faith, especially Christians, have good reason to wonder exactly where their interests lie with the Obama administration," professional complainer Bill Donohue said. "Now we have the definitive answer." Donohue described attendees as "anti-religious activists" who would like to "crush Christianity if they could."

Also from the God Machine this week:

* The notorious C Street Center, an affiliate of a secretive international Christian network known as the Fellowship, or the Family, draws a new round of scrutiny: "A group of ministers has sent a complaint to the Internal Revenue Service saying that a town house on Capitol Hill that provides inexpensive lodging and meals for conservative Christian members of Congress is not a church and should no longer be granted the tax-exempt status afforded a house of worship."

* And Fox News' resident televangelist refuses to give up. Brit Hume, after using his national platform to urge golfer Tiger Woods to convert to Christianity, reiterated his plea while talking to Bill O'Reilly this week: "Now look, I think, because I'm a Christian and I believe that Christianity is true, that Tiger Woods and his wife Elin would be a lot farther down the road toward forgiveness and redemption if they were both Christians, but they're not."

Steve Benen 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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EXPERTS AGREE: PASS THE DAMN BILL.... If policymakers are still open to advice from experts not on Capitol Hill, this should be taken seriously.

Obviously, not all economists are in favor of the current proposals in Congress. But a pretty impressive list of health economists and other policy experts has released a letter making the following argument:

"We commend the President's pursuit of bipartisan solutions. Yet the summit made plain that it is now time to move decisively and quickly to enact comprehensive reform. We believe that the only workable process at this point is to use the President's proposal to finish the job. After long debate, the House and Senate have passed two similar bills that do crucial things to improve U.S. health care."

Harold Pollack and Timothy Jost pulled together responses from 80 nationally prominent experts, which included some pretty heavy hitters: "Jacob Hacker, Paul Starr, Theda Skocpol, Ted Marmor, Len Nichols, Jon Gruber, David Cutler, Henry Aaron, and many other luminaries from the social sciences, medicine, and public health. People on this list disagree about many things ranging from single-payer to the public option and the taxation of health insurance. We agree about one thing: It is time to finally pass this bill by majority vote in both houses."

The letter and list of scholars who signed on is available in full here.

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

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SHELBY'S BLASE OBSTRUCTIONISM.... In a Congress when Republicans' obstructionist tactics have become scandalous, and a discredited GOP minority has effectively shut down the American policymaking process, Sen. Richard Shelby (R) of Alabama still stands out for his brazenness.

Shelby, you'll recall, placed a blanket hold on several dozen administration nominees, holding them hostage until the senator was paid off in earmarked pork. He eventually backed off, at least in part, though he continues to block Senate votes on three top positions in the Air Force.

CNN's Dana Bash asked the right-wing senator yesterday whether his actions are justified.

BASH: I spoke with Geoff Morrell over at the Pentagon and just asked him what the impact is of not having these three people in place -- one of whom, as you know, is the number two at the Air Force. He said, "Without these people, we're not firing on all cylinders." And he also said, "It does adversely affect the organization."

Are you worried about that? This is a time of war --

SHELBY: The Pentagon is a big place. I don't think one or two will affect anything except on the margins.

BASH: Do you think that the nominees you have holds on are qualified?

SHELBY: Oh, I don't have any idea.

In a sane political world, this would put Shelby in an impossible-to-defend position. In the midst of two wars, the Pentagon wants to fill key Air Force vacancies, and the Commander in Chief has sent two qualified nominees to the Senate for confirmation. If given a vote, the nominees would be easily approved and could get to work.

A Republican senator (1) doesn't care what the Pentagon wants in the midst of two wars; (2) believes vacancies in the Air Force leadership aren't important; and (3) has no idea whether the nominees he's blocking deserve consideration.

I'm trying to imagine the political world's reaction if a Democratic senator had done this in, say, 2002. If the Pentagon said a Democratic block is "adversely affecting" operations during a war, and the Dem said he didn't care, wouldn't that be considered pretty scandalous?

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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THE INEXORABLY FLAWED PREMISE.... A rather conventional report in the New York Times, which ignores the most relevant detail:

White House officials and their allies in liberal advocacy groups are making an all-out push to persuade Congress and the public that budget reconciliation is a legitimate procedure used often in the last 30 years to pass major legislation, including President Ronald Reagan's domestic agenda in 1981, an overhaul of welfare programs in 1996 and President George W. Bush's tax cuts in 2001 and 2003.

Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, said he knew those precedents. But, he said, they amount to "peanuts compared with this total restructuring of one-sixth of the economy."

The whole discussion seems badly off-track. Democrats and other proponents of health care reform have invested so much energy in questioning the merit of the GOP argument -- pointing to all the other times reconciliation has been used, for example -- that they forget to question the premise.

Whether Grassley and his cohorts realize it or not, let's emphasize what the NYT did not mention: reconciliation would not be used to pass health care reform in the Senate. The Senate has already approved health care reform, with 60 votes, through an entirely conventional process. The next time the Senate votes on a reform-related measure, it's very likely to a small budget fix -- not the huge legislative package -- after reform is already finished.

The Democratic arguments in response to Republican complaints are plentiful and accurate, but ultimately irrelevant. The GOP is arguing that it would be outrageous to pass health care reform through reconciliation, but no one is recommending passing health care reform through reconciliation. The other talking points don't much matter when the premise of the Republican argument is proven to be inexorably flawed.

Reader Ron Byers noted that MSNBC's Chuck Todd and Chris Matthews, to their credit, emphasized this point on "Hardball" on Thursday, and I tracked down the video. It's a clip the DNC, the White House, and congressional Dems would be wise to keep in mind.

E.J. Dionne called Todd's observation "superb," adding, "I do not expect what I will call the Todd Clarification to stop Republicans from condemning the Democrats if they get a bill through with the reconciliation amendments. But shouldn't all of us be referring to them just that way -- as 'amendments' rather than as 'a bill'? ... Kudos to Todd for stating a truth that just about all of us have missed."

The next time you hear a Republican (or a reporter) argue that it would be wrong to pass health care reform through reconciliation, remember one critically important detail that's gone overlooked for weeks: the argument doesn't make sense.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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GOP REP: BLACKS BETTER OFF UNDER SLAVERY.... Rep. Trent Franks (R) of Arizona has long been one of Congress's most embarrassing members. But this week, the right-wing lawmaker may have reached a new depth.

Franks was speaking with blogger Mike Stark about civility and the public discourse. Unprompted, the congressman started reflecting on the African-American community, and his belief that African Americans may have been better off under slavery than in a legal system that allows legal abortions.

"[I]n this country, we had slavery for God knows how long. And now we look back on it and we say 'How brave were they? What was the matter with them? You know, I can't believe, you know, four million slaves. This is incredible.' And we're right, we're right. We should look back on that with criticism. It is a crushing mark on America's soul.

"And yet today, half of all black children are aborted. Half of all black children are aborted. Far more of the African American community is being devastated by the policies of today than were being devastated by the policies of slavery."

Franks added that he can sometimes say things that are "intemperate," but added, "I don't want to hide from the truth."

Let's consider this the latest in a long line of setbacks for the Republican Party's outreach to minority voters.

As far as the substance of the claim is concerned, Franks significantly exaggerated the rate at which black women terminate their pregnancies. But substance aside, hearing a Republican lawmaker argue, out loud, on camera, in the 21st century, that today's policies are worse for African Americans than the policies of slavery is just mind-numbing.

If Franks's name seems familiar, he's the same right-wing lawmaker who recently described President Obama as an "enemy of humanity," who "acts un-American," and "doesn't want people to see" his birth certificate.

In October, relying on a strange book published by a fringe website, Franks also asked the House Sergeant at Arms to start looking for Muslim "spies" on congressional committees.

A spokesperson for the DCCC responded yesterday, "To compare the horrors and inhumane treatment of millions of African Americans during slavery as a better way of life for African Americans today is beyond repulsive. In 2010, during the second year of our first African American President, it is astonishing that a thought such as this would come to mind, let alone be shared."

I do wonder, though, what kind of leadership post Trent Franks would get if House Republicans reclaim the majority next year.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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February 26, 2010

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

* Afghanistan: "Insurgents struck Friday at hotels in the heart of Kabul with suicide attackers and a car bomb, killing at least 16 people -- half of them foreigners -- in an assault that showed the militants remain a potent force despite setbacks on the battlefield and the arrest of more than a dozen key leaders."

* GDP: "The U.S. economy grew at a slightly faster pace than originally thought during the last three months of 2009, according to a government report Friday." The original report pointed to 5.7% growth; the revised report says the economy grew at an annual rate of 5.9% in Q4.

* New York Gov. David Paterson (D) won't seek re-election, but he intends to serve the rest of the year.

* Yoo seems to owe us some emails: "Senior Democrats and watchdog groups demanded Friday that the Justice Department investigate the disappearance of e-mail messages by Bush lawyers who drafted memos blessing harsh interrogation tactics, saying their absence cast doubt on an ethics report that cleared the lawyers of professional misconduct."

* The House ethics committee believes Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) violated House rules "that forbid hidden financing by corporations."

* In related news, the PMA Group probe appears to be complete: "The House ethics committee will clear seven members of Congress in a year-long probe that explored whether they may have violated ethics rules in steering hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds to contractors represented by one powerful defense lobby firm."

* It's as if Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) were a walking, talking case study on the desperate need for Senate reform.

* The Obama administration is "planning to use the government's enormous buying power to prod private companies to improve wages and benefits for millions of workers."

* Good advice to House Dems from former Rep. Marjorie Margolies (D-Pa.), who knows a little something about casting tough votes.

* Good to see SEIU's Andy Stern on the White House's debt commission.

* The White House will need a new social secretary.

* Did the Falwell-created Liberty University violate tax law? It sure looks like it.

* Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) hearts lobbyists.

* It's awfully big of the president to be this gracious towards Dick Cheney. Obama obviously has a lot of character, but I'm not sure I would be so classy if I were in his shoes.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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MEET THE NEW WAY FORWARD (SAME AS THE OLD WAY FORWARD).... The road to legislative success on health care reform has been readily apparent for several weeks: the House passes the Senate bill, the Senate approves changes through reconciliation. It's been the pass-the-damn-bill solution since last month's unpleasantness in Massachusetts.

There are still all kinds of variables that make success difficult. Will the House and Senate agree on a compromise deal that bridges the gaps? Are there 51 votes for the reconciliation fix? Are there 217 votes to pass the House?

Let's say, just for the sake of pleasant conversation, that all of those questions can be answered in the affirmative. That may or may not come to be, but let's just say it for now anyway. The next question is which chamber would go first. Time's Michael Scherer had a good item on this today. (via Kevin Drum)

The Senate does not want to go first because Republicans will be able to bottle up the reconciliation process, delaying the vote and making for another ugly sausage making spectacle that Americans hate to watch. If reconciliation takes too long, the thinking goes, then the House will never act, and the whole health care deal will die. But if the House goes first by passing the Senate bill, and the president signs it, then the incentive for Republicans to bottle up reconciliation would be diminished. Health care reform would, at that point, already be law.... Republicans would then be obstructing fixes to the law that would make the bill, arguably, better by getting rid of stuff like the "cornhusker kickback," a much tougher proposition.

Here is where it gets tricky: The House is not going to vote on the Senate bill (even with a separate package of amendments to match the Senate's reconciliation) until it is dead certain that the Senate will act. So how could those assurances be arranged? With the help of C-Span cameras, of course, or perhaps a letter from 51 Democrats vowing to pass reconciliation come hell or high water. Once the letter is read on the nightly news, the House can act, and suddenly the pressure would be on the Senate Republicans. With health care already law, the GOP will have to decide whether or not to spend weeks gumming up the Senate to delay some amendments to that bill.

Remember, as far as the Democratic leadership in the House is concerned, the Senate has to go first. As far as the Senate is concerned, the House has to go first. You see the problem.

The House's reluctance is driven, in large part, by mistrust -- the caucus doesn't think it can count on the Senate to follow through and approve a budget fix through reconciliation later.

But there may be some signals of progress on this front. Speaker Pelosi this morning wasn't quite as insistent on the Senate going first as she has been, and around the same time, Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said it would "help a lot" if a majority of Senate Dems signed a letter pledging to make agreed-upon fixes, just as Scherer alluded to.

Just as important, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee and an influential member of the caucus, told MSNBC that "choreography gets a little complicated," but he envisions the process moving forward. "That may require us to pass the Senate bill first, and then send the reconciliation bill to the Senate for them to pass," Miller said. "I think Senator Reid believes that he can put together the votes for that, and then we can have a new, modern health care system in this country that can be signed by" President Obama.

Glimmers of hope poke through the clouds....

Steve Benen 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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NO NEED TO PASS HEALTH CARE THROUGH RECONCILIATION.... If I understand the Republican talking points, which many in the media have already bought into, it's that health care reform is too "big" an issue to be passed through reconciliation.

Some of the slightly-less ridiculous conservative voices will concede that Republicans used reconciliation repeatedly when they were in the majority, but, they quickly add, this is different. Health care is health care. Something so sweeping shouldn't be approved by majority rule.

Let's clear up something really important here, because the political world seems to have forgotten.

No one's talking about passing health care reform through reconciliation. There's no need to pass health care reform through reconciliation -- health care reform has already passed.

You might remember December. The Senate had a very long debate, followed by a Republican filibuster. There was a vote to end that filibuster, which was successful. And on Christmas Eve, senators registered a vote, and health care reform passed, 60 to 39.

No tricks, no reconciliation, no abuses. Just a debate, followed by an unsuccessful filibuster, followed by a vote.

The next step isn't passing health care reform through reconciliation; the next step is passing a budget fix that improves the legislation that's already passed. That, of course, is why reconciliation exists.

The entire GOP talking point is based on a fallacy. If the Democratic plan proceeds, it would not be approving health care reform through reconciliation. That would be pointless -- health care reform already passed without reconciliation.

Tell your friends.

Steve Benen 3:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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MATALIN'S MENDACITY.... CNN's Mary Matalin's latest contribution to the public discourse:

"As we all know, without boring our audience, reconciliation process was not made for what they are trying to use it here. No one is afraid of it. Go ahead and do it. The president's notion that the people don't understand what this is belied by the polls. They understand what it is. The majority vote is tyranny of the minority."

There's an inordinate amount of nonsense in these 61 words. But since it's representative of the kind of rhetoric we're hearing from more than a few shameless partisan hacks, let's quickly take the three main points, one at a time.

Reconciliation wasn't made for a situation like this? Actually, that's backwards. Health care reform already passed the Senate with 60 votes. Lawmakers are considering some additional budget-related changes. Without boring Matalin, we all know that reconciliation exists for exactly the kind of circumstances Democrats are facing now. That's not a matter of opinion; it's just reality.

"People" understand the details of the Democratic policy? I wish that were true; it's not. To be sure, thanks to a combination of a massive misinformation campaign, inadequate media coverage, and Americans' easily-manipulated fears, reform proposals fare poorly in the polls. But there's plenty of data that shows Democratic plans looking quite popular after respondents are told what's actually in the legislation. Ironically, it's Matalin's argument, not the president's, that is "belied by the polls."

And finally, "The majority vote is tyranny of the minority"? I'm not sure what that means. In fact, I'm fairly certain that Mary Matalin doesn't know what that means, either. If we give the GOP operative the benefit of the doubt, and assume she meant to say that majority rule is the "tyranny of the majority," that's still rather ridiculous. At what point does a majority-rule decision become tyrannical? Should we not approve anything unless the vote is unanimous, so as to prevent oppressive tyranny against those in opposition?

Is it me, or have Republican talking points taken on the air of desperation?

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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JUDD GREGG WAS RIGHT THE FIRST TIME.... I've been emphasizing this since September, but given its new and timely relevance, I'm glad to see a reminder from Brian Beutler.

Republicans are doing everything they can to convince the media and the public that using the budget reconciliation process to finish health care amounts to the "nuclear option" -- a term that came to fame when Republicans tried to change the Senate rules regarding the minority's right to obstruct judicial nominations.

But the "nuclear option" was a rule change. Reconciliation is part of the Senate rules. And there's perhaps no better person to make that point than Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) -- the Senate Republicans' top budget guy -- who vociferously defended the use of reconciliation when his party tried to use it in 2005 to allow drilling in Alaska.

In March 2005, Senate Republicans really wanted to let oil companies drill the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Democrats not only opposed the bill, they told the GOP majority that it would need 60 votes to pass the drilling proposal. Gregg said the ANWR issue should be considered under reconciliation.

"The point, of course, is this: If you have 51 votes for your position, you win," Gregg told his Senate colleagues on the floor.

He added, "Reconciliation is a rule of the Senate (that) has been used before for purposes exactly like this on numerous occasions... Is there something wrong with majority rules? I don't think so." Responding to the argument that it's wrong to use reconciliation on a domestic oil drilling measure, Gregg concluded, "We are using the rules of the Senate as they are set up to be used, and that happens to be the rule of the Senate."

Judd Gregg now believes using the rule of the Senate is an outrageous abuse. How quickly they forget.

Steve Benen 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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HOBOS AND HAMMOCKS.... One of the more frustrating political stories of the day is the effort of one far-right Republican senator to block extended unemployment benefits, which will expire on Sunday. It's a reminder, though, that some conservative lawmakers seem to have something against the unemployed.

Take Rep. Dean Heller (R) of Nevada, for example. (via Pat Garofalo)

Heller said the current economic downturn and policies may bring back the hobos of the Great Depression, people who wandered the country taking odd jobs. He said a study found that people who are out of work longer than two years have only a 50 percent chance of getting back into the workforce. "I believe there should be a federal safety net," Heller said, but he questioned the wisdom of extending unemployment benefits yet again to a total of 24 months, which Congress is doing.

"Is the government now creating hobos?" he asked.

This comes just a couple of weeks after Rep. Steve King, a right-wing Republican from Iowa, explained his opposition to extended unemployment benefits: "We shouldn't turn the 'safety net' into a hammock." (via reader B.D.)

Those of you who've lost your jobs and are struggling to find work in a weak economy? Some conservative Republican lawmakers seem to think you're lazy.

The Republican brand of "populism" sure is odd.

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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IF IT'S SUNDAY.... NBC News is excited to let us know about the "Meet the Press" guest list for this Sunday's episode.

This Sunday: Exclusive! Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)

After sparring with his 2008 presidential opponent -- President Barack Obama -- at this week's health care summit, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) sits down for an exclusive interview on this Sunday's "Meet the Press." What, if anything, was achieved at this bipartisan meeting? And how will Democrats and Republicans work together to confront health care reform and all the other challenges facing Washington, including terrorism, the economy and more?

I especially enjoyed the "Exclusive!" with the exclamation point, as if this were a rare, special occurrence -- instead of McCain's fourth "MTP" interview since March.

For those keeping score, this will be McCain's 20th appearance on a Sunday morning talk show since Obama's inauguration. That's an average of 1.5 appearances a month, every month, for over a year -- more than any other public official in the country.

Since the president's took office, McCain has been on ABC's "This Week" three times (9.27.09, 8.23.09, and 5.10.09), "Fox News Sunday" four times (12.20.09, 7.2.09, 3.8.09, and 1.25.09), CNN's "State of the Union" four times (1.10.10, 10.11.09, 8.2.09, and 2.15.09), and CBS's "Face the Nation" five times (1.24.10, 10.25.09, 8.30.09, 4.26.09, and 2.8.09). His appearance on "Meet the Press" this weekend will be his fourth since Obama's inauguration (2.28.10, 12.6.09, 7.12.09, and 3.29.09).

And who, exactly, is John McCain? He's the one who lost the 2008 presidential race badly, and is now just another reactionary conservative senator in the minority. Gregory will apparently ask for McCain's thoughts about health care, despite the fact that the senator's thoughts on the subject appear to fall somewhere between wrong, petty, and ridiculous.

There's just no reason for the media's obsession with McCain. None. Twenty Sunday-show appearances in 13 months? For an un-influential member of the minority? It's farcical.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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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.

* Paterson was out of friends and out of options: "Gov. David A. Paterson is set to announce that he will not seek election in the wake of reports that he and the State Police intervened in a domestic-assault case against a senior aide, according to a person told about the plans. He is expected to make the announcement this afternoon."

* Scuttlebutt is getting louder that Florida Gov. Charlie Crist will leave the GOP and run for the Senate as an independent. The governor's campaign described the rumors as "patently false."

* In Illinois, a Research 2000 poll conducted for Daily Kos shows state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D) leading Rep. Mark Kirk (R) in their Senate race, 43% to 36%.

* The same poll shows Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) leading his Republican challengers by double digits, in Quinn's bid for a full term.

* A Suffolk poll in Massachusetts shows incumbent Gov. Deval Patrick's (D) support slipping statewide, though he still narrowly leads in a three-way contest. Patrick, who's running for re-election this year, has 33% support, followed by Republican Charlie Baker with 25%, and state Treasurer Tim Cahill, a former Dem running as an independent, with 23%.

* In Nevada, a Mason-Dixon poll shows incumbent Gov. Jim Gibbons (R) still trailing in his primary race against Brian Sandoval (R), but the margin is a little closer. A month ago, Sandoval led by 16 points. Now, his lead is down to seven points.

* In North Carolina, where Sen. Richard Burr (R) is considered vulnerable, a new Rasmussen poll shows him with comfortable leads over his Democratic challengers.

* The race to replace the late Rep. John Murtha (D) in Pennsylvania is still in flux, with former Lt. Gov. Mark Singel (D) unexpectedly quitting yesterday. The leading Dems are now former state Treasurer Barbara Hafer and former Murtha aide Mark Critz.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (2)

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'BEST HEALTH CARE SYSTEM IN THE WORLD'.... The notion that U.S. health care system is "the best in the world" is brought up fairly often by conservatives. It sometimes seems as if rhetorical strategy seems premised on appealing to Americans' civic pride -- the American system couldn't possibly be a dysfunctional mess, because it's the American system.

And if it's the best, why bother with reform?

Gov. Bob McDonnell (R-Va.), in the official response to the State of the Union, described ours as "the best medical care system in the world." Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) recently called the status quo "the best" system "the world has ever known."

We heard plenty of this yesterday at the bipartisan summit, too. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) urged Democrats not to "destroy the fundamental market system that's made the American health care system the best in the world." Sen. John Barrasso (R) of Wyoming went a little further:

"I do believe we have the best health care system in the world. That's why the premier of one of the Canadian provinces came here just last week to have his heart operated on. He said, 'It's my heart, it's my life. I want to go where it's the best.' And he came to the United States. It's where a member of parliament -- a Canadian member of parliament with cancer came to the United States for her care. They all have coverage there, but what they want is care."

It's probably worth pausing to clarify matters a bit, and appreciating the differences between the quality of the care and the quality of the system.

No one is saying that there's something wrong with America's medical professionals, our technology, our facilities, and/or our ability to treat the ill. The United States has many truly extraordinary doctors, nurses, hospitals, and medical resources.

The point is who has access to this quality care, who can afford it, who'll die because they lack the necessary coverage, who'll get kicked out of the system under rescission, who'll never get into the system because of a pre-existing condition, and whether families, businesses, and government agencies will go bankrupt trying to finance such a system.

And what of the Canadian premier who came to the U.S. for heart surgery? Ezra's response was the right one:

America has about 50 million uninsured people within its borders. Canada has exactly 13 premiers. People should ask themselves a very simple question: Do they think they are likelier to lose their job and fall into the health-care situation of the uninsured or become an influential politician and enjoy the health-care options available to the most powerful people in the world?

If you're a United States senator, America may have the best health-care in the world. But if you're an ordinary person with the same vulnerability to bad luck that we all have, you're better off being in Canada, or France, or Japan, or somewhere that doesn't take your insurance away when Wall Street causes the economy to crash.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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MALPRACTICE.... Ask any Republican lawmaker what kind of health care reform provisions they can tolerate, and just about 100% of the time, the first two words out of their mouth will be "malpractice reform."

Here, for example, was Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during the afternoon session at the health care summit yesterday.

"[T]he point is that we don't have to go very far. There's two examples right now of medical malpractice reform that is working. One is called California and the other is called Texas. I won't talk about California because we Arizonians hate California because they've stolen our water.

"But the fact is that Texas has established a $750,000 cap for non-economic damages; caps doctors at $250,000; hospitals at $250,000; and any additional institution, $250,000; and patients harm to a finding of medical malpractice are not subject to any limitations on recoveries for economic losses. And I hope you'll examine it."

I hope policymakers will examine it, too, because the results of the experiments in California and Texas offer some important lessons.

McCain preferred to ignore California's experience, not because of water rights, but because the caps haven't worked the way conservatives would have liked.

He might also want to re-think the results out of Texas, where victims have repeatedly been screwed, and where costs weren't reduced anyway.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin's (D-Ill.) remarks on this yesterday were pretty devastating. I hope McCain will examine it.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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UNDERSTANDING BOEHNER'S LACK OF UNDERSTANDING.... House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) didn't have a whole lot to say at the health care summit yesterday, but when the topic at hand was mandates in the system, the GOP leader took his turn at the mic. Boehner brushed past the subject, and instead asked a few rhetorical questions.

"Mr. President, I told you the day after -- maybe it was the day you were sworn in as president -- I would never say anything outside of the room that I wouldn't say inside the room. I've been patient. I've listened to the debate that's gone on here.

"But why can't we agree on those insurance reforms that we've talked about? Why can't we come to an agreement on purchasing across state lines? And why can't we do something about the biggest cost driver, which is medical malpractice and the defensive medicine that doctors practice?"

It's important to keep the larger context in mind. Boehner's comments came fairly late in the day, which means policymakers had already discussed, in considerable detail, exactly why Democrats and Republicans disagree on insurance reform, across state lines, and medical malpractice. In other words, Boehner wasn't posing these questions in an opening statement, hoping to lay the groundwork for additional discussion; he was posing questions that everyone in the room already knew the answers to.

As Jon Chait noted, "It's like he wasn't even there. Does he not understand what the other side is saying? Does he not care at all? It's not that he's provided an answer to Obama's arguments that I disagree with. He's just totally unable to acknowledge or engage at any level with the arguments presented. You're debating a brick wall."

I suppose the extended debate over the nature of Republicans' arguments -- are folks like Boehner actually dumb or are they just pathologically dishonest -- will never really end. But hearing Boehner's bizarre presentation and ridiculous questions was one of the day's more frustrating, head-shaking moments. He emphasized that he'd "listened to the debate that's gone on here," which couldn't really be true -- if he'd listened he wouldn't have asked the questions -- unless Boehner simply lacked the intellectual wherewithal to keep up.

It was also around that time when I remembered that John Boehner may very well be the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in just 11 months -- at which point I broke out in a cold sweat.

For what it's worth, the president patiently waited for Boehner to finish, before explaining to the GOP leader, "[E]very so often, we have a pretty good conversation trying to get on some specifics, and then we go back to, you know, the standard talking points that Democrats and Republicans have had for the last year. And that doesn't drive us to an agreement on issues."

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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GOP'S BUNNING BLOCKS BENEFITS FOR UNEMPLOYED.... With unemployment benefits and health insurance subsidies for the jobless due to expire this weekend, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) agreed on a measure to extend the aid. The Senate was supposed to vote last night.

Sen. Jim Bunning (R) of Kentucky, who has occasionally seemed mentally unstable in recent years, had other plans.

Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) launched a one-man filibuster late Thursday night against a bill with several popular provisions aimed at people hit hardest by the recession. So far, he is succeeding. [...]

Although Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill) is expected to resume attempts to pass the extensions Friday morning, Bunning has said he will continue to object, and with lawmakers gone for the weekend, there is little chance the bill will pass before Sunday.

Unless an agreement is reached today, assistance for the unemployed will run out on Sunday.

This was especially rich: "As the fight drew to a close, Mr. Bunning complained he had been ambushed by the Democrats and was forced to miss the Kentucky-South Carolina basketball game."

When one of his Democratic colleagues said it was time for Bunning to stop holding up the Senate, he reportedly said, "Tough shit."

The package also includes extensions of flood insurance, highway funding and small business loans. Bunning insisted that if the financing doesn't come from the economic recovery package, then he'll delay the process as long as possible -- regardless of the consequences.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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WITH OR WITHOUT YOU.... The stated goal of the White House summit on health care was to have a conversation. President Obama wanted to talk with lawmakers from both parties about areas of agreement and disagreement. He may have even held out some hope that Republicans would show more flexibility than they've been willing to consider thus far.

But now that the forum has come and gone, there can be no doubt that the White House intends to move forward with its plans for a comprehensive health care reform package.

White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer posted an item last night, reiterating how the president perceives the state of the debate. Pfeiffer highlighted the merit of the Democratic proposal, rejected a conservative approach to regulations, and said "a problem this big cannot be addressed incrementally." He added:

[W]hile the President appreciated the participation and input of everyone today, he doesn't think we can just scrap a year's worth of work and start over. The millions of Americans that are suffering can't afford another year-long debate. There's too much at stake.

In effect, yesterday was about both sides asking the other a fundamental question. Obama's question for Republicans was, "We're offering a bipartisan, comprehensive package built around principles you claim to support. Are you willing to work with us?" Republicans came with their own question: "Will you throw out all the work you've done and promise to let us kill reform with a filibuster?" Both sides have the same answer to the competing questions: "No."

The difference is, Democrats are the governing majority, and the party's leaders see no reason to make Republican satisfaction a prerequisite for success.

Indeed, the president said as much during his closing remarks yesterday afternoon.

"[W]hat I'd like to propose is that I've put on the table now some things that I didn't come in here saying I supported, but that I was willing to work with potential Republican sponsors on. I'd like the Republicans to do a little soul-searching and find out are there some things that you'd be willing to embrace that get to this core problem of 30 million people without health insurance and dealing seriously with the preexisting condition issue.

"I don't know, frankly, whether we can close that gap. And if we can't close that gap, then I suspect Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner are going to have a lot of arguments about procedures in Congress about moving forward."

As Greg Sargent explained, "Whether Obama and Dems will succeed in passing reform on their own is anything but assured, to put it mildly. But there's virtually no doubt anymore that they are going to try."

Christina Bellantoni added, "Obama's statement and Democratic reactions after the summit were the clearest signal yet that the majority party is charging ahead and abandoning attempts at bipartisanship."

Dems were, of course, given no other choice. Republicans oppose health care reform.

With that in mind, Democrats have two short-term goals: crafting a final package that can (1) get 218 Democratic votes in the House; and (2) get 51 Democratic votes in the Senate. And those head-counting efforts are already well underway.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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AN ILLUSTRATIVE SUCCESS.... The New York Times mentioned in passing this morning that the White House health care summit "was a kind of Hail Mary pass, a last-ditch effort to keep [President Obama's] top legislative priority from slipping out of his grasp."

That's probably not the best analogy. When a game is nearly over, a Hail Mary pass is tried in desperation. And if it fails to connect, the team that attempted it loses. But in this case, there's no reason to think health care reform is in any worse shape than it was 24 hours ago. Indeed, by some measures, it might be slightly better off.

It's probably only natural to consider a high-profile event like this by weighing whether it was a "victory" for one side or the other, looking for "winners and losers." I suppose a reasonable case could be made for just about anyone to consider this a "win" -- the president won by making a powerful case for reform, and proving he knows infinitely more about the issue than his GOP rivals. Republicans won by maintaining message discipline and refusing to back down. Congressional Democrats won by having their predictions about GOP intransigence proven right.

But if we put aside that analysis, a more important truth emerges: it became painfully, overwhelmingly clear yesterday exactly what has to happen next.

E.J. Dionne's summary struck the right note.

The Republicans simply don't want to pass comprehensive health-care reform. That is the main lesson of today's health-care summit. It started, as Steve Stromberg pointed out earlier, with the Republicans wanting to talk more about process than about the content of the various health-care bills. It approached an end with House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) delivering the core Republican message: "Scrap this bill."

As I argued in a post I put up before the summit began, this discussion would be successful if it simply revealed the stark philosophical differences between the parties. That's exactly what it's done.

No reasonable observer, regardless of ideology, could disagree. We learned, over the course of an entire day, that Democrats and Republicans have wildly different visions on every possible aspect of the debate. As if it weren't enough that the two sides disagree about how to solve various problems, the parties also fundamentally disagree about whether the problems exist and whether there's even any point in trying to solve them.

Jonathan Cohn noted that GOP proposals are clearly, woefully inadequate for addressing key public needs, but Republicans "seem to believe these problems are fundamentally unsolvable, at least in any manner they would find acceptable."

That's not even intended as criticism; it's simply a rephrasing of what GOP leaders said repeatedly. For Republicans, there's a dangerous intersection of practical and ideological concerns -- policymakers could fix dysfunctional aspects of the status quo, but that would mean spending money and imposing new government regulations. And since spending money and imposing new government regulations are bad, the dysfunctional aspects of the status quo must remain broken. QED.

If the goal of the summit was to reach a bipartisan compromise, the event obviously wasn't successful. If the goal was to change policymakers' minds, we can characterize yesterday as something of a letdown.

But if the goal was to air out the various approaches to health care reform, in a candid and transparent way, and realize once and for all that bipartisan compromise is quite literally impossible with an intractable minority that will settle for nothing but failure, I'd call the summit an illustrative success.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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February 25, 2010

HEALTH CARE SUMMIT OPEN THREAD.... It took nearly seven-and-a-half hours, but the bipartisan White House health care summit has wrapped up. I listened to just about every syllable, and I'll try to put together some coherent thoughts on this.

In the meantime, I thought I'd open it up for some discussion.

Did you watch? What'd you think?

Memorable moments?

Were you as impressed as I was in President Obama's depth of understanding of health care policy?

Did anyone get the slightest inkling that Republicans would be willing to compromise on literally anything?

Did the event change the dynamic in such a way to make reform more or less likely?

How will the media cover this (other than to obsess over the president's exchange with John McCain)? Notice anything interesting in the media's coverage thus far?

The floor is yours.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (91)

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

* I watched just about every second of the White House's health care summit. One thing I learned: it's hard to write blog posts and listen to health care discussions at the same time.

* Afghanistan: "A U.S. general hailed 'a very historical day, a new beginning' Thursday, as an Afghan flag was raised over the former Taliban stronghold of Marjah and troops began mopping up the last pockets of resistance."

* On a related note: "The Afghan government said Thursday that Pakistani authorities have agreed to hand over several suspected insurgents whom Pakistan has taken into custody, including the Taliban's No. 2 commander."

* The jobs crisis isn't close to being over: "The number of Americans filing first-time claims for unemployment insurance unexpectedly increased last week, a sign that the economic recovery will be uneven as the labor market struggles to rebound."

* More compromise: "The Obama administration is no longer insisting on the creation of a stand-alone consumer protection agency as a central element of the plan to remake regulation of the financial system. In hopes of quick congressional approval of a reform bill, White House officials are opening the door to compromise with lawmakers concerned about creating a new bureaucracy, according to congressional and some administration sources."

* Maryland will recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. Good for Maryland.

* Good to see a Democratic lawmaker defend the administration on national security grounds. Too many Dems are still afraid to touch the issue.

* Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) recommitted yesterday to voting with Republicans against health care reform, because he sees the Democratic bill as too conservative.

* Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) is stark raving mad.

* So is Frank Gaffney.

* Republicans really have used reconciliation more than Democrats.

* A tea party may be coming soon to a campus near you.

* Steve M. asks a provocative question: "Are right-wingers even the same species as the rest of us?"

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread -- about issues not related to the summit. I'm going to have a separate open thread on that shortly.

Steve Benen 5:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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OPPOSING THE IDEAS THEY SUPPORT.... I vaguely recall a time when Dems hoped Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) would be one of the more sensible, reasonable members when it comes to health care talks. So much for that idea.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) -- the Republicans point man on health care reform in the Senate -- has flirted with the idea that requiring people to purchase health insurance is unconstitutional. But fully joined the "Tenther" fringe at today's health care summit.

"The high cost of this bill comes from a non-constitutional mandate," Grassley said in an exchange with President Obama.

On the substance, relying on an individual mandate does not increase costs; it lowers them. Grassley's understanding of the underlying policy goals is backwards.

But let's put that aside. Grassley now wants us to believe individual mandates are "non-constitutional." This is the same Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) who told Fox News last summer, "I believe that there is a bipartisan consensus to have individual mandates.... There isn't anything wrong with it."

It's not just Grassley. Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Bob Bennett (R-Utah), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) all are on record co-sponsoring a reform measure that included an individual mandate.

The point here is not just to highlight the bizarre inconsistencies of Republican opponents of health care reform. This is also important in realizing why bipartisanship on health care has been quite literally impossible -- Republicans are willing to reject measures they've already embraced, and ideas they themselves came up with.

All the Democratic outreach and compromise options in the world can't overcome the fundamental lack of seriousness that comes with a party that opposes and supports the same ideas at the same time.

Steve Benen 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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PARSING THE MEANING OF THE WORD 'MAJOR'.... House Minority Leader John Boehner's (R-Ohio) office issues a statement today claiming that Democratic health care reform proposals "do not implement a single major GOP reform that would lower costs for families and small businesses."

Oh, please.

Three of the 11 pages in the plan Obama released Monday focus on tackling "waste, fraud and abuse," a key Republican goal. Seven of the 14 bolded proposals in that section are credited to a House bill authored by Illinois Republican Mark Kirk.

Another proposal to create a comprehensive database of sanctions against doctors for misusing Medicaid and Medicare was lifted from the Republican Study Committee. Obama took the idea for a real-time database of claims - to more quickly detect possible fraudulent payments - from an amendment that another Illinois Republican, Rep. Peter Roskam, made during a markup in the House Ways and Means Committee.

Boehner's office responded by saying these weren't "major" enough. Seriously.

Look, this is one of the easier points of the debate. The Republicans' "Solutions for America" page lists four health care planks -- and the basic structure of literally all four is already included in the Democratic plan.

The White House devoted an entire section of its site on health care to highlighting the list of GOP ideas incorporated into the Democratic reform package -- and it's not a short list.

Republicans really should find something better to complain about.

Steve Benen 3:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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A REMINDER ON WHY BIPARTISANSHIP ISN'T GOING TO HAPPEN.... One of the key takeaways of the health care summit thus far is a point that's been obvious for 11 months: Republicans aren't willing to negotiate in good faith, and have literally no interest in working towards a compromise on reform. Democrats have been willing to make all kinds of concessions, but the one question the GOP can't answer is, "Name one thing you don't want to see happen, but would be willing to accept as part of a compromise."

My fear is that political reporters are simply confused about the nature of the partisan conflict. Take Carrie Budoff Brown, for example.

If President Barack Obama really wanted to show he's serious about winning over Republicans on health care reform, he could offer up some key concessions at Thursday's summit, like caps on malpractice awards or allowing insurers to sell across state lines.

And if Republicans wanted to reciprocate, they could at least acknowledge the congressional scorekeepers are right -- the Democratic plans cut the deficit in the long term and rein in health care costs.

But that would assume either side is willing to do this.

Heading into Thursday's summit, there's been a lot of talk on both sides about how they're the reasonable ones, willing to meet in the middle -- and it's the other side that's to blame.

But the reality is, both sides have been responding to the overwhelming incentives to play to the home team, and to tailor their positions to seek partisan advantage and political gain.

But this isn't "reality"; it's nonsense. The Politico piece suggests Obama hasn't been willing to entertain GOP-friendly concessions on medical malpractice and insurance sales across state lines.

We already know this claim isn't true. Not only is the inter-state competition provision already a part of the Democratic plan, but President Obama very specifically said he's open to compromise on malpractice if Republicans would be willing to give on something else. They refused.

I've lost track of how many concessions Democrats have made to move this legislation to the middle. At this point, not only are the public option and Medicare buy-in gone, and single payer taken off the table before the discussion even began, but the legislation is loaded with Republican ideas. The package is so moderate, far-right Republicans, by their own admission, agree with 80% of it, and the legislation is almost identical to what moderate Republicans were offering 17 years ago.

Can Carrie Budoff Brown, or anyone else, name a single provision on which Republicans have shown flexibility? I suspect not.

And you know what? That's fine. They're the opposition; they're expected to oppose. The GOP doesn't want to pass health care reform; it never has. The problem is with the expectation that a huge Democratic majority can't even vote on its agenda unless a failed and discredited Republican minority says it's acceptable.

But this simple reality should affect how we look at the debate. Dems are in the majority, and they've practically begged Republicans to work with them, even putting the entire process on hold for months as part of a futile search for even a little GOP support.

To seriously argue that Dems have been "playing to the home team," "tailoring their positions to seek partisan advantage and political gain" is just absurd.

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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'THE ELECTION'S OVER'.... The discussions at the health care reform summit today have been broken up into sections. When Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took a turn to speak, the subject at hand was supposed to be insurance reform.

But McCain decided to skip the topic, and instead whine bitterly about process. He complained about not having enough transparency; he complained about things President Obama said during the campaign; and he complained about "unsavory" deal-making in the Senate.

The president, appearing a little annoyed, explained, "We're not campaigning anymore. The election's over." Obama added that "we can spend the remainder of the time with our respective talking points going back and forth. We were supposed to be talking about insurance."

When McCain, appearing even more acrimonious than usual, said, "The American people care about what we did and how we did it." The president replied, "They do care about it, John, and I think the way you characterized it would get some strong objections from the other side. We can have a debate about process or we can have a debate about how we help the American people at this point. And the latter debate is the one I think they care about a little bit more."

It's been a consistent problem all morning. Obama has tried, repeatedly, to focus the discussion on substantive policy matters. Republicans have generally responded with talk about process, legislative mechanisms, and the number of pages in the bill.

Knowing media outlets, this exchange will likely be one of the more talked-about developments of the morning (Obama vs. McCain will prove irresistible). And that's a shame, because the substance of this discussion matters infinitely more than the senator's resentment about losing an election.

McCain, like his GOP colleagues, was given a chance to raise meaningful concerns and debate the policy in earnest. But whining is so much easier than governing, and talking points are easier to repeat than arguments about policy.

For some, the election is never over.

Steve Benen 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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THE SECOND OF TWO SUMMITS.... An amusing exchange this morning on MSNBC, between RNC Chairman Michael Steele and the hosts of "Daily Rundown," Chuck Todd and Savannah Guthrie. Steele had a talking point he was excited about: the White House should have hosted a health care summit a year ago. He apparently had forgotten that it did.

STEELE: This whole dog and pony show that we're about to witness today is something that should have taken place a year ago, when the administration first came in last February and laid out its agenda for health care. This is how you should have started it - bipartisan, public forum, CSPAN, your cameras rolling to capture this and to capture, most importantly, what the American people want. And right now, they want us to start over, and I think we should.

TODD: Chairman Steele, in fairness to them, I mean, it was a year ago that they actually had a summit.

GUTHRIE: On March 5th.

TODD: And it wasn't just the legislative leaders. They brought in folks from the industry as well. And that one was televised.

Steele said that "apparently" that other summit didn't count "because we don't have health care."

That doesn't make any sense.

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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LET'S TALK ABOUT PREMIUMS.... The White House's summit is about a third complete -- the first two hours felt like 20 -- but there's one point of contention that's come up repeatedly, so it's worth setting the record straight.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) argued, in the Republicans' opening statement, that the CBO found that health care premiums would go up under the Senate Dems' reform plan. President Obama insisted that this wasn't true, and after some back and forth, concluded, "I'm pretty certain that I'm not wrong."

And, he's not wrong at all. Alexander just doesn't understand the issue very well.

Lamar Alexander and Barack Obama just had a contentious exchange on this point, so it's worth settling the issue: Yes, the CBO found health-care reform would reduce premiums. The issue gets confused because it also found that access to subsidies would encourage people to buy more comprehensive insurance, which would mean that the value of their insurance would be higher after reform than before it. But that's not the same as insurance becoming more expensive: The fact that I could buy a nicer car after getting a better job suggests that cars are becoming pricier. The bottom line is that if you're comparing two plans that are exactly the same, costs go down after reform.

You can find a full rundown of the report here.

Let's not forget, though, that the president explained this quite well, and yet, at least three other Republicans -- so far -- have said the Democratic plan would raise premiums.

Now, it's possible that these GOP lawmakers aren't paying attention. Maybe they're lying and hoping we won't know the difference. Perhaps they came with memorized talking points, and weren't able to adapt after reality had been explained.

But it's nevertheless a reminder about why policy discussions with Republicans tend to be pointless. They make claims that aren't true, and after being corrected, repeat those claims again anyway.

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

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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.

* There have been rumors about a story that would effectively ruin New York Gov. David Paterson's (D) re-election prospects. It was published in the NYT this morning.

* A possible scandal in Florida: "U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio charged grocery bills, repairs to the family minivan and purchases from a wine store less than a mile from his West Miami home to the Republican Party of Florida while he was speaker of the Florida House, according to records obtained by The Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times."

* Former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D) of Tennessee tried to connect last night with gay-rights supporters in New York. Given Ford's repeated support for an anti-gay constitutional amendment, it didn't go well.

* In a web video, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is calling out his primary challenger, Rep. J.D. Hayworth for being a Birther. In a GOP primary in Arizona, this may not be effective.

* Sen. Robert Bennett (R) of Utah is already facing a primary challenge, and now that primary field is growing. Former Rep. Merrill Cook (R) will throw hit hat in the ring today.

* In New Mexico, Democratic Lt. Gov. Diane Denish appears to be the frontrunner in this year's gubernatorial race, at least according to the latest survey from Public Policy Polling.

* In Delaware, Rasmussen shows Rep. Mike Castle (R) leading in the open Senate race, leading Chris Coons (D) by 21 points, 53% to 32%.

* Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) will face his toughest challenger ever this year, with Morgan Griffith (R), the majority leader of the state House of Delegates, launching his campaign this week.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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INCREMENTALISM VS. COMPREHENSIVE CHANGE.... On health care, a key GOP talking point, outside concerns over process, is more of a meta observation: "comprehensive" approaches to public policy are fundamentally misguided.

Lamar Alexander has been a leading voice on the Republican side for incrementalism. His argument is that the White House erred by trying to pass such a big, sweeping reform bill, and so Democrats and Republicans should instead get together and pass popular parts of reform, one piece at a time. Analysts have pointed out that many reform ideas don't really work on their own; they have to be passed altogether in order to make the system work.

Right. There are plenty of parts to reform, but they're inter-locking. It's easy to say we'll take some steps now, and leave others for later, but to make it so that those with pre-existing conditions aren't discriminated against, for example, we'll need mandates and subsidies. It's like an engine -- the parts don't work unless they're part of a larger whole.

What's interesting, though, is that Republicans used to understand this -- not in some previous generation, but very recently. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said over the summer that "comprehensive" reform is "long overdue."

Around the same time, Republican Sens. Grassley, Kyl, and Enzi agreed that they support moving on a "comprehensive, inclusive" package.

Republicans have discovered that "comprehensive" is suddenly something to avoid, but they only came to that conclusion after the House and Senate already passed reform.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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OFF ON A PREDICTABLE FOOT.... If you're watching the White House health care summit, you may have noticed that Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has delivered an extremely long opening statement. I can summarize it for those of you who've missed it: "No. No, no, no. We're not willing to compromise on the legislation, and all we want is to kill the Democratic legislation and start over." Imagine about 17 minutes of that, with a bizarre metaphor about a car show and a de Tocqueville quote.

And expect a whole day of it.

At [today's] White House health care summit, lawmakers from both parties will sit down for six hours and, ostensibly, try to come up with a bipartisan compromise. But for the Republicans, only one compromise is acceptable: Scrap the bills we have and start over.

Minority leaders in the House and the Senate have both called for a total do-over, and other members of the Republican contingent are echoing the line.

In an op-ed today, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and White House Office of Health Reform Director Nancy-Ann DeParle raise a relevant response.

[W]e share the view of Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.), who said last September: "We agree on about 80 percent of the issues right now. It's just a matter of hashing out those few areas where we disagree."

That's why we think Republicans should find a lot to like in the proposal President Obama released on Monday. It contains several ideas taken directly from Republican bills, such as letting people save on their premiums if they participate in proven employer wellness programs, a proposal supported by Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.). Or giving states grants to evaluate medical liability models that can improve patient safety, reduce medical errors and bring down liability premiums, similar to a proposal Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) has supported. We know Republicans will support the measures to prevent health-care fraud, such as new background checks for Medicare suppliers and real-time reviews of claims, because they're the ones who wrote them.

The president's proposal also contains insurance reforms that Republicans have supported for years. For example, it would eliminate caps on benefits, a step that has been supported by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). Republicans including Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Richard Burr (N.C.) have backed one of the proposal's key elements: state-based, health insurance marketplaces where families will be able to easily compare insurance policies to find the one that's best for them. The president's proposal would also ban discrimination based on preexisting conditions, a change that Coburn and Burr pushed for insurance plans in these new marketplaces.

I've never heard of a set of talks where one side agrees with 80% of what the other side is offering, and to take the next step, recommends scrapping everything and starting over.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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WH SUMMIT UNDERWAY.... And they're off. Here's a feed of the White House's bipartisan health care summit.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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CUT SPENDING (BUT DON'T REALLY).... Politicians love to say what they think voters want to hear, and in this climate, that means promising to "cut spending." Folks are usually rather vague about where, exactly, spending should be cut, and there's a very good reason for that.


GW's John Sides published this chart yesterday in a great Salon piece, noting that the American National Election Study asked a national sample in 2012 about various areas of public spending, and whether current funding levels should go up, down, or stay the same. These results reflect the attitudes of self-identified conservatives.

Apparently, conservatives want to cut spending ... except for all of the things the government actually spends money on. They no doubt like the idea of spending cuts, but balk at the particulars. (It's the opposite of health care reform, in which people balk at the general idea, but love the specific policy details that make up the reform package.)

It's a reminder as one of the reasons Republicans failed so spectacularly when they were in the majority and controlled all the levers of government -- the right says "yes" to tax cuts, "no" to spending cuts, "yes" to huge deficits, all while paying lip service to fiscal responsibility. As an approach to governance, it's incoherent and it doesn't work.

What's more, also note that these results were not especially unique. Pew recently asked people if they wanted to see more spending, less spending, or no change on various parts of the budget. The only area that cracked the 20% threshold was "foreign aid," and even here, only 34% support cuts. In literally every other area of the budget, people wanted to see more spending, not less.

It's something voters should try to keep in mind during the midterms. For every candidate who boasts about his/her desire to cut spending, there should be a straightforward follow-up: where? If they can't answer the question, they probably don't mean what they're saying.

* Update: Looks like Sides erred on the chart. The original has been replaced.

Steve Benen 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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SMILE FOR THE CAMERAS.... For quite a while now, the media has pushed for significantly more transparency in the health care reform debate. News outlets have repeatedly reminded Americans of then-candidate Obama's call in 2008 to put "negotiations on C-SPAN."

It's interesting, then, to see one high-profile journalist -- CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller -- complain last night that today's health care summit represents too much transparency.

[B]y putting six hours of highly political talks on television, on one of the most controversial of his policy initiatives, it all but insures there'll be no breakthrough agreement on a health care bill.

If the televised proceedings of the House and Senate are a guide, the summit broadcast will provide six hours of political posturing about the proper role of government in regulating and mandating health care coverage.

In other words, Knoller seems to be calling for more behind-closed-door talks, where negotiations can continue honestly. What's lost in transparency would be made up in candor.

I don't disagree -- I've long thought this push for televised talks is kind of silly -- but hasn't the media been pushing in the opposite direction for months?

It seems as if the White House gets slammed for private, productive talks ("secret" negotiations), and the White House gets slammed for open, transparent talks ("posturing" and "theatrics").

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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THE INTERNATIONAL CONSEQUENCES OF GOP OBSTRUCTIONISM.... Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on the Hill yesterday, and explained to members of the Senate Appropriations Committee that political obstructionism and "gridlock" are undermining the United States on the global stage.

Domestic political disputes are hurting America's image abroad, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lamented this morning during testimony before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Department of State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs. The hearing addressed the State Department's fiscal year 2011 budget.

Clinton's remarks were in reference to a number of President Obama's diplomatic appointments that were held up by senators for political reasons over the past year.

"We're now more than a year into a new administration and whether you agree or disagree with a particular policy, a president deserves to have the people that he nominates serving him," Clinton said.

"It became harder and harder to explain to countries, particularly countries of significance, why we had nobody in position for them to interact with," she added.

I imagine it would have to be quite difficult for officials in other countries to understand why key American posts were left vacant for months, or worse, are still empty now. What's the Secretary of State supposed to say, "Well, I'm terribly sorry, Prime Minister, but we have no under-secretary for you to work with because Richard Shelby wants some pork for Alabama"?

Or maybe, "I'd like to refer you, Foreign Minister, to our ambassador, but more than a year after the president took office, only a majority of our Senate approves of the nomination, which means she can't get confirmed"?

Clinton also told the senators, "As we sell democracy, and we are the lead democracy in the world, I want the world to know we have checks and balances but we also have the capacity to move, too."

The consequences of Republicans denying up-or-down votes to key administration nominees go beyond mere annoyance. Deliberately or not, the genuinely scandalous GOP tactics are not only blocking the ability of policymakers to govern domestically, but also undercutting U.S. influence around the world.

"People don't understand the way our system operates, they just don't get it," Clinton added. "And their view does color whether the United States ... is in a position going forward to demonstrate the kind of unity and strength and effectiveness that I think we have to in this very complex and dangerous world."

If only Republicans could get past their petty partisanship long enough to care.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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NO MIDDLE GROUND BETWEEN SUCCESS AND FAILURE.... For those of us prone to hand-wringing when it comes to the fate of health care reform, there are still all kinds of things to worry about. Can Pelosi pull together 218 votes? How many members can Stupak keep together to kill reform? Will the Senate get 51 for reconciliation? Will the parliamentarian cause trouble?

But lurking in the background has been another nagging fear: would Dems decide comprehensive reform is just too heavy a lift, and scrap it for some pared-down, scaled-back package that doesn't do much, call it "reform," and pretend it's a victory? To use the football analogy, Democrats, down by five with the clock near zero, would kick a field goal -- they'd still lose but the defeat would look a little better.

The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that the White House hasn't ruled out this Plan B.

President Barack Obama will use a bipartisan summit Thursday to push for sweeping health-care legislation, but if that fails to generate enough support the White House has prepared the outlines of a more modest plan.

His leading alternate approach would provide health insurance to perhaps 15 million Americans, about half what the comprehensive bill would cover, according to two people familiar with the planning.

The White House isn't just denying the accuracy of the report, by all indications, the president's team is absolutely livid over the article. A Murdoch-owned paper, on the day of the health care summit, seems to be deliberately trying to sabotage Dems' efforts to create some momentum.

So, what's the truth here? It seems the White House, in the wake of the Massachusetts fiasco, drew up a variety of plans, and this watered-down tack was one of the possibilities. But here's the key: President Obama and his team chose not to pursue it, as evidenced by the White House push in support of the president's plan.

Indeed, for Democratic policymakers, this scaled-back approach -- Cohn noted that some insiders call it the "Skinny Bill" -- would likely be a political and policy disaster. It wouldn't solve the problem reform is intended to address; it would demoralize the base that needs the party to finish the job; it would still be the subject of ridiculous Republican lies; it would signal to the electorate that Dems can't govern effectively enough to deliver on their top priority; and it would delay the entire process by several months, likely killing its chances anyway.

Let's be clear: there is no fallback position. Plan B may exist on paper, but not in reality. The House and Senate have already passed health care reform bills, and the president has presented a way to bridge the gap between the two. If it passes and becomes law, Democrats will have delivered a historic success. If Dems come up short, and let this once-in-a-generation opportunity pass them by, it will be a failure for the ages, and the nation will suffer.

As Ezra explained, "At this point, health-care reform either passes or it dies. Democrats are all in on this one. They know it, Republicans know it, and maybe more importantly, they know the Republicans know it. Letting health-care reform fail is indistinguishable from conceding the 2010 election. There's no real fallback plan. If Democrats fall back, they fall."

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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February 24, 2010

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

* Toyota sure is sorry.

* The House passed legislation today to end the anti-trust exemption for health insurance companies. The final vote was 406 to 19.

* Don't expect interest rates to go up anytime soon.

* Is it possible that Pakistan has really arrested half of the Afghan Taliban's leadership?

* If you want to watch tomorrow's health care summit, the cable news networks plan on offering all kinds of coverage.

* Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) is once again taking steps to kill health care reform over abortion.

* Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) wants the estate tax to be at the top of the Senate's priority list. Sometimes, these far-right lawmakers really are parodies of themselves.

* Facing congressional resistance, the "Volcker Rule" appears to be in trouble.

* Blackwater would be stripped of its federal funding if it "started registering black people to vote." Nice one, Serwer.

* I often wonder if Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) is a secret liberal who says stupid things on purpose to make Republicans look ridiculous.

* When Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) decides to go after Republicans, few progressive voices are as cutting and brutal.

* Birthers are apparently dominant in the Arizona legislature's state House GOP caucus.

* The higher education recession.

* It's hard not to wonder if the Washington Post regrets not looking into Marc Thiessen's record before the paper hired him.

* Remember that chain email that made the rounds about AirTran Flight 297? It was literally unbelievable before, and it's now completely debunked.

* Yes, tragically, Limbaugh's racism can get worse.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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DEM MODERATES TIRE OF GOP TACTICS.... It's going to be difficult to pass health care reform in either chamber, but the trick in the Senate has been generating enough support for reconciliation. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced that he intends to use the procedure -- that only makes sense, the procedure exists for a situation like this -- but the question is whether his caucus would be comfortable with it.

The answer has been far from clear. Republicans have tried to characterize reconciliation as some kind of "abuse" or "trick," despite the GOP's repeated use of the same procedure when there was a Republican majority. Dems, already nervous, were intimidated by the GOP rhetoric.

Or, at least, they were. At this point, even center-right Democrats are so fed up with Republicans' obstructionist game that their reconciliation reluctance is fading.

"Obviously, if the minority is just frustrating the process, that argues for taking steps to get the public's business done," said Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who was one of the leading voices against the procedure after the Massachusetts election, calling it "very ill-advised." [...]

Bayh's remarks Tuesday came a day after Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) cited Republican obstructionism as a reason why she could embrace the parliamentary maneuver to pass health care reform. Last month, she said she was leaning against reconciliation.

"I'm staying open to see how these negotiations go forward," Landrieu said. "I've not generally been a big supporter, but the Republican Party, the leadership, has really been very, very, very disingenuous in this process."

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said he doesn't prefer reconciliation, but it may be the only way.

"I'd like to see as many votes as possible," he said. "But at the end of the day, with the obstructionism going on at the level that it is, I'm more interested in what's in the package than I am in the process of how many votes it takes to get it through."

Remarks like these obviously aren't guarantees, but Reid only needs 51 votes, and if the likes of Bayh, Landrieu, and even Nelson are warming to the common-sense rationale for reconciliation, it's an encouraging development.

What's more, as Jonathan Cohn noted today, when Senate Dems signal their support for using reconciliation, they "also embolden those House Democrats who fear the bill won't play well in conservative districts or don't trust the Senate to do its part."

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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THE DEMOCRATS' REPUBLICAN PLAN.... I'd strongly recommend readers check out this fascinating table published today by Kaiser Health News. It compares three approaches to health care reform: (1) the approach presented by President Obama earlier this week; (2) the proposal unveiled by Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.) in 1993, and (3) the bill championed by House Republicans four months ago.

It's hard not to notice that Chafee, an accomplished moderate senator before his death in 1999, crafted a reform plan that's very similar to what Democrats have in mind 17 years later. In some ways, they're nearly identical.

And then, of course, there's the plan pushed by Boehner & Co. late last year, which was a rather pathetic joke.

Ezra did a nice job capturing the larger context.

Boehner's bill, by contrast, is far, far more conservative (and useless) than what moderate Republicans developed in 1993. Conversely, the Senate [Democratic] bill doesn't look anything like the Clinton plan itself, much less like the more liberal efforts to expand Medicare to all Americans.

We've got a situation in which Democrats are essentially pushing moderate Republican ideas while Republicans push extremely conservative ideas, but because neither the press nor the voters know very much about health-care policy, the fact that Republicans refuse to admit that Democrats have massively compromised their vision is enough to convince people that Democrats aren't compromising.

I should note, of course, that John Chafee was a Republican when sane, progressive-minded Republicans still existed. He not only wanted to see health care reform, Chafee also supported gay rights and gun control, while opposing school prayer and the death penalty.

Had he survived long enough to see what's become of his party, and just how far to the extreme right it's gone, today's Republicans would have proudly driven John Chafee from the GOP with glee and satisfaction.

Regardless, Ezra's point is an important one. For all the hysterical whining from today's Republican Party and its right-wing allies, the Democratic plan couldn't be any less radical. Not only is it practically identical to what moderate Republicans wanted nearly 20 years ago, but its basic structure is the same as the plan Howard Baker, Bob Dole, and Tom Daschle were touting last year.

The fact that Americans have been led to believe the Democratic plan is an example of wild-eyed liberalism -- a notion largely embraced by much of the major media -- speaks poorly of our discourse and capacity to have a meaningful policy debate. It is, however, a reminder of just how effective the right-wing noise machine can be.

Steve Benen 3:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) remains something of a powerhouse in Republican circles, so it seemed noteworthy that he doesn't seem to have much respect for a certain former half-term governor of Alaska.

In a recent interview with Newsmax, Bush was asked whether he thought Palin was a viable candidate for president. Though he had some nice things to say about her "charisma," it was clear that Bush thinks Palin doesn't have the intellectual heft to occupy the oval office. He said that Palin's success depends on her willingness to add a "depth of understanding of the complexity of life we're living in today" to her rhetoric.

"That's up to her," he said. "I mean, I don't know what her deal is, but my belief is in 2010 and 2012, public leaders need to have intellectual curiosity."

First, that seems like pretty tough rhetoric, which is also fair under the circumstances.

Second, it's a shame Jeb didn't think intellectual curiosity was a prerequisite for public leaders in 2000 and 2004.

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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DECLARE VICTORY AND PASS THE BILL.... I'm not entirely clear on the format/schedule for tomorrow's health care summit at the White House, but I suspect that at the end of the gathering, President Obama will thank the attendees for participating and deliver a brief set of remarks to the country.

Why not just declare victory right there on the spot?

It's not hard to imagine the president explaining, before lawmakers even leave the room, directly to the cameras:

"Americans can be proud of the work done here today. Democrats and Republicans sat in the same room, in an open and transparent way, and had a substantive discussion about how to improve a system that we all agree desperately needs to be fixed.

"The result of these talks is a proposal that all Americans can feel good about. It's a sensible compromise, which will work and make the country stronger.

"No one party or institution in this debate got everything they asked for, including my administration, but that's true of any compromise. Democrats had to make some concessions through this process, but they can feel good about the consumer protections, coverage for the uninsured, and an emphasis on affordability for the middle class included in this compromise. Republicans have been reluctant, but they too can also feel good about the fact that this compromise offers an incremental plan that dramatically reduces the deficit, reduces costs, encourages innovation at the state level, and includes benefits for small businesses.

"This consensus plan will help save Americans lives. It will help our economy grow and be more competitive. It will help guarantee coverage for those with pre-existing conditions. It will rely on a competitive marketplace, without an excessive role for the federal government. Families worried about medical bankruptcy will at long last have some peace of mind.

"The cynics and skeptics said it couldn't be done, but what we've managed to produce today is a triumph of bipartisan policymaking, the result of hard-working officials who put country over party, solutions over ideology. Americans asked all of us to work together on crafting centrist, mainstream, moderate reform package, and that's exactly what we've produced."

Of course, Obama could say this without changing a thing, because this rhetoric already describes the plan Democrats have put forward.

But why not simply say it anyway? Why not offer the Democratic plan as the moderate, bipartisan approach, reframing the package and forcing Republicans to oppose a compromise package that includes their own ideas?

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

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SUCCESS ON ZAZI CASE LEADS TO SILENCE ON THE RIGHT.... The case of Najibullah Zazi continues to be under-appreciated victory for the United States. A deadly attack was thwarted; intelligence was collected; and justice was served. No torture, no military commissions, no need to stray from the legal process. The legal system was followed to the letter, and it worked beautifully.

And conservatives really don't want to talk about it.

The Republicans who most vociferously blasted the Obama Administration for putting the attempted Christmas bombing suspect through the criminal justice system have apparently been silent on another high-profile terrorism case making its way through the civilian system. [...]

Given the GOP outrage over the administration's decision to charge attempted Christmas bomber Umar Abdulmutallab in criminal court, one might have expected a flurry of Republican press releases and TV appearance this week over the handling of the Zazi case.

But the press releases never came, and the TV appearances were never scheduled.

On the Hill, the usual suspects of hysterical conservatives -- Kit Bond, Pete Hoekstra, Pete King -- haven't said a word. And what about their media allies? Even when Zazi's guilty plea became a major development, Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, and Sean Hannity literally didn't say a word about the guilty plea of a man who would have killed innocent Americans in a terrorist attack in New York City.

I guess this was an American story that simply proved un-spinnable to the GOP and its cohorts.

Here we had a serious terrorist threat -- arguably the most important since 9/11 -- and an al Qaeda recruit who was poised to kill a lot of people. The Obama administration thwarted Zazi's plan, took him into custody, read him his rights, and gave him a lawyer.

And the results couldn't have been better for the United States. Zazi will spend the rest of the his life behind bars, but only after cooperating with federal officials and becoming a valuable source of intelligence.

I wonder why Republicans would choose to deliberately ignore this. Don't they want to debate the efficacy of U.S. counter-terrorism policy? Where'd they all go?

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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AGAINST IT BEFORE THEY WERE FOR IT.... Following up on the earlier item about the Senate approving a $15 billion jobs bill, it's worth taking a closer look at the roll call before moving on.

On Monday, Senate Republicans tried to block an up-or-down vote on a jobs bill filled with tax cuts, which in and of itself is incomprehensible. When it came time to shut down the GOP filibuster, the vote was 62 to 30, with five Republicans breaking ranks to end debate and allow a floor vote on the bill.

Today, the vote on the same piece of legislation was 70 to 28. Doesn't that mean that several Republicans who voted to block the legislation on Monday ended up voting in favor of the legislation on Wednesday? Actually, yes, it means exactly that.

These senators supported a filibuster, but approved of the bill they tried to block:

Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.)
Thad Cochran (R-Miss.)
James Inhofe (R-Okla.)
George LeMieux (R-Fla.)
Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)
Roger Wicker (R-Miss.)

(Two more GOP senators -- Orrin Hatch of Utah and Richard Burr of North Carolina -- missed Monday's vote, but joined with Dems today.)

So, we're looking at six conservatives who voted against a jobs bill before they voted for it.

This, alas, isn't especially new. For a year now, Republicans have repeatedly tried to block up-or-down votes on all kinds of bills and nominations, only to vote in support once their obstructionist tactics are defeated. For petty partisans like these GOP clowns to block votes on measures they end up voting for anyway is the height of cynical and pointless obstructionism.

What an embarrassment.

Steve Benen 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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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.

* Mitt Romney is under fire from the GOP's right-wing base for supporting Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) re-election campaign.

* In Pennsylvania, a new Franklin and Marshall poll shows former right-wing congressman Pat Toomey leading both Democratic candidates, Arlen Specter and Joe Sestak, by narrow margins. In both hypothetical match-ups, most voters remain undecided. More importantly, though, 63% of registered voters in the state believe Specter should not get another term.

* In Ohio, a new Quinnipiac poll shows a competitive open Senate race. Former Bush Budget Director Rob Portman leads Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher (D) by three (40% to 37%) and Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner (D) by five (40% to 35%).

* Former Sen. Lincoln Chafee is running for governor in Rhode Island as an independent, and an early poll shows him as the frontrunner to win.

* Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) is taking more heat in his Senate campaign from members of his own party. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) is launching attack ads against Crist, while former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) has described Crist's support for economic recovery efforts as "unforgivable."

* In Texas' GOP gubernatorial primary, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison seems to think she's going to lose, an assessment borne out by all the recent polls. Chris Cillizza considers why Hutchison, who was supposed to be a strong contender, fell far short.

* DSCC Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said there will be no additional incumbents retiring this year.

* And as hard as it may be to believe, right-wing ophthalmologist Rand Paul, Rep. Ron Paul's (R-Texas) son, appears to be the clear frontrunner in Kentucky's GOP Senate primary. Despite overwhelming party support for Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, yet another poll shows Paul way out in front.

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

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SENATE APPROVES JOBS BILL.... I guess we'll have to take signs of progress where we can find them.

The Senate easily passed a $15 billion jobs bill on Wednesday morning amid hope that the measure could provide a blueprint for other items on President Obama's agenda.

The measure passed 70 to 28, with 13 Republicans joining 57 Democrats in support of the package. One Democrat, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, voted against it.

"We've had so much gridlock," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), co-author of a key portion of the bill. Now, he said, "finally we have something" bipartisan to show the public.

Remember, this is a modest, scaled-back jobs bill, made up almost entirely of tax cuts, which Republicans claim to support, in the midst of an employment crisis. And yet, more than half of the Republicans in the Senate voted against the legislation.

The measure now heads to the House, which already passed a bolder, more ambitious, and more effective jobs bill. Will the House settle for the stripped-down Senate version? House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) predicted this morning that it would.

As for the measure itself, it's hard to get too excited about a $15 billion measure, the bulk of which is a payroll-tax exemption for companies who hire workers this year. It also features a $1,000 tax credit for employers who keep new workers on the job for at least a year, and a provision to allow businesses to write off some capital investments.

That said, the Democratic leadership continues to emphasize that this will be the first of several bills related to job creation to be considered in the near future.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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RADICALS, RIFTS, AND THE RIGHT.... There was a point, about six months ago, when some reasonably high-profile conservatives suggested Glenn Beck and his minions were becoming problematic. Rep. Bob Inglis (R) of South Carolina encouraged his constituents to "turn the TV off" when Beck starts spouting his nonsense. David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, suggested Beck's rhetoric may be, quite literally, dangerous.

Peter Wehner added at the time that Beck's "interest in conspiracy theories is disquieting" and his daily attacks are "not good for the country."

This week, we're hearing similar assessments again, but for different reasons.

On his radio show yesterday, [right-wing host Mark Levin] added, "Decide what you are. A circus clown, self-identified. Or a thoughtful and wise person. It's hard to be both. You can't wear the clown nose and not wear the clown nose at the same time."

But what's interesting here isn't that Beck is generating a backlash by being insane; he's generating a backlash because he thinks Republicans aren't right-wing enough. For GOP media allies, the message isn't helpful, so Beck needs to be condemned.

Right-wing pundit Bill Bennett wrote, "The first task of a serious political analyst is to see things as they are.... And there is a difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. To ignore these differences, or propagate the myth that they don't exist, is not only discouraging, it is dangerous." The Wall Street Journal's John Fund said that several Republicans "complained that Mr. Beck is indirectly encouraging third-party candidates to challenge them this year, threatening to divide the conservative vote." [...]

Limbaugh also criticized Beck, saying, "I don't know how you can say ... that the Republicans are just as bad as the Democrats. It would never occur to me to say that. I don't know what the objective would be."

So, let me get this straight. Prominent conservative voices don't mind Beck's deranged conspiracy theories, his humiliating ignorance, and his hatred for those who don't think as he does. But these conservative voices mind a great deal if Beck notes that Republicans have an embarrassing record when it comes to deficit reduction, the national debt, government spending, and increasing the size and scope of the federal government's powers -- an observation that happens to be true.

What an odd movement.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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NOT QUITE AS UNPOPULAR AS WE'VE BEEN LED TO BELIEVE.... At this point, it's practically a foregone conclusion: the public doesn't much care for health care reform proposals. Thanks to a combination of a massive misinformation campaign, inadequate media coverage, and Americans' easily-manipulated fears, support started strong before waning badly.

But I continue to marvel at national polls that show Americans really do embrace the reform plan once they know what it is. There have been several recent surveys pointing to this trend, and the latest data from the Kaiser Family Foundation bolsters the point.

The latest Kaiser Tracking Poll finds the public still split on health care reform legislation, with 43 percent in favor and 43 percent opposed. However, the poll also finds that majorities of Americans of all political leanings support several provisions in the health reform proposals in Congress and most attribute delays in passing the legislation to political gamesmanship rather than policy disagreements. [...]

"While the intense debate over health care reform has divided the public, it looks like there is bipartisan support on at least some elements of health reform legislation, and more bipartisan support outside the beltway than there is inside," said Kaiser President and CEO Drew Altman.

There's no denying the fact that public perceptions of the existing proposal are negative, and that poses an obvious political problem. But the evidence is just as clear that Americans approve, often strongly, of the various parts of the reform plan -- 68% support subsidies for those who can't afford coverage, 70% support expanding high-risk pools, 71% want to see Congress close the "doughnut hole" in prescription drug coverage, 71% support the creation of an exchange, and 72% back giving tax credits to small businesses.

Of particular interest, also note that 76% of those polled believe it is either important or extremely important that policymakers "reform the way health insurance works." That's a fundamental rejection of the status quo, which spans Americans of every ideology. The notion that the public is afraid of meaningful change simply isn't true.

And for all the GOP talk about killing reform, a 58% majority say they will be either disappointed or angry if Congress decides to stop working on health care reform.

This should, in theory, help stiffen spines a bit among congressional Democrats. The same provisions Dems are fighting for are the same provisions Americans already like. The public has grown confused, thanks to some well-financed professional liars, but when it comes to what Americans want to see happen in a reform bill, Democrats are obviously on the right track.

But the only way for the party to benefit is to move forward, pass reform, and then sell their handiwork. Anything else would be devastating for those counting on reform, and electoral suicide for the governing majority.

Steve Benen 10:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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RECONCILIATION IS NOT THE 'NUCLEAR OPTION'.... I can only assume we'll be hearing a lot of talk like this.

Sen. Scott Brown yesterday warned the Obama administration against using the "nuclear option" of ramming through Congress a revised $1 trillion health-care bill outlined yesterday by the White House. [...]

"If the Democrats try to ram their health-care bill through Congress using reconciliation, they are sending a dangerous signal to the American people that they will stop at nothing to raise our taxes, increase premiums and slash Medicare," said Brown spokesman Colin Reed in a statement. "Using the nuclear option damages the concept of representative leadership and represents more of the politics-as-usual that voters have repeatedly rejected."

Now, I realize that Scott Brown is not exactly fact-oriented, and he doesn't see it as his job to worry about the substance of public policy, but let's just present a few facts that seem relevant here.

1. Reconciliation is not the "nuclear option." This is the "nuclear option."

2. When a majority of the Senate votes in favor of pending legislation, it's not an example of "ramming" a bill through Congress.

3. Brown's office's description of the Democratic reform is demonstrably ridiculous. It's especially ironic to hear the GOP talk about "slashing" Medicare.

4. Republicans loved using reconciliation when they were in the majority, using it for all kinds of sweeping pieces of legislation, including bills related to health care.

5. Reconciliation exists for exactly the kind of circumstances Democrats are facing now.

Is this really that hard to understand? Probably not, but Republicans are pretending to be outraged, hoping that the public won't know better.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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KING FEELS HEAT FOR SUICIDE BOMBER SYMPATHIZES.... There was no shortage of over-the-top rhetoric at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) over the weekend, but there was something about Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) comments that stood out.

Commenting on Joe Stack, who flew a plane into an Austin office building because of his grudge against the U.S. government, the right-wing Iowan seemed oddly sympathetic to Stack's motivation for murdering innocent Americans. One report indicated that King told conservative activists he could "empathize" with the suicide bomber, and encouraged his audience to "implode" other IRS offices.

In general, regular ol' Americans who talk like this -- and defend those who fly planes into buildings -- can expect to have a law-enforcement official stop by for a chat. Steve King, however, is a member of Congress.

King is, however, feeling at least some heat over this. Yesterday, House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) took King to task on the House floor.

"The fact of the matter is that the gentleman that lost his life in that building, Vernon Hunter, is from -- was from Orangeburg, South Carolina, that I proudly represent in this body," said Clyburn. "He spent two tours in Vietnam and was about the business of carrying out his duties and responsibilities to this great country of ours. If anybody is a hero, it is this victim. And I find it appalling that a member of this body would call his death a noble happening."

The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents I.R.S. workers, also called on King to apologize for his remarks, saying the lawmaker showed "an appalling lack of compassion over [Vernon Hunter's] death, as well as a lack of respect for the lives of federal employees nationwide."

Representative King should retract and apologize for his ill-conceived statements concerning the tragic event that took place in Austin and pledge, as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, to do everything he can to ensure that the safety of federal employees remains one of our government's highest priorities.

But in order for King to suffer any real consequences for his sympathies for a suicide bomber, the media is going to have focus some attention on his lunacy. Yesterday, Washington Post journalist Ben Pershing told a reader in an online chat that King's comments "probably deserve more attention from the media. They are striking remarks."

To date, the Washington Post has not reported on King's comments at all.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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SANTORUM'S SOUND ADVICE.... To say that Democrats are enjoying hitting Republicans on stimulus hypocrisy would be something of an understatement. The Hill noted the other day that the hypocrisy story has given Democrats their "first real traction in weeks" in going on the offensive against Republicans. "For the first time in weeks, Republicans were clearly on the defensive," the article noted.

Local media outlets are starting to pick up on the story (see here, here, and here), and even Republican governors are starting to mock GOP lawmakers for their absurd cash-and-trash rhetoric.

This week, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) appeared on Fox News and encouraged his former colleagues to be more "cautious" on this front.

"I think the facts of the matter of what has happened after the stimulus package passed proved it hasn't created a whole lot of jobs. But then to take money from that package and go out and do photo-ops talking about how many jobs it creates does undermine your credibility. [...]

"Members of Congress having opposed this plan then running out and saying here's money I brought home to the district -- that's not to say your district doesn't get the money. They would whether you do the photo- op or not. But I wouldn't be out promoting it." [emphasis added]

On the notion that the recovery effort "hasn't created a whole lot of jobs," there's ample evidence to the contrary.

But I do appreciate Santorum's more strategic advice. Pretending to hate the stimulus, while loving stimulus funds for one's constituents, does undermine a lawmaker's "credibility," so it's best not to be out there "promoting it." In other words: stop getting caught.

On a related note, Dems have been trying to come up with a name for these Republicans who fall into this category, something easier and more memorable than "group of Republicans who claim to oppose the stimulus but take credit for stimulus-funded projects back home," which is a little clumsy. They seem to have come up with a pretty good one: "highway hypocrites."

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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DNA'S DIRTY LITTLE SECRET.... Is DNA evidence, a forensic tool known for exonerating the innocent, being used to put them behind bars? That's what lawyer and journalist Michael Bobelian argues in the new issue of Washington Monthly.

DNA has a reputation for being virtually foolproof. And, indeed, when fresh DNA evidence is used to confirm guilt of suspects who have been identified though eyewitness testimony or other means, as was traditionally the case, the chances of hitting on the wrong person can be as remote as one in many trillions. But increasingly law enforcement agencies are employing DNA in a new way: to find suspects in cases where the trail has gone cold. In these instances, the chances of accidentally fingering an innocent person can be as high as one in three -- a staggering fact that juries weighing such cases are almost never told.

Bobelian's fascinating piece is online here. Take a look.

Steve Benen 12:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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February 23, 2010

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

* Rough day for Toyota on Capitol Hill: "The president of Toyota's U.S. operations acknowledged to skeptical lawmakers on Tuesday that the company's recalls of millions of its cars may "not totally" solve the problem of sudden and dangerous acceleration."

* White House officially calls for health insurers to lose their anti-trust exemption.

* Dick Cheney apparently suffered his fifth heart attack yesterday, but is expected to be discharged from the hospital within a couple of days.

* Good to see House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) condemn Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) for his tacit support for last week's suicide bomber in Austin.

* In light of Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) bizarre remarks about having been misled about TARP policy in 2008, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) called the conservative senator's comments "pathetically untrue" and "cowardly." Harsh, to be sure, but true.

* California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) is unimpressed with his party's talking points on health care policy.

* This may not turn out well: "GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham confirmed Monday he is working with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to break the logjam on closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and bringing the prisoners to trial."

* For crying out loud: "A top Tea Party leader derided Barack Obama as 'our half white, racist president' in an email to colleagues."

* The Navy is prepared to lift its ban on female submarine crew members

* It may seem odd to incorporate YouTube in a college admissions process, but here we are.

* And on a personal note, today is, for lack of a better word, my "Blogoversary" -- I started blogging exactly seven years ago today. Given the relative youth of the medium, I guess this means I've been at it for quite a long while. Whether you've been reading for seven days or seven years, my most sincere thanks for the support.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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WHAT ROBERTS KNEW AND WHEN HE KNEW IT.... We learned a few years ago that the CIA had video documenting the interrogation of two Qaeda operatives who'd been subjected to "severe interrogation techniques," but because of what the video showed, the agency destroyed the tapes. In effect, officials had evidence of a possible crime, so they eliminated it -- which is itself a crime.

Within a few weeks of the revelations, Bush's Justice Department appointed a prosecutor to lead a criminal investigation into the destruction of evidence.

What we didn't know until today is that a far-right senator, Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas, acting in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was apparently made aware of the alleged crimes in a closed briefing in 2003, and raised no objections.

According to a memorandum prepared after the Feb. 4, 2003, briefing by the C.I.A.'s director of Congressional affairs, Stanley M. Moskowitz, Scott Muller, then the agency's general counsel, explained that the interrogations were reported in detailed agency cables and that officials intended to destroy the videotapes as soon as the agency's inspector general completed a review of them. "Senator Roberts listened carefully and gave his assent," the C.I.A. memo says. [...]

Last August, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. directed Mr. Durham to expand his inquiry to consider whether the interrogations themselves broke any law. Mr. Holder noted that in at least a few instances, interrogators went beyond methods authorized by the Justice Department, including threatening Mr. Nashiri with a pistol and a power drill.

Those incidents were also described in the 2003 briefing for Mr. Roberts; when they were described, "Senator Roberts winced," according to the memo on the briefing.

The same document says that Senator Bob Graham of Florida, the Democrat who had preceded Mr. Roberts as chairman, had proposed that the committee "undertake its own 'assessment' of the enhanced interrogation," the C.I.A.'s term for coercive methods. Agency officials told Mr. Roberts that they would oppose allowing any Senate staff members to observe interrogations or visit the secret overseas prisons where they were taking place.

"Quickly, the senator interjected that he saw no reason for the committee to pursue such a request and could think of '10 reasons right off why it is a terrible idea,' " the report says.

Roberts's office denied to the NYT that the senator was aware of criminal conduct, but did not (or perhaps could not) elaborate.

I've long believed Pat Roberts was the worst Senate Intelligence Committee chairman imaginable during the Bush/Cheney era -- the man basically took the position of "whatever Bush wants to do is fine by me" -- but it's nevertheless a little surprising to learn he may have given his assent to a felony cover-up.

Steve Benen 4:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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A PROCESS TO EMULATE, NOT SCRAP.... Najibullah Zazi represented a serious terrorist threat to the United States, arguably the most important since 9/11. He'd been recruited and trained by al Qaeda; he'd bought bomb materials; and he'd traveled to New York with bomb-making instructions in his laptop.

Obama administration officials thwarted Zazi's plan and took him into custody. Yesterday, in a civilian court, Zazi pleaded guilty on terrorism charges and will spend the rest of the his life behind bars. Given Republican rhetoric and the larger debate, it's worth appreciating just how significant this success story is. It's not just a victory for law enforcement and intelligence gathering -- tools the GOP mocks -- it's also a victory for the legal process the right is desperate to circumvent.

Law enforcement sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation continues, said Zazi began to accelerate his cooperation after authorities charged his Afghan-born father with crimes and threatened to charge his mother with immigration offenses -- options that are not available in the military justice system.

Notice that last part? Zazi was Mirandized and given a lawyer, and he nevertheless cooperated with federal officials and became a valuable source of intelligence. Because we tortured him? No, because we utilized the criminal justice system, rather than throwing him in Gitmo and/or trying him through military commissions.

By sticking to the existing process -- following the same process other modern presidents have followed -- Zazi has shared with officials information about his activities, training, accomplices, and overseas associations.

Adam Serwer emphasized a point that often goes overlooked:

[T]he only reason Republicans are insisting on using military courts in all circumstances is because they "sound" tougher. In practice, civilian courts hand out harsher sentences and are better equipped to handle terrorism cases. They also provide better incentives for providing accurate information on the part of the defendants.

The Zazi case is a textbook example of a process that works. Why anyone would condemn this process and insist on a less effective alternative is a mystery to me.

To think Republican rhetoric in this debate is compelling is to pay no attention to current events.

Steve Benen 4:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has heard quite a few cries of late from Republicans about how truly awful it is to vote on legislation by majority rule. I get the feeling he's tired of it.

Reid said reconciliation had been used 21 times since 1981, mostly by Republicans when they were in control of the Senate for the passage of items like the Bush tax cuts. Under reconciliation, Democrats would need a simple majority in the Senate to pass legislation, as opposed to the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster.

"They should stop crying about reconciliation as if it's never been done before," Reid said.

Following Senate Democrats' weekly luncheon, Reid said "nothing is off the table" but that "realistically, they should stop crying about this. It's been done 21 times before."

Reid added that he recommends Republicans "go back and look at history," at which point they'll realize that GOP majorities used reconciliation "more than anyone else."

I'm delighted to hear Reid explain this to reporters, for a variety of reasons. First, Reid' observations are accurate. I'm old-fashioned, I know, but I find the addition of truth to the debate heartening.

Second, it's something reporters on the Hill really need to hear. If Democrats pursue health care reform through reconciliation, as is extremely likely, the media will be tempted to do what Republicans tell outlets to do -- characterize this as some kind of abuse or legislative "trick." Reid's remarks today, then, were a reminder for reporters who may have forgotten -- Republicans have used reconciliation plenty of times, on plenty of bills. GOP officials who whine about this should, at a minimum, be asked why Dems can't use the same legislative tools Republicans have used.

And third, the "stop crying" rhetoric conveys an image of strength for the majority. The way Reid made it sound, Republicans are whining, while Democrats are trying to govern.

Seems like the kind of message Dems may want to repeat as often as possible.

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

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WH: PUBLIC OPTION LACKS NECESSARY CONGRESSIONAL SUPPORT.... There's been ample speculation in recent days about where the White House stands on the public option, and how far it's willing to go to help make it happen. Last week, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the administration would "absolutely" support the provision if that's what lawmakers decided to pursue, and yesterday, Robert Gibbs said the issue is up to the Senate leadership.

So, why does it seem as if the White House is reluctant to stick its neck out on this? Apparently because the West Wing doesn't think the votes are there.

Gibbs said flatly that the White House doesn't believe there's enough support in Congress to get it passed.

Asked directly whether the President's failure to include the public option in his proposal means he views the public option as dead, Gibbs didn't exactly dispute this interpretation.

"There are some that are supportive of this," Gibbs said. But he added: "There isn't enough political support in the majority to get this through."

It's certainly possible that Gibbs' analysis is correct. In the Senate, public option supporters have quickly put together an impressive group of signatures in support of the provision. But even now, the total is less than half of what's needed -- and Rockefeller's comments yesterday make it seem as if a Senate majority may not materialize, regardless of what the White House signals.

But let's also not overlook the House. In my conversations with aides this week, there's a strong sense that the majority is going to need a few (or more) Dems who voted against reform in November to vote for it now. The White House, then, is very likely thinking about how to shape the reform package to make it more attractive to some of the Blue Dogs whose votes will be necessary to ensure passage.

What's more, I realize that Gibbs's response today seems unexpected, but it doesn't strike me as all that surprising -- if the White House thought the votes were there for a public option, the administration would have included the idea in the proposal unveiled yesterday. The fact that the president's version of reform didn't include the idea should have made it pretty clear that the White House thinks, correctly or not, that public option support remains insufficient.

I should note, though, that Gibbs's comments need not be the end of the public option. The White House is under the impression that the votes just aren't there to pass this specific measure, but if proponents on and off the Hill want to prove otherwise, there's still time to do just that. Gibbs didn't say the president opposes the public option -- Obama has said repeatedly he supports the idea, and would like to see it in the final bill -- he just said he thinks the public option lacks the support it needs in Congress.

If public option advocates want to prove Gibbs wrong, now's their chance.

Steve Benen 3:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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CBO SEES STIMULUS MAKING A BIG DIFFERENCE.... The independent, non-partisan Congressional Budget Office reports today that President Obama's economic recovery package created up to 2.1 million jobs in the fourth quarter on 2009. Just another little tidbit to consider as part of the larger debate on the efficacy of the stimulus.

During the fourth quarter of 2009, the stimulus added "between 1.0 million and 2.1 million to the number of workers employed in the United States," the CBO said.

The stimulus also boosted the country's economic growth by 1.5 to 3.5 percent during the time period and lowered the nation's unemployment rate by between 0.5 and 1.1 percentage points.

In the report, the CBO noted that economic growth in 2009 was worse than they had predicted at the time that the stimulus was enacted, but that was due to a weaker economy than originally expected, rather than any failings of the stimulus. [...]

The CBO also said that in the fourth quarter the stimulus package increased the number of full-time jobs by between 1.4 and 3 million compared to the number of jobs that would have existed without the package.

Maybe someone should let Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) know; I hear he's confused about some of these details.

Steve Benen 2:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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WORST. ANALOGY. EVER.... Independent election analyst Charlie Cook believes House Democrats are going to have an extremely bad election cycle this year. He's hardly alone in that regard. But as analogies go, this is awfully foolish.

Cook has, of late, been extremely down on Democrats' chances -- an attitude born, he argued in the interview, of "fundamental, total miscalculations from the very, very beginning" by the White House about the direction to take the country. Cook added that the White House's miscalculations in terms of their agenda were "of proportions comparable to President George W. Bush's decision to go into Iraq."

This wasn't just some off-the-cuff rhetoric gone awry -- Cook seriously believes the decision to pursue health care reform is comparable to the decision to invade Iraq.

I just don't understand this kind of thinking. President Obama took office and began doing exactly what he told voters he would do. Cook believes this represented a "miscalculation" on the White House's part. But what is it Cook would have encouraged the White House to do? Obama was elected by a wide margin to pursue the agenda he presented as a candidate. The president's numbers have dropped in the face of congressional dysfunction and a still-struggling economy, but as of today's Gallup tracking poll, Obama's approval rating is still 51%.

Cook is apparently of the opinion that the president would have been far better off focusing all of his attention on the economy. But this advice that doesn't really mean anything.

The Iraq analogy, though, is what really rankles here. The president was elected, at least in part, to deliver on health care reform. The initiative stumbled in the face of an intense misinformation campaign and conservative obstructionism, but the underlying goal is and has been worthwhile. The truth and policy merit has consistently been on the White House's side.

Conversely, the invasion of Iraq was unnecessary, ran counter to America's interests, and was sold to the public through deception and demagoguery.

To hear Cook tell it, Obama should have never tried to fix a dysfunctional health care system, just as Bush should have never gone to war against a country that wasn't a threat. But that's crazy -- the health care system really doesn't work, and Americans have long demanded a change. Iraq, meanwhile, really didn't have WMD. Is there not a qualitative difference between bringing coverage/security to Americans and invading a country under false pretenses, followed by badly screwing up the occupation? Does it not matter that Bush created a crisis, while Obama inherited one?

Cook has responded to criticism on this by insisting that since the reform push hurt the president politically -- and Iraq hurt Bush politically -- the comparison is sound. Perhaps in an amoral calculation, there's something to this.

But Obama saw a crisis and pushed for a reasonable and effective solution. Bush saw a crisis and made one of the worst, costliest, and deadliest decisions any modern president has made. The former is positioned to improve the nation's interests; the latter undermined them.

Cook sees a superficial similarity. I see a terribly flawed analogy.

Steve Benen 1:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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THE NON-EXISTENT GOP ALTERNATIVE.... When inviting participants to the White House health care summit, President Obama urged Republicans to "put forward their own comprehensive bill ... and make it available online," just as Democrats have done.

We've known for a while that GOP leaders would ignore the request and not offer a comprehensive bill. The big hint came last week when a spokesperson for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said, "We will not be offering a comprehensive bill." Another senior GOP aide added today that Republicans "fundamentally disagree" with the very idea of putting together a comprehensive bill.

But this only encourages the White House to keep talking about it. Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer wrote an item today emphasizing the importance of giving the public an opportunity to evaluate competing approaches to the problem.

That's why yesterday the White House posted online the President's proposal for bridging the differences between the Senate- and House-passed health insurance reform bills. The proposal puts American families and small business owners in control of their own health care. It makes insurance more affordable by providing the largest middle-class tax cuts for health care in history, it ends discrimination based on pre-existing conditions, holds insurance companies accountable, and reduces our deficit by $100 billion over the next 10 years.

But you don't have to take our word for it: the proposal is posted right here at WhiteHouse.gov for everyone to examine. You can read through the plan's bipartisan ideas section by section, or you can select your health care status and find out what the proposal would mean for you. You can even submit a question for our policy staff to answer.

What you can't do just yet is read about the Republicans' consensus plan -- because so far they haven't announced what proposal they'll be bringing to the table.

In an interesting little twist, the administration has even offered to publish a Republican alternative proposal on the White House website, posting them side by side for Americans to review and evaluate.

The Republicans offered a response yesterday. It wasn't very good.

House Republican Leader John Boehner's (R-Ohio) office urged Gibbs instead to "talk with his boss," who only last month discussed healthcare reform with the chamber's GOP members at their annual retreat.

"Our health care alternative -- the full text of the legislation -- has been available at healthcare.gop.gov for months, which President Obama knows, since he discussed it with us in Baltimore a few weeks ago," spokesman Michael Steel said.

There are three problems with this. First, the GOP alternative is made up of four key areas -- all of which have already been incorporated into the Democratic proposals.

Second, this is the House GOP bill. The goal is to see a Republican proposal embraced by both chambers' caucuses -- an official GOP proposal for the party.

And third, House Republicans posted this months ago. Is it still their plan? Has it evolved or adapted at all? Democrats don't know unless the GOP says so. If this is the Republican plan on health care policy, GOP leaders can present it as such. They haven't.

This is a real area of vulnerability for Republicans, and they know it. Democrats have presented (and passed) a solid piece of legislation that addresses a serious national crisis. It's paid for and it'll work. Republicans have presented ... not a whole lot.

There's a leadership gap between the parties and it's showing.

Steve Benen 12:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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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.

* Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D) got some good news today when a Quinnipiac poll showed him leading former Rep. John Kasich (R) by five, 44% to 39%."There has been an improvement in voters' views of Gov. Ted Strickland," said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "The movement is a few points, but it is consistent across a number of measures."

* In Florida, a new Rasmussen poll shows Rep. Kendrick Meek (D), the likely Democratic candidate for the Senate this year, trailing both Republicans by wide margins.

* With Tea Party activist Jon Ashjian running for the Senate in Nevada, a new poll shows Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) in a more competitive position against his GOP challengers.

* Religious right leader James Dobson threw his support to Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) yesterday, further cementing Perry's support with the GOP's right-wing base.

* In related news, the latest survey from PPP shows Perry leading Texas' Republican gubernatorial primary by nine points over Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, 40% to 31%. Tea Party activist Debra Medina has seen her support slip, and the poll shows her with 20%.

* Disappointing Republicans in Connecticut, former Rep. Chris Shays (R) announced yesterday that he will not run for governor this year.

* In Maryland, Eric Wargotz is running for the Republican Senate nomination. Wargotz proclaimed over the weekend that he does not believe President Obama "was born in the United States."

* Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D) appears to have the inside edge among Democrats in Indiana's Senate race, but Rep. Baron Hill (D) acknowledged yesterday he's "open to the idea" of running for Senate.

* Former congressman and recently-released felon James Traficant has announced he's leaving the Democratic Party to run for Congress in Ohio as an independent.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (6)

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STEELE'S CHAMPAGNE WISHES AND CAVIAR DREAMS.... It's been a couple of weeks since RNC Chairman Michael Steele has been the subject of scorn. I hope he enjoyed the respite; it appears to be over.

Republican National Chairman Michael Steele is spending twice as much as his recent predecessors on private planes and paying more for limousines, catering and flowers -- expenses that are infuriating the party's major donors who say Republicans need every penny they can get for the fight to win back Congress.

Most recently, donors grumbled when Steele hired renowned chef Wolfgang Puck's local crew to cater the RNC's Christmas party inside the trendy Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue, and then moved its annual winter meeting from Washington to Hawaii.

For some major GOP donors, both decisions were symbolic of the kind of wasteful spending habits they claim has become endemic to his tenure at the RNC. When Ken Mehlman served as the committee chairman during the critical 2006 midterm elections, the holiday party was held in a headquarters conference room and Chic-fil-A was the caterer.

A POLITICO analysis of expenses found that compared with 2005, the last comparable year preceding a midterm election, the committee's payments for charter flights doubled; the number of sedan contractors tripled, and meal expenses jumped from $306,000 to $599,000.

A longtime Republican fundraiser said, "Michael Steele is an imperial chairman. He flies in private aircraft. He drives in private cars. He has private consultants that are paid ridiculous retainers. He fancies himself a presidential candidate and wants all of the trappings and gets them by using other people's money."

Steele's budgetary decisions have been the subject of widespread consternation for months, especially given the fact that the RNC isn't raising the kind of money it should be with competitive midterms coming up. By one account, Steele's spending spree in 2009 left the RNC with its worst election-year cash flow this decade.

It was easier for Steele to justify this spending when he pointed to successful gubernatorial campaigns in New Jersey and Virginia. It's a little more difficult to justify when expense reports point to lavish spending on private planes, limousines, catering, and flowers.

And it certainly doesn't help that Steele is simultaneously using his position to line his own pockets, most notably through his outside paid speeches and a book written in secret.

It's far too early to say with any confidence what will happen in the 2010 elections, but if Republicans fall short of their own sky-high expectations, expect Michael Steele to get all kinds of blame.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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APPARENTLY, SIZE MATTERS.... For nearly a year, one of the principal Republican complaints about health care reform is that Democratic proposals are long -- as in, have too many pages to read. It's not really an argument, per se, but for the GOP, physically-large pieces of legislation must be considered bad because ... well, just because.

We've talked about how absurd this is as a substantive matter. But let's also note that these same Republicans are also inclined to complain in the other direction.

A spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner today ridiculed President Obama's health care proposal because it's too short.

"The White House's 'plan' consists of an 11-page outline, which has not been scored by the Congressional Budget Office or posted online as legislative text. So they want to reorganize one-sixth of the United States' economy with a document shorter than a comic book, and they're complaining that they can't find our plan on their own website? C'mon," said the spokesman, Michael Steel, in an email to reporters.

It's hard to know where to start with something this dumb.

First, health care reform would not "reorganize one-sixth of the United States' economy." It's a $14 trillion economy, and a health care plan that would cost about $90 billion a year. I realize Republicans are bad at math, but this is ridiculous.

Second, Boehner's office probably should have read the 11-page document released by the White House yesterday. It is not a blueprint for an entire overhaul of the American health care system -- it's a description of recommended changes to the House and Senate bills that have already passed. Though the details might be over the GOP's heads, the document is pretty substantive and detailed, and offers more depth than anything Republicans have offered to date.

And third, just as a basic matter of consistency, right-wing lawmakers don't get to complain that reform proposals are too long and too short. Just pick one and go with it.

Regardless, the nonsense from Boehner's office is evidence of the sophistication we're hearing from GOP officials in advance of Thursday's summit at the White House. House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was on "Good Morning America" earlier, and described the plan that incorporates Democratic and Republican ideas as "a non-starter." Asked if he thought there's any room for possible compromise, Cantor added, "There can't be."

Since Cantor had already declared that Republicans "will say no to this health care bill," none of this came as especially surprising.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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STEVE KING'S SUSPECT SYMPATHIES.... Let's be clear at the outset: I don't think Republicans are terrorist sympathizers. I find it offensive when Republicans say they want to see their party emulate the Taliban, and I find it bizarre when Republicans inadvertently help al Qaeda's p.r. strategy, but I don't think for a second that the GOP is somehow pro-terrorism.

That said, Steve King, a right-wing congressman from Iowa, seems to have a pretty twisted worldview when it comes to these issues.

Last week, Joe Stack crashed a small plane into an office building in Austin, Texas. Stack, apparently a deranged man with a grudge against the government in general, and the Internal Revenue Service in specific, killed at least three people, including himself.

Lee Fang reports that Rep. King seems oddly sympathetic to Stack's motivation for murdering innocent Americans.

ThinkProgress caught up with Rep. Steve King (R-IA) at CPAC to talk about the attack in Texas. Asked if the right-wing anti-tax rhetoric might have motivated the attack, King implicitly agreed, noting that he had been a leading opponent of the IRS for some time. He noted that although the attack was "sad," "by the same token," it was justified because once the right succeeds at abolishing the IRS, "it's going to be a happy day for America."

He sidestepped the question of the legitimacy of the terrorists' grievances, but sympathized by saying that "I've had a sense of 'why is the IRS in my kitchen.' Why do they have their thumb in the middle of my back".

Asked specifically if Stack had legitimate grievances that led him to murder, King said he didn't know.

Another report indicated that King told conservative activists he could "empathize" with the suicide bomber, and encouraged his audience to "implode" other IRS offices.

For any American to talk like this is pretty radical. For a member of Congress to say things like this in public points to a truly disturbing development.

Here's the follow-up for King: if a man with grievances against the United States government flew an airplane into a building, killing innocent Americans, and his name was Ahmed instead of Joe, would you be this sympathetic in trying to understand his crime?

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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TWO STEPS FORWARD ON PUBLIC OPTION, ONE STEP BACK.... The letter to Senate leaders on passing a public option through reconciliation picked up its 22nd and 23rd signatures over the last day, with Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) joining their colleagues.

Far more discouraging, though, were remarks from Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), an enthusiastic supporter of the public option, who conceded yesterday he's not inclined to pursue the measure through reconciliation.

"I'm probably not going to vote for that, although I'm strongly for the public option, because I think it creates, at a time when we really need as much bipartisan[ship] ... as possible. "

Rockefeller added: "I don't think you [pursue] something like the public option, which cannot pass, will not pass. And if we get the Senate bill -- both through the medical loss ratio and the national plans, which have in that, every one of them has to have one not-for-profit plan, which is sort of like a public option."

In making his sentiment known, Rockefeller becomes perhaps the most unexpected skeptic of the public-option-via-reconciliation route. The Senator was a huge booster of a government run insurance option during the legislation drafting process this past year.

It's worth clarifying that Rockefeller seems to support approving changes to the Senate bill through reconciliation, consistent with the White House plan presented yesterday, but is opposed to pursuing a public option through this route.

As much as Rockefeller's work on this has been appreciated, his rationale isn't exactly persuasive. He's afraid of appearing "partisan"? Funny, Senate Republicans, who refuse to give legislation up-or-down votes at levels unseen in American history, don't seem to worry much about appearances.

Nevertheless, as a practical matter, Rockefeller's hesitancy may very well make the larger effort impossible. Dems would need at least 50 senators to give the public option a chance, and Rockefeller was considered a likely ally, not opponent.

Unless Rockefeller changes his mind -- or unless he's bluffing as some kind of larger and hard-to-understand strategy -- an uphill climb has gotten considerably steeper.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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LIMBAUGH, HEALTH CARE, AND 'REPARATIONS'.... Once in a while, the dog-whistle messages from the far-right are enough to make one's ears bleed. Take Rush Limbaugh, for example, one of the most powerful and influential figures in modern Republican politics.

On his radio show yesterday, the right-wing host condemned health care reform as "a civil rights bill" and "reparations." Seriously.

Limbaugh has spent plenty of time talking about President Obama and "reparations," and has also had plenty to say about health care reform, but as far as I can tell, yesterday was one of those rare instances in which the host combined the two.

I'm going to go on a limb here and describe this as about the most racist thing a major American media personality has said in quite a while. This is about Limbaugh trying -- with no subtlety at all -- to stir up racial fears and anxiety in the hopes of blocking improvements to a dysfunctional health care system, which has repeatedly screwed over a fair amount of Limbaugh's audience.

The racism isn't even restrained. Limbaugh has trashed progressive efforts to improve America's health care system for years, but notice he didn't start talking about "reparations" and comparing reform to a "civil rights bill" until the President of the United States was African American. The nauseating message is about as subtle as a sledgehammer.

Ezra added, "It's one of the odder elements of American politics that Democrats have routinely denounced ACORN and MoveOn.org but Republicans feel no compunction to run from this hatemonger."

Quite right. Dems keep fringe liberals at arm's length, but Republicans can't wait to associate themselves with a racist, drug-addled radio personality, who seems to have more influence in GOP politics than anyone. Indeed, when a Republican dares to disagree with Limbaugh in public, he/she invariably reverses course and begs Rush for forgiveness.

Now, I know how easy it is to say, "Democrats should make hay of this." The DNC can't chase after ever bouncing ball, and turn every stupid thing said on a radio show into a national controversy.

But it would be encouraging to see something come of this. Ideally, Republican leaders would be asked a simple question: "Rush Limbaugh sees the health care debate in racial terms, and considers the president's plan 'reparations.' Do you agree?"

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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THE 'BEGINNING OF A NEW DAY'?.... Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) scheduled a vote for yesterday afternoon to end a Republican filibuster of a scaled-down jobs bill, and within a couple of hours of the vote, no one knew how it was going to turn out. In fact, there had already been some second-guessing about Reid's strategy.

But when it came time to vote on ending the GOP's obstruction of the legislation, things turned out better than expected.

Five Republican senators broke ranks with their party on Monday to advance a $15 billion job-creation measure put forward by Democrats, a rare bipartisan breakthrough after months in which Republicans had held together to a remarkable degree in an effort to thwart President Obama's agenda.

The 62-to-30 vote -- two more yeses than the minimum required to get past a procedural roadblock -- cleared the way for the Senate to vote Wednesday to approve the measure, which Democrats said would create tens of thousands of new jobs at a time when the unemployment rate is hovering near double digits and is expected to remain high for years to come.

The roll-call is online. A total of five Republican senators -- Scott Brown (Mass.), Kit Bond (Mo.), Susan Collins (Maine), Olympia Snowe (Maine), and George Voinovich (Ohio) -- broke ranks and agreed to let the Senate vote up or down on the legislation. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) was the only Democrat to side with Republicans and try to block consideration of the jobs bill.

Given the results, spirits were high in the chamber last night. Before the vote, Reid implored Senate Republicans to demonstrate that they're "serious about legislating." After the vote, he told his colleagues, "I hope this is the beginning of a new day in the Senate."

I hope so, too. But how one interprets last night's developments depends on whether one is a glass-half-full kind of person.

On the one hand, we saw five Republicans -- far more than usual -- break ranks and end a ridiculous filibuster, making it possible for the Senate to approve a jobs bill in bipartisan fashion. On the other hand, only five GOP senators were willing to let the Senate vote on a modest, scaled-back jobs bill in the midst of an unemployment crisis, despite the fact that Republicans actually like what's in the bill.

It's either a rare and encouraging breakthrough, or a relief that comes from the soft bigotry of low expectations.

As for the measure itself, it's a very limited jobs bill, the bulk of which is a payroll-tax exemption for companies who hire workers this year. It also features a $1,000 tax credit for employers who keep new workers on the job for at least a year, a provision to allow businesses to write off some capital investments, and a one-year reauthorization of the Highway Trust Fund.

If this strikes you as too modest an approach to make much of a difference, you have plenty of company. That said, the Democratic leadership re-emphasized yesterday that this will be the first of several bills related to job creation to be considered in the near future.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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February 22, 2010

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

* Afghanistan: "An airstrike launched Sunday by United States Special Forces helicopters against what international troops believed to be a group of insurgents ended up killing as many as 27 civilians in the worst such case since at least September, Afghan officials said Monday."

* Senate vote on jobs bill still set for later today, though whether Republicans will allow senators to vote on the stripped-down bill remains unclear.

* For those keeping score, there are now 21 Democratic senators who support using reconciliation to vote on a public option.

* New consumer protections on credit cards go into effect today.

* The next step on education policy: "President Obama will seek to raise academic standards across the country by requiring states to certify that their benchmarks for reading and mathematics put students on track for college or a career, administration officials said Sunday."

* I can only hope that Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) does not support terrorist acts against the government of the United States.

* Oklahoma's outrageous anti-abortion law has been deemed unconstitutional. Good.

* Foreign militaries that have made the transition to allowing openly gay service members have not endured disruptions. Unless the right thinks the American military is weaker than those foreign militaries, our transition shouldn't be a problem, either.

* The "Volcker rule" picks up endorsements from five former Treasury secretaries.

* Powerful piece from Adam Serwer: "Whereas al-Zawahiri and bin Laden turned to al-Sharif for a method to circumvent the plain language of the Koran, Bush and Cheney went to Yoo and Jay Bybee to circumvent the plain language of the law."

* I still find it hard to believe that the Washington Post hired Marc Thiessen as a columnist.

* ACORN undergoing some pretty significant institutional changes.

* Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) seems to be getting more and more confused.

* Clarence Thomas hasn't said a word on the court in four years.

* Fact checking the Sunday shows.

* Bruce Bartlett makes Glenn Reynolds look pretty foolish.

* Even tenure isn't enough to shield professors from layoffs.

* Fox News hatchet-man Griff Jenkins loves being the ambusher, not the ambushee.

* Alexander Haig dies at age 85.

* Leonard Pitts Jr.: "To listen to talk radio, to watch TV pundits, to read a newspaper's online message board, is to realize that increasingly, we are a people estranged from critical thinking, divorced from logic, alienated from even objective truth.... [O]bjective reality does not change because you refuse to accept it. The fact that you refuse to acknowledge a wall does not change the fact that it's a wall. And you shouldn't have to hit it to find that out."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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CLYBURN OPTIMISTIC ABOUT REFORM'S FATE.... Following up on an earlier item, there are some entirely legitimate concerns about securing a House majority on health care reform. It's worth noting, though, that the Democratic leader whose job it is to count votes not only seems confident, but made the audacious claim that reform may get more votes next time than the 220-vote majority it got in November.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) ... made his comments just after President Barack Obama unveiled his detailed health plan Monday morning. The move was intended to set the agenda for the bipartisan healthcare summit at the White House on Thursday.

"I do believe that if what I have seen and what I've been hearing is close to being accurate, I do believe that we can get there in the House," he said on MSNBC. "We got there with some people holding out for some things that we have now gotten in the Senate plan and in the president's proposal.

"I do believe there is more fertile soil today than when we first took this up."

At first blush, this seems pretty hard to believe. On second blush, too. Democrats seem more anxious and fearful than they were in November, and they have three fewer votes than they did at the time. A senior White House official said House Speaker Pelosi perceives passing reform as "possibly doable," which isn't exactly a rock-solid guarantee.

But Clyburn is directly responsible for counting votes, and I can't think of any obvious reasons he'd have to exaggerate what's possible.

Are there some Blue Dogs who'll go for the more moderate Senate version? Are there some retiring incumbents who were feeling vulnerable but are now liberated? Might Kucinich decide that a step forward is ultimately better than a step backward?

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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ZAZI TO PLEAD GUILTY.... I'm sure these encouraging developments will draw criticism from conservatives; I just can't quite figure out why.

Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan immigrant who was a key player in what the federal authorities have said was one of the most serious threats to the United States since the 9/11 attacks, is expected to plead guilty to terrorism charges this afternoon, a law enforcement official said.

Mr. Zazi is scheduled to appear before Judge Raymond J. Dearie at Federal District Court in Brooklyn at 2:30 p.m. to plead guilty conspiracy to detonate bombs in the United States, according to the official. [...]

Mr. Zazi, who was born in Afghanistan and was raised in Pakistan and later Flushing, Queens, where he attended high school, was working as an airport shuttle driver in Denver when he was arrested in September 2009.

The federal authorities said he had received weapons and explosives training at a Qaeda camp in Pakistan, bought beauty products that contained the raw materials to build a bomb and traveled to Queens with bomb-making instructions in his laptop on the eve of the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

His arrest was one of the key national security/law enforcement success stories of the last year, which reportedly is paying dividends beyond just preventing a deadly attack -- Zazi is apparently cooperating with officials and providing intelligence as part of his plea agreement.

Indeed, Zazi has been sharing quite a bit of late, talking not only about his activities, but also his training, his accomplices, and his associations overseas.

U.S. officials now have all of this information without torturing Zazi, and without throwing him in Gitmo.

Indeed, Josh Marshall noted today, "One of the things that never gets mentioned in the endless praise of military tribunals is that their actual record is really bad." So true.

The Zazi case is a textbook example of a process that works -- and it works because it ignores the hysterical cries of Republican hacks. Here's a case in which we stopped a terrorist through law enforcement and intelligence gathering (which the GOP considers an example of "weakness"), read him his rights and gave him a lawyer (which, again, the GOP finds offensive), gained valuable information through torture-free questioning (which the GOP seems to think is impossible), brought him to a civilian courtroom (another thing the GOP finds outrageous), and will soon lock him up in an American prison (which the GOP considers dangerous for some reason).

By any reasonable measure, the only people who find Republicans credible on these issues are those who aren't paying attention.

Post Script: I should note that if the White House wanted to shamelessly exploit this success story to prove a larger point, it'd be just fine with me.

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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IF ONLY OBAMA'S CRITICS PAID CLOSER ATTENTION.... The Economist believes President Obama would have more legislative successes under his belt if only he'd done more to reach out to his opponents.

It is not so much that America is ungovernable, as that Mr Obama has done a lousy job of winning over Republicans and independents to the causes he favours. If, instead of handing over health care to his party's left wing, he had lived up to his promise to be a bipartisan president and courted conservatives by offering, say, reform of the tort system, he might have got health care through; by giving ground on nuclear power, he may now stand a chance of getting a climate bill.

Matt Yglesias responds by noting one of my favorite anecdotes from the entire debate over health care reform. From 10 months ago:

[R]ight there in the Cabinet Room, the President put a proposal on the table, according to two people who were present. Obama said he was willing to curb malpractice awards, a move long sought by the Republicans and certain to bring strong opposition from the trial lawyers who fund the Democratic Party.

What, he wanted to know, did the Republicans have to offer in return? Nothing, it turned out. Republicans were unprepared to make any concessions, if they had any to make.

I realize The Economist is on the other side of the pond, but if it's going to be reflecting on U.S. developments, it's going to have to do better than this. The White House "handed over health care to his party's left wing"? Of course -- how could we forget the time President Obama sided with Dennis Kucinich on single-payer? Or vowed to veto reform unless it included a public option and Medicare buy-in?

As for the notion that the White House has made concessions on nuclear power, and thus stands a chance at passing a climate bill, this too is mistaken*. In the wake of last week's announcement, Republican senators who agreed with Obama wouldn't even mention his name in their press release, better yet signal a willingnes to compromise on emissions. Indeed, the president has also said he'd accept Republican demands for more coastal drilling, as part of a compromise on a climate bill. In response, Republicans said what they always say, "No." (In truth, they not only said "no," they said, "We're going to block Congress from even voting up or down on the legislation.")

What's frustrating is the notion, too often accepted by the media establishment, that the president has somehow been a rigid ideologue. That's not just wrong; it's insane. On literally every major piece of legislation of the past 13 months, Obama has been willing -- anxious, even -- to work with GOP lawmakers. Republicans have slapped away his outreached hand in every instance.

As Paul Krugman explained today, "Unfortunately, the commentariat seems to be full of people who know, just know, that Obama isn't getting Republican cooperation because he's in the thrall of left-wingers -- and just make stuff up to bolster their case. The truth, which is obvious from every day's news, is that there is nothing, nothing at all, that Obama could offer -- other than switching parties -- that would get him any GOP cooperation."

I don't even think this is controversial. Indeed, Republican leaders would likely agree that this is exactly right.

So, how could The Economist manage to mangle reality so badly?

* edited

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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CRIST COMES AROUND (AGAIN) ON STIMULUS.... A year ago, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) became one of the highest-profile Republicans to support President Obama's stimulus package, and appeared alongside the president at a public event in the Sunshine State. Since then, supporting economic recovery has become scandalous in GOP circles -- and Crist's career is in jeopardy for having backed the legislation that saved the country from a depression.

The governor, now running for the Senate, has struggled badly to defend his sound judgment in the face of right-wing attacks. At times Crist has even denied supporting the measure he publicly endorsed.

Now, Crist is trying a new tack -- refusing to apologize for being right.

Accepting stimulus money was the "responsible, right thing to do," Crist told reporters at the White House on Monday. "It puts people above politics," Crist said. When asked about whether he had any regrets, Crist said he had "none whatsoever."

"I don't apologize for it at all," Crist added. "It was the right thing to do. We needed the money."

Crist added this morning, "Our economy was going off into the abyss and if we didn't have those monies, we would have had 87,000 people out of work today in the Sunshine State. Twenty thousand of those are educators, and how many people does that translate into in terms of the children they teach?" He went on to describe the idea as "a common sense approach."

Asked about Republicans who say the stimulus hasn't created any jobs, Crist said, "That's not the case in Florida."

To be sure, plenty of Republican governors have reached the same conclusion. Even Republican governors who claim to hate the stimulus actually love the stimulus. GOP lawmakers on the Hill who insist that the stimulus hasn't done any good -- or worse, the recovery effort actually hurt the economy -- have no allies or supporters outside their caucus room and far-right media outlets.

But Crist's renewed support for the stimulus is more interesting than most, because it's hurt him so badly in his Republican primary -- a primary race he's now losing.

Does Crist believe the economy is going to start improving, and he wants to take credit? Is he perhaps positioning himself to switch parties, realizing that Republicans have gone way too far to the right?

One thing's for sure -- up until recently, Crist wanted to pretend he had nothing to do with the stimulus, and now he's embracing it with both arms.

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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GOP STILL WON'T TAKE 'YES' FOR AN ANSWER.... If you check out the newly-reworked website for the White House's health care reform plan, there's a banner that reads, "Putting Americans In Control of Their Health Care." Underneath it are four areas of interest, including "Republican Ideas."

It's tempting to think that the "Republican Ideas" section would be the area in which the White House blasts GOP critics of reform and mocks them for not even trying to create a comprehensive reform package. Of course, the opposite is true. The headline on this page reads, "Republican Ideas Included in the President's Proposal."

It's clear that the American people want health insurance reform. They aren't interested in Democratic ideas or Republican ideas. They're interested in the best ideas to reduce costs, guarantee choices and ensure the highest quality care. They're interested in ideas that will put them back in control of their own health care.

Throughout the debate on health insurance reform, Republican concepts and proposals have been included in legislation. In fact, hundreds of Republican amendments were adopted during the committee mark-up process. As a result, both the Senate and the House passed key Republican proposals that are incorporated into the President's Proposal. [...]

In addition to the Republican ideas already included in the legislation that's passed the House and the Senate, the President's Proposal incorporates a number of additional proposals that were included in Republican plans that focus on combating waste, fraud and abuse in government.
The President remains open to other policies as well. And the purpose of the Bipartisan Summit is to review all ideas and ensure that the best ideas are included in the plan.

The page includes a lengthy list of Republican proposals that have already been incorporated into the package, and which the president supports.

Now, this isn't exactly new. The Republicans' "Solutions for America" page lists four health care planks -- and the basic structure of literally all four is already included in the Democratic plan.

But this hasn't made a difference because -- you guessed it -- Republicans don't actually want to solve the problem. The only way to satisfy GOP demands on health care policy is to kill the bill and let the problem get worse.

So, what's the point? It's about shaping the debate. Reality should matter, at least a little, when considering GOP talking points, and when Republicans and their allies claim that the reform proposal is "partisan" and that GOP ideas have been "ignored," they're lying.

When it comes to influencing public attitudes, Americans' sense of fairness leads them to think a good comprehensive package would include ideas from both parties. Well, in this case, that's exactly what Democrats are offering.

Steve Benen 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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MORE INFORMATION MEANS MORE SUPPORT.... When evaluating public opinion on health care reform, there's an ongoing debate about how to interpret opposition to proposals. Democrats tend to argue, persuasively, that Americans who oppose reform are basing their concerns on misinformation -- too many people have seen too many misleading attack ads, and it's driving the poll numbers down.

Republicans argue that the public understands the details of the proposal just fine, and they simply don't like what they see. It's not about confusion, the GOP argues; it's about the substance and fundamental elements of the legislation.

There's ample reason to believe the Democratic explanation is the correct one. Take the results of the latest Newsweek poll, for example.

As Democrats struggle to salvage health-care-reform legislation, a new NEWSWEEK Poll shows that while a majority of Americans say they oppose Obama's plan, a majority actually support the key features of the legislation.... The more people know about the legislation, the more likely they are to support major components of it.

When asked about Obama's plan (without being given any details about what the legislation includes), 49 percent opposed it and 40 percent were in favor. But after hearing key features of the legislation described, 48 percent supported the plan and 43 percent remained opposed.

Let's not rush past that too quickly. Respondents were asked what they think about the Democratic plan, and opponents outnumbered supporters. Those respondents were then given information about what's actually in the plan, at which point supporters outnumbered opponents.

In fact, support jumped 10 points among self-identified moderates, eight points among self-identified independents, and 10 points among women.

We've seen this phenomenon before. A month ago, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a report noting that while Americans were evenly divided in their feelings about the reform proposal, support for the plan grew when the public learned about the plan's details. And this has been common for months -- over the summer, in the middle of the right-wing freak-out, an NBC/WSJ poll found that 36% of Americans approved of the plan. When the plan was actually described, support jumped to 53%.

The importance of this cannot be overstated. Opposition to health care reform has been driven by lies, misinformation, confusion, and fear. But the more Americans learn the truth, the more they like what they hear.

Moving forward, then, Democratic policymakers should have a very strong incentive to finish the job and pass reform -- it's the only way to turn the polls around, kill the caricature, and reap the rewards of a historic victory.

Public opinion is not immovable; Dems just have to give success a chance.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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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 Florida's closely watched GOP Senate primary, a new Rasmussen poll shows Marco Rubio building on his earlier leads, and now tops Florida Gov. Charlie Crist by 18 points, 54% to 36%.

* New York Gov. David Paterson (D) announced over the weekend that he will ignore everyone's advice and run for a second term. A new Siena College poll shows him trailing state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (D) in a primary by 42 points.

* Speaking of New York, the same Siena poll shows Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) leading her likely primary rival, Tennessee's Harold Ford Jr., 42% to 16%. Neither are especially well known statewide.

* In Pennsylvania, former Lt. Gov. Mark Singel (D) announced that he will run to succeed the late John Murtha in the 12th district. Murtha's widow, Joyce, will apparently not seek the seat.

* And speaking of the Keystone State, Rep. Jim Gerlach (R) got some good news when his primary challenger, Steve Welch, ended his campaign.

* Dispelling any rumors, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the House's longest-serving member, has announced he will seek re-election.

* Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) isn't retiring, either.

* Former representative and recently-released felon James Traficant (D-Ohio) is eyeing a comeback, but missed a filing deadline for candidates last week. Traficant may, however, still run as an independent.

* And Texas Rep. Ron Paul (R) won CPAC's 2012 straw poll on Saturday night.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (4)

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WATCH BOTH CHAMBERS.... In general, it seems most of the talk about the fate of health care reform focuses on the Senate. To be sure, that makes some sense -- in light of Republicans' refusal to allow the Senate to vote, up or down, on key bills, it's the chamber that seems more likely to kill legislation.

With reconciliation now on the front-burner, the question becomes whether enough Senate Democrats can stick together and secure a majority.

But let's not forget that the House, which would be required to approve the Senate bill and a legislative fix, is facing a heavy-lift, too. The assumption that the House will be far less of a problem for reform proponents may prove to be wrong.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has signaled to the White House that it's unclear if there are enough votes in the House to pass the Senate bill.

The House version passed in November by a vote of 220-215, but since then three "yea" votes have vanished: Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Florida, retired; Rep. John Murtha, D-Penn., passed away; and Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao, R-Louisiana, has signaled he will not vote for the final bill.

That puts Pelosi in a starting-off point of 217 votes which is a majority of the current 433-member House of Representatives, but is also a tough starting line.... Pelosi believes passing the bill is "possibly doable," the senior White House official said. "But she may ultimately decide the math is impossible."

There are 255 House Dems, but among them are plenty of opponents of their party's reform efforts. There are Blue Dogs, who may or may not be more inclined to vote for a more moderate bill along the lines of the Senate plan, and there are liberals like Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) who've said they'll oppose Democratic plans that fall short of single-payer.

Moving forward, then, reform advocates will have plenty of phone calls to make -- to both chambers -- and the burden will be on President Obama and congressional leaders to pressure rank-and-file members to get this done. The pitch to Democratic members is probably pretty obvious -- I seem to recall a certain strategy memo a blogger wrote last month -- but antsy lawmakers, some of whom foolishly think failure is less scary than success, may need some reminders.

The alternative is the death of health care reform for another generation.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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GAME ON.... As promised, the White House unveiled its health care reform proposal this morning, posting it online in advance of Thursday's bipartisan summit. Here's the 11-page blueprint (pdf) of what President Obama has in mind, and here's the shorter overview.

It's worth noting what the proposal isn't. For example, the White House is emphasizing that the administration materials do not constitute a compromise of the House and Senate bills, but rather, is the president's vision of what to do next. For that matter, the proposal isn't exactly a new comprehensive package, either -- it takes the House and Senate bills, and explains how Obama would like to see them improved in one final piece of legislation.

"We view this as the opening bid for the health meeting," White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer told reporters, adding, "We took our best shot at bridging the differences."

To that end, Ben Nelson's "Cornhusker Kickback" is gone as a sweetheart deal, and now all states will have the same Medicaid assistance. A Health Insurance Rate Authority, to serve as a check against insurers' rate hikes, would be created. The "donut hole" will be closed. The excise tax is part of the financing, but the eligibility threshold is raised, and implementation delayed until 2018, which should help ease concerns raised by unions.

There's no public option, though there wasn't expected to be one, and its fate will be considered later in the Senate.

Perhaps most importantly, Obama's plan improves the subsidy rates for those who'll be buying coverage, with a more generous package for the middle class than the Senate legislation.

As for legislative strategy, the White House seems fully on board with pursuing reconciliation in the Senate.

"The President expects and believes the American people deserve an up or down vote on health reform," White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said on the call.

Pfeiffer said no decision had been made how to proceed, pending the outcome of the summit. But he added that Obama's proposal is designed to have "maximum flexibility to ensure that we can get an up or down vote if the opposition decides to take the extraordinary step of filibustering health reform."

That is the right way to characterize this -- call for an up-or-down vote, and characterize Republican obstructionism as something "extraordinary." If the GOP refuses to play a constructive role, Dems will have no choice but to proceed anyway.

Update: Igor Volsky did a really nice job with a table comparing the three different versions (House, Senate, White House).

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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GOP STIMULUS HYPOCRISY GETS EVEN MORE EMBARRASSING.... There's a reason Democrats have latched on to the story of Republican hypocrisy on the Recovery Act so enthusiastically -- the GOP is giving Dems a lot to work with.

Two weeks ago, the Washington Times found that "more than a dozen" Republican lawmakers, all of whom insisted that the stimulus package was an awful idea that couldn't possibly help the economy, privately urged the Department of Agriculture to send stimulus money to their states and districts, touting the investments' economic benefits. Last week, the Wall Street Journal moved the ball forward, pointing to "more than a dozen" GOP lawmakers who privately sought stimulus money from the Department of Labor, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Forest Service.

Today, Bloomberg News takes this a step further.

Alabama Republicans Jo Bonner and Robert Aderholt took to the U.S. House floor in July, denouncing the Obama administration's stimulus plan for failing to boost employment. "Where are the jobs?" each of them asked.

Over the next three months, Bonner and Aderholt tried at least five times to steer stimulus-funded transportation grants to Alabama on grounds that the projects would help create thousands of jobs.

They joined more than 100 congressional Republicans and several Democrats who, after voting against the stimulus bill, wrote Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood seeking money from $1.5 billion the plan set aside for local road, bridge, rail and transit grants. The $862 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed last year with no Republican votes in the House and three in the Senate.

Asked for an explanation, Republicans relied on the usual spin, insisting that the money was going to be spent anyway, so they wanted to help their constituents.

But, again, that doesn't change the hypocrisy. These same GOP officials said the stimulus is simply incapable of creating jobs and generating economic growth. But their letters to the administration prove that they actually believe recovery funds are capable of creating jobs and generating economic growth -- in their states and districts. It even leads Republicans to take credit for projects that wouldn't have existed if they'd had their way.

The Hill reported over the weekend that the hypocrisy story has given Democrats their "first real traction in weeks" in going on the offensive against Republicans. "For the first time in weeks, Republicans were clearly on the defensive," the article noted.

With that in mind, expect to hear even more about this as the year progresses.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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POWELL ISN'T BUYING GOP SPIN, EITHER.... To the extent that Colin Powell is considered a credible figure on national security and foreign policy -- and for most Americans, he is, notwithstanding his tragic associations with selling the war in Iraq -- I suspect the Obama administration is pleased to have his support.

Yesterday, on CBS's "Face the Nation," host Bob Schieffer noted that Dick Cheney has invested heavily in trying to convince Americans that President Obama "is putting the nation's security at risk." Schieffer asked Powell if there's any truth to the attack on the administration.

Powell recited a series of security measures the Bush administration had put in place, and which Obama left intact. He added that President Obama has increased the effort against the Taliban and has been even more aggressive in targeting al Qaeda. "So," Powell said, "I don't know where the claim comes that we are less safe."

With respect to torture, Powell reminded the audience that even the Bush administration, towards the end of its second term, had "done away" with nearly all of the "extreme interrogation techniques" endorsed by Cheney.

With respect to military commissions, Powell added, "In eight years the military commissions have put three people on trial. Two of them served relatively short sentences and are free. One guy is in jail. Meanwhile, the federal courts -- our Article III, regular legal court system -- has put dozens of terrorists in jail and they're fully capable of doing it. So the suggestion that somehow a military commission is the way to go isn't borne out by the history of the military commissions. I think a lot of people think 'just give them to the military and the military will hammer them.' Well, guess what, officers in the military are obliged to follow the Constitution."

As for a "bottom-line answer," Powell added, "The nation is still at risk. Terrorists are out there. They're trying to get through. But to suggest that somehow we have become much less safer because of the actions of the administration, I don't think are borne out by the facts."

The remarks were a further reminder of the isolated nature of the Cheney wing -- the dominant wing -- of the Republican Party. The Obama administration's positions are enjoying the support of Powell, Gen. Petraeus, Adm. Mullen, the Pentagon, and national security experts from across the spectrum.

On the other hand we have the Cheneys and congressional Republicans, whose record on these issues is littered with painful failures, and whose credibility should be considered laughable among anyone who takes reality seriously.

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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STIMULATING TALK ON THE SUNDAY SHOWS.... With last week marking the first anniversary of the Recovery Act, there was a fair amount of talk on the Sunday shows about the efficacy of the stimulus. The observations were rather illustrative.

On "Fox News Sunday," Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm (D) and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour (R) "both agreed that President Obama's stimulus package has made some difference in their states' floundering unemployment rates." On the same program, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) conceded that the recovery effort "probably did have some impact" in creating taxpayer-financed jobs in his home state.

Around the same time, on CNN, Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas (R) described the Recovery Act as "a package of relief that the states needed urgently," which was "appropriate to stimulate the economy." He added that the president deserves praise for having "reached out ... on a bipartisan basis ... to try to put something together."

But of particular interest was the discussion on ABC's "This Week," when California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) were asked to address the stimulus effort. Host Terry Moran showed the governors a clip of Mitt Romney trashing the recovery initiative, leading to this exchange:

SCHWARZENEGGER: Well, you know, to me I find it interesting that you have a lot of the Republicans running around and pushing back on the stimulus money and saying this doesn't create any new jobs, and then they go out and they do the photo ops and they are posing with the big check and they say, isn't this great? Look what the kind of -- the kind of money I provide here for the state, and this is great money to create jobs, and this has created 10,000 new jobs and this has created 20,000 new jobs. And all of these kind of things. It doesn't match up. So it's exactly--

RENDELL: It's hypocrisy in the highest level.

SCHWARZENEGGER: I think, you know, of my Republican colleagues, but I think it's kind of politics, rather than thinking about only one thing, and this is how do we support the president, how do we support him and do everything that we can in order to go and stimulate the economy, get the economy back, and think about the people rather than politics.

I have been the first governor of the Republican governors to come out and to support the stimulus money because I say to myself, this is terrific, and anyone that says that it hasn't created the jobs, they should talk to the 150,000 people that have been getting jobs in California.

MORAN: Private sector?

SCHWARZENEGGER: Yes, for the private sector and also from the public sector. I mean, if it is teachers, if it is university professors, if it is people that are building infrastructure and stuff like that. I mean in every category, there is jobs that have been created in California, 150,000. This is 150,000 people that are going home today with a check that are providing for the family, that can buy the textbooks for their kids, that are feeling wanted and needed and feeling productive. I mean, a better job, it isn't just a job, it's all of those kind of other things. So I'm happy that we got this money. I'm happy that we have put 150,000 people to work and there will be more people that we will put to work.

I don't think it's unreasonable to think Schwarzenegger is nearly as enthusiastic a proponent of the stimulus as anyone in the administration.

But in the larger context, despite polls and GOP talking points, the growing consensus couldn't be clearer about whether the Recovery Act was effective.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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OBAMA TO PROPOSE LIMITS ON RATE HIKES.... One of the political challenges associated with health care reform is making the pitch to those who already have insurance and are largely satisfied with their coverage. The consumer protections are welcome, but seem abstract for many, especially those who don't have pre-existing conditions.

But ample polling data suggests these same Americans are deeply concerned with rising premiums, fears that intensify in light of developments such as Anthem's 39% hike in California.

With this in mind, President Obama is poised to add a new provision to the health care reform agenda. When the White House unveils its reform proposal in about two hours, it will include a new oversight measure on premium increases.

President Obama will propose on Monday giving the federal government new power to block excessive rate increases by health insurance companies, as he rolls out comprehensive legislation to revamp the nation's health care system, White House officials said Sunday. [...]

By focusing on the effort to tighten regulation of insurance costs, a new element not included in either the House or Senate bills, Mr. Obama is seizing on outrage over recent premium increases of up to 39 percent announced by Anthem Blue Cross of California and moving to portray the Democrats' health overhaul as a way to protect Americans from profiteering insurers.

Congressional Republicans have long denounced the Democrats' legislation as a "government takeover" of health care. And while they are likely to resist any expansion of federal authority over existing state regulators, they will face a tough balancing act at the meeting with the president to avoid appearing as if they are willing to allow steep premium increases like those by Anthem.

To be sure, the reform bills already approved by Congress include measures on this point, but the White House proposal would go further -- HHS, state regulators, and an independent commission would review rate increases annually. Hikes deemed "unjustified" could be blocked or amended, and in some cases, insurers could be ordered to issue rebates to customers.

Jonathan Cohn spoke to an administration official who emphasized that the oversight authority "would not pre-empt existing state regulations. The feds would step in only if states did not, or could not, stop high rate increases on their own."

And while some parts of health care reform wouldn't be implemented for a few years, this oversight would take effect this year if the legislation is signed into law.

Sounds to me like a good way to start a huge week on health care reform.

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

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WHO BROKE AMERICA'S JOBS MACHINE?.... Unemployment is the single greatest threat America now faces. Job growth, anemic before the recession, is now non-existent, and promises to be weak for years to come. Some blame foreign competition; others, a lack of investment. But in the next issue of the Washington Monthly, Barry C. Lynn and Phillip Longman point to a different culprit: corporate consolidation, brought on by decades of weak antitrust enforcement in Washington. Industries from banking to retail to microchips are now so dominated by a few big firms that small businesses -- the source of most new jobs -- have less and less opportunity to thrive, expand, and challenge the behemoths. The result is a less innovative and dynamic economy.

If this argument is right, then it's going to take a good deal more than tax breaks and stimulus spending to get America's jobs machine working again. It's going to require a federal government that will enforce the nation's antitrust laws, bring more competition back into markets, and unleash the creative energies of America's entrepreneurs.

To read Lynn's and Longman's story "Who Broke America's Jobs Machine?" click here.

Steve Benen 12:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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February 21, 2010

PETRAEUS NOT READING FROM GOP SCRIPT.... Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, hasn't exactly been helpful to the far-right cause of late. As conservative Republicans have pushed for keeping Gitmo open, torturing terrorist suspects, and ending civilian trials for accused terrorists, the four-star general has voiced his agreement with President Obama's position on all of these issues.

On "Meet the Press" this morning, Petraeus continued to reject the positions of the Republican Party's dominant Cheney-wing, distancing himself from, among other things, torture.

"I have always been on the record, in fact, since 2003, with the concept of living our values. And I think that whenever we've perhaps taken expedient measures, they've turned around and bitten us in the backside. We decided early on, in the 101st airborne division, we just said, we decided to obey the Geneva Conventions...

"In the cases where that is not true [where torture takes place or international human rights groups aren't granted access to detention sites] we end up paying a price for it, ultimately," he added. "Abu Ghraib and other situations like that are non biodegradable. They don't go away. The enemy continues to beat you with them like a stick.... Beyond that, frankly, we have found that the use of interrogation methods in the army field manual that was given the force of law by Congress, that that works."

Petraeus wasn't done there. In another contrast with former Vice President Cheney -- as well as the vast majority of congressional Republicans -- he reiterated his support for closing Gitmo, albeit without a date-specific time frame.

None of this is new. Petraeus, like Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, has been on the same page as the Commander in Chief for over a year now. (Petraeus hedged on DADT repeal, saying he'd share his personal opinions with Congress.)

But it is a reminder that the right-wing GOP stands at odds with the American military establishment -- including arguably the decorated general they claim to revere -- on the key national security issues of the day.

It prompted Spencer Ackerman to ask Liz Cheney a question in an open letter. After noting that Petraeus positioned himself far from the positions she holds dear, Spencer wrote:

But hey. You're a former deputy assistant secretary of state! You obviously know better than the man who implemented the surge in Iraq. Why don't you enlighten Gen. Petraeus about all the glories of torture? And since you consider "enhanced interrogation" so necessary to secure the country, perhaps there's a full-page ad you'll take out in a major newspaper?

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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BROKEN.... If I'd been one of the respondents in this poll, I almost certainly would have sided with the overwhelming majority. But the results just don't tell us as much as they should.

Americans overwhelmingly think that the government in this country is broken, according to a new national poll. But the CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey, released Sunday morning, also indicates that the public overwhelmingly holds out hope that what's broken can be fixed.

Eighty-six percent of people questioned in the poll say that our system of government is broken, with 14 percent saying no. Of that 86 percent, 81 percent say that the government can be fixed, with 5 percent saying it's beyond repair.

CNN fielded a similar poll more than three years ago. At the time, 71% said the U.S. system is broken but can be fixed, 10 points lower than the poll conducted last week.

What the poll doesn't tell us is what matters -- why people have come to this conclusion and what they'd like to see done about it.

I can appreciate the widespread frustration. Paul Volcker, a top economic adviser to President Obama, said last week that he's "very disturbed" by the federal law-making process, which he described as "dysfunctional." Vice President Biden said this week, "Washington, right now, is broken."

All of this is entirely reasonable. What's become of the process is a national scandal, which directly undermines our strength as a country.

But if those who feel that the government is broken don't know and/or understand why, the palpable aggravation is of no value. The key is for Americans -- who neither know nor care about things like "filibusters," "cloture votes," and "holds" -- to appreciate the role congressional Republicans have played in shutting down the American system of government. It's a disgrace that regular folks seem wholly unaware of.

It's also a reminder to policymakers that, while some of the frustration may be ideological, much of it is also the result of the public growing impatient, waiting for progress that isn't happening. Something Obama said yesterday, in the context of moving forward on health care reform, stood out for me:

"What's being tested here is not just our ability to solve this one problem, but our ability to solve any problem. Right now, Americans are understandably despairing about whether partisanship and the undue influence of special interests in Washington will make it impossible for us to deal with the big challenges that face our country."

When folks perceive their government as "broken," I suspect it's because of what the president identified -- a perception that policymakers simply can't solve obvious problems in need of solutions.

It speaks to the need for Senate Democrats to do whatever it takes -- reconciliation, nuclear option, anything -- to get the legislative process moving again.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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AN UNEXPECTED HAND FOR REFORM ADVOCATES.... This week, a couple of conservative hosts on the Fox Business Channel seemed deeply concerned about premium rate hikes from California's Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield. They weren't troubled by what the increases would mean for consumers -- they were concerned that the increased burden on Americans might make health care reform more likely to happen.

Interviewing an executive from health insurance giant WellPoint, which owns Anthem, Fox's Charles Payne suggested the company should have decided to "wait for this [reform push] to blow over and maybe a year from now try to hike rates."

The industry, however, isn't waiting, and those with individual policies -- folks who buy insurance that their employers aren't providing -- are getting hit the hardest.

Health insurers across the country are dramatically increasing rates and slashing benefits for many of the estimated 17 million consumers with individual insurance policies, while making it almost impossible to obtain affordable alternatives. [...]

Rate increases by insurance companies are a fact of life for the nation's insured, but sharp hikes this year in California have provoked a national outcry that has brought criticism from President Obama and prompted investigations in Sacramento and Washington.

A spokesperson for America's Health Insurance Plans, the industry's lobbying arm, conceded, "The market is broken."

Think about that. The voice of private health insurers is willing to admit, on the record, that the market-based system that's currently in place -- and which Republicans are intent on leaving intact -- is simply "broken."

Kevin Drum explained that the fix is hardly elusive.

Look: if the chief flack for the health insurance industry says the market is broken, then you have to believe that the market is broken. And it won't fix itself, either. Despite what Republicans pretend to believe when they're in front of the cameras, the way to correct this isn't to deregulate further, allowing insurance companies to raise rates even more freely. It's to broaden the insurance pool by mandating guaranteed issue so that no one gets turned down for a policy; enforcing community rating so that everyone pays a fair price; creating an individual mandate so that healthy people can't game the system by buying insurance only when they get sick; and establishing federal subsidies so that low-income families can afford the premiums. And guess what? That's what the current bill in Congress does.

There can be little doubt that the right will flip out, not only because they oppose solutions to the problem, but also because they've convinced themselves that the fight is over -- and that they won.

I'm still skeptical about whether reform can actually come together in the end, but if it does, and the right is wondering how the package managed to make a comeback, they may want to reflect on the significance of insurers' poorly-timed greed.

Steve Benen 10:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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MCCONNELL DEFINES 'ARROGANCE'.... Legislative analysis just doesn't get any more superficial than this.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said today that Democrats have been "arrogant" in their push to pass healthcare legislation.

"I think they're having hard time getting the message here. The American people do not want this bill to pass and it strikes me as rather arrogant to say, 'Well, we're going to give it to you anyway," McConnell said on Fox News Sunday.

In terms of public attitudes, the country approves of the reform proposal quite a bit more when Americans actually learn what's in the plan, and get beyond the nonsense spread by people like McConnell.

But McConnell's notion that polls should dictate policy outcomes is just odd. Indeed, it's not even helpful to the Republican leader's own cause.

The conservative Kentucky senator may not realize this, but public opinion generally runs counter to Republicans on most areas of public policy. Republicans don't care -- they have their agenda and they're sticking to it -- and aren't about to let surveys dictate legislative outcomes.

Is it "arrogant" for GOP lawmakers to take positions that run counter to public attitudes? Americans didn't want to see escalation in Iraq in 2007 and Republicans said, "Well, we're going to give it to you anyway." Americans didn't want to see federal lawmakers intervene in the Terri Schiavo case in 2005 or spend time working on an anti-gay constitutional amendment in 2006, but Republicans said, "Well, we're going to give it to you anyway." Americans weren't especially fond of the bank bailout in 2008, but that didn't stop Mitch McConnell from voting for it, effectively telling Americans, "Well, we're going to give it to you anyway."

The inverse is true, too. Americans support reforming the way Wall Street does business, passing a climate bill, and ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." In each instance, McConnell, apparently feeling "arrogant," has decided to tell the country, "Well, we're not going to give it to you anyway."

Even someone of McConnell's limited skills should be able to understand this -- Democrats were elected to tackle health care reform. So, they're trying to do that. This isn't "arrogant"; it's policymakers following through on their promises to the electorate.

Steve Benen 10:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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BAYH EYES A MORE FUNCTIONAL SENATE.... I've occasionally had less than kind things to say about Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), and the explanation for his unexpected retirement hasn't helped.

But the centrist Hoosier has a fairly long op-ed in the New York Times today, which I found quite compelling. The piece is ostensibly about why Bayh is leaving Congress, but it's actually more helpful in presenting the senator's suggestions for improving the functionality of the chamber.

Bayh notes that despite "challenges of historic import," which "threaten America's future," our "legislative institutions fail to act." That's true. "Congress must be reformed," Bayh added, which is also true.

Some of Bayh's recommendations seem cosmetic and maybe a little hokey -- he talks about "changing the personal chemistry among senators," in part through more frequent interactions and regular luncheons -- but there's probably something to this. The senator also highlights the problems associated with "the current campaign finance system that has such a corrosive effect on Congress," problems which are likely to worsen in the wake of the Citizens United ruling.

But I was especially interested in Bayh's thoughts on the filibuster.

Historically, the filibuster was employed to ensure that momentous issues receive a full and fair hearing. Instead, it has come to serve the exact opposite purpose -- to prevent the Senate from even conducting routine business. [...]

Admittedly, I have participated in filibusters. If not abused, the filibuster can foster consensus-building. The minority has a right to voice legitimate concerns, but it must not employ this tactic to prevent progress on everything at a critical juncture for our country. We need to reduce the power of the minority to frustrate progress while still affording them some say.

Filibusters have proliferated because under current rules just one or two determined senators can stop the Senate from functioning. Today, the mere threat of a filibuster is enough to stop a vote; senators are rarely asked to pull all-nighters like Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

For this reason, filibusters should require 35 senators to sign a public petition and make a commitment to continually debate an issue in reality, not just in theory. Those who obstruct the Senate should pay a price in public notoriety and physical exhaustion. That would lead to a significant decline in frivolous filibusters.

Filibusters should also be limited to no more than one for any piece of legislation. Currently, the decision to begin debate on a bill can be filibustered, followed by another filibuster on each amendment, followed by yet another filibuster before a final vote. This leads to multiple legislative delays and effectively grinds the Senate to a halt.

What's more, the number of votes needed to overcome a filibuster should be reduced to 55 from 60. During my father's era, filibusters were commonly used to block civil rights legislation and, in 1975, the requisite number of votes was reduced to 60 from 67. The challenges facing the country today are so substantial that further delay imperils the Republic and warrants another reduction in the supermajority requirement.

I'd prefer to see the filibuster eliminated altogether, but Bayh's suggestions are well taken, and seem more than reasonable.

And it's important that this is coming from Bayh, who, perhaps more than any other lawmaker right now, has the kind of centrist credibility that resonates with the media establishment. As we talked about the other day, his concerns and support for reform position changing the status quo as a necessary, mainstream idea.

Any change at all remains, at best, a long-shot. But Bayh is at least bringing visibility to the issue, characterizing reform as a moderate goal, and (hopefully) helping educate observers about how to improve a dysfunctional system -- broken on purpose by Republicans -- that may very well "imperil the republic."

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

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REID EYES MAJORITY RULE FOR HEALTH CARE.... There's been plenty of Democratic skittishness on using the reconciliation process to complete work on health care reform. That's substantively foolish -- reconciliation exists for exactly these kinds of circumstances -- but there's been Democratic reluctance about how reconciliation might "look." Republicans, Dems expect, will characterize use of the rules as an "abuse" (as opposed to, say, using filibusters and holds to effectively break the American policymaking process).

Fortunately, it appears that skittishness won't stop Harry Reid from doing the right thing.

Democrats will finish their health reform efforts within the next two months by using a majority-vote maneuver in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said.

Reid said that congressional Democrats would likely opt for a procedural tactic in the Senate allowing the upper chamber to make final changes to its healthcare bill with only a simple majority of senators, instead of the 60 it takes to normally end a filibuster. [...]

The majority leader said that while Democrats have a number of options, they would likely use the budget reconciliation process to pass a series of fixes to the first healthcare bill passed by the Senate in November. These changes are needed to secure votes for passage of that original Senate bill in the House.

That last part is an important detail. Under this scenario, the House would pass the Senate bill, and the Senate would approve "a relatively small" fix, addressing some of the more obvious shortcomings in the Senate bill, through reconciliation.

This, of course, will lead Republicans to freak out, but no one should fall for their crocodile tears. Reconciliation has been used, legitimately, to pass everything from welfare reform to COBRA, Bush's tax-cut packages to student-aid reform, nursing home standards to the earned income tax credit. Not too long ago, Senate Republicans even considered using reconciliation to approve drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It's a little too late to characterize the same procedural measure as some kind of outrage, after Republicans relied on it extensively.

The media, however, may need a refresher. Jon Chait noted yesterday that some political reporters (who ought to know better) are overlooking the differences between "using reconciliation to patch up the Senate bill" and "using it to pass an entire health care bill." Expect, in other words, plenty of misleading journalism as the process unfolds.

As for the bigger picture, it's still easy to imagine the reform initiative coming up short. It's heartening, however, to see that the path forward is getting clearer, and leading policymakers appear intent on reaching that light at the end of the tunnel.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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STILL INSULTING THE BRASS.... In case we needed additional evidence, Rick Santorum reminded us yesterday that the days of Republican deference towards America's military leadership are over.

Former Republican senator Rick Santorum accused military leaders on Saturday of having become so "indoctrinated" with political correctness that they can no longer "see straight."

The Pennsylvania arch-conservative was specifically referring to the brass's support of a repeal of the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy. A long-time opponent of gay rights, Santorum expressed concern that changing the law would sap the readiness and effectiveness of the armed forces. [...]

Addressing how the military leadership, led by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen, could now favor a repeal of the law, Santorum raised the specter of brainwashing.

"Political correctness is reigning in the military right now," he said. ""Some people say: [Do] whatever the generals say [on DADT]. I'm not too sure that we haven't so indoctrinated the officer corps in this country that they can actually see straight to make the right decision."

Mark Kleiman noted, "Maybe dissing the brass is good political strategy for the right wing, but I wouldn't have thought so."

But what's especially interesting to me is that prominent GOP voices keep dissing the brass. When Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee that it's time to let gay servicemen and women serve openly in the U.S. military, conservative Republican senators didn't hesitate to challenge not only the military leaders' judgment, but also their integrity.

The military establishment wants civilian trials for accused terrorists; Republicans don't care. The military establishment wants to see the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay close; Republicans don't care. The military establishment opposes torture; Republicans don't care.

Keep in mind, it wasn't too terribly long ago that Democratic politicians simply weren't supposed to say that Petraeus, Gates, Mullen, and intelligence leaders were wrong about national security matters. Indeed, for Dems to say that they knew better than Petraeus, et al -- that Democratic judgment was superior to military leaders' -- was grounds for mockery, if not condemnation.

But when Santorum insulted the brass, the CPAC crowd was only too pleased to hear it. The leadership of the U.S. military are on the same page as the Democratic establishment, which means they, too, must feel the right's wrath.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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February 20, 2010

THE ACTUAL SOFT-ON-TERROR WHITE HOUSE.... In some circles, a simple, four-word phrase ends all debate: "Do what Reagan did." It's a maxim that tends to be far more effective with conservative activists who don't really know as much about the Reagan administration as they think they do -- folks, for example, who don't realize that Reagan raised taxes in almost every year of his presidency -- but which nevertheless holds sway with most Republicans.

It's especially interesting, then, to consider Reagan's approach to terrorism. Scott Horton noted that Reagan signed the Convention Against Torture, and his Justice Department indicted and prosecuted a Texas sheriff for waterboarding. Horton asked Will Bunch, author of "Tear Down This Myth," about reconciling Reagan's inerrant record with the current GOP line. (via Paul Campos)

It's important not to nominate Reagan for sainthood in the arena of human rights. His "Reagan Doctrine" in Central America, leaving the fight to anti-Communist thugs and death squads that the then-president called "the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers," is arguably the gravest moral failing of his tenure. That said, back on U.S. soil, Reagan was far to the left of the 2010 Republican Party on issues such as torture. The convention that he signed in 1988 holds that there is no circumstance of any kind that permits torture, which certainly would include the 9/11 aftermath and related anti-terror efforts today.

But it goes even deeper than that. As I noted in an early 2010 blog post: "Reagan would not have approved of drone-fired missile attacks aimed at killing terrorists; as president, he several times rejected anti-terrorism operations for the sole reason that civilians would have been killed by collateral damage. In 1985, he surprised aides such as Pat Buchanan by ruling out a military response to a Beirut hijacking for fear of civilian casualties; Lou Cannon reported then in the Washington Post that Reagan called retaliation in which innocent civilians are killed "itself a terrorist act." And the idea of trying terrorists in military tribunals as opposed to a civilian court of law? The Reagan administration was completely against that. Paul Bremer (yes, that Paul Bremer) said in 1987, "a major element of our strategy has been to delegitimize terrorists, to get society to see them for what they are -- criminals -- and to use democracy's most potent tool, the rule of law, against them."

Try to imagine the reaction if President Obama repeated Reagan's position now.

Just so we're clear, by the standards of Republicans in 2010, George W. Bush was weak on terrorism, and Ronald Reagan's perspective was about as liberal as that of the House Democrats' Progressive Caucus.

I suspect the response from the Cheney contingent is that Reagan's approach seems like that of a radical leftist now, but that's only because he was president before 9/11. Perhaps. But let's not forget that Reagan withdrew from Beirut in 1983 -- a decision Dick Cheney later mocked and blamed for emboldening terrorists.

Republicans just keep moving further and further to the right, so much so that even Ronaldus Magnus looks pretty liberal by comparison.

Steve Benen 3:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS.... In the fall of 2008, as the global economic crisis started to come into focus, then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson spent a fair amount of time talking to lawmakers from both parties. The Republican cabinet member was able to size up the intelligence and credibility of lawmakers in his own party.

Meetings with Senate Republicans were "a complete waste of time for us, when time was more precious than anything" (page 275). Ideas that Republicans do add are "unformed," like Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor's plan to replace TARP with an insurance program. In a rare moment of sarcasm, Paulson goes off on the minority Whip: "I got a better idea. I'm going to go with Eric Cantor's insurance program. That's the idea to save the day" (page 285).

This isn't entirely new. Kevin added that last year, Paulson offered plenty of praise for Democratic officials, but considered Republicans to be "preening, ignorant, ideologues."

Remember, this was Bush's Treasury secretary, commenting on lawmakers from his political party, and reflecting on the fact that they appeared to be complete idiots.

I mention this in part because it's interesting, and in part because it speaks to a larger truth -- congressional Republican too often seem like they are so conspicuously unintelligent, the notion of them being in a position of power and authority during a time of crisis can be rather terrifying.

Years ago, when I was, say, 14 or 15, I had certain assumptions about the political world. I thought, for example, that members of Congress must be fairly bright, regardless of party or ideology. Even those on the far right with whom I disagreed had to be knowledgeable and well informed, I thought, because there they are, shaping federal policy of the United States government.

It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized that the moron caucus on Capitol Hill has a few too many members. What's more, it wasn't until I actually worked in Washington that I realized finding a reasonably smart Republican lawmaker was nearly impossible.

This is not to say that all conservative Republicans are dumb. This is to say that conservative Republicans in Congress are dumb, or at least do a surprisingly convincing imitation of being dumb.

It wasn't always this way.

When Reagan and congressional Republicans pushed through a major tax-cut package in 1982, it was based on a coherent economic theory. I think the theory was wrong and the policy was a mistake, but I can appreciate the fact that GOP officials at the time actually thought this through. They did their homework. To borrow a cliche from math classrooms everywhere, they showed their work.

Today, Republican calls for tax cuts are more habitual than intellectual. They can't explain why their proposals make sense or what they hope to accomplish. There's no economic theory or policy analysis. Tax cuts create jobs. Why? Because they do.

And if it were just tax policy, this would be easier to ignore. Tragically, we're dealing with a Republican Party that celebrates ignorance, and has given up on the pretense of substance and depth altogether. As Paulson found, even during a crisis that risked the future of the global economy, Republican lawmakers not only had nothing intelligent to offer, but even trying to communicate with them on an adult level was a "complete waste of time."

This has only gotten worse. Faced with an economic crisis, Republicans demanded a five-year, across-the-board spending freeze -- and they still think that was a good idea. They presented a budget blueprint that offered oddly-drawn charts and no numbers. They see snow and assume global warming isn't real. They know they're against health care reform, but can't explain why with anything more sophisticated than bumper-sticker slogans.

They make arguments, are confronted with evidence that their arguments are wrong, and then repeat the arguments anyway.

At the recent Q&A between President Obama and House Republicans, members repeatedly whined that Democrats refuse to take GOP proposals seriously. The truth, which the president probably felt uncomfortable saying, is that they're right -- but only because GOP proposals shouldn't be taken seriously. They're ridiculous.

Maybe this doesn't matter. There's a strong strain of anti-intellectualism in American life that may appreciate the Republican caucus' inanity.

But I can't help but wonder what happens when confused conservative lawmakers control the levers of government, and the nation needs an immediate, intelligent response to a crisis.

Steve Benen 11:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (96)

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THIESSEN'S THESIS SPREADS.... Complaints from conservatives about President Obama killing too many terrorists are, believe it or not, becoming more common.

It started in earnest earlier this month, when former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen, now a Washington Post columnist, argued that the White House is taking out too many bad guys before they can be captured and tortured. The position seems to be spreading.

At a panel on national security policy at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, a prominent lawyer from the Bush administration's Department of Justice said he was concerned that the higher number of terrorist executions taking place under Obama was compromising U.S. intelligence operations.

"Why have executions increased?" asked Viet Dinh, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and one of the authors of the USA Patriot Act. Citing a recent Washington Post article on the increased targeted killing of terrorists, Dinh complained that "the president and vice president expound this fact as a fact that they are actually successful in war."

"That doesn't mean I think they are not illegitimate," he added. "No, we have every right to kill the other side's warriors. But at what cost? When we do not have an effective detention policy the only option we have is to kill them before we can detain them. And if we don't detain them, we don't know what they know and what they are up to."

A few things come to mind. First, we might have a more effective detention policy if conservative Republican lawmakers were slightly less ridiculous about abandoning positions they embraced before Obama took office last year. The factors standing between the country and a sensible policy are fear, demagoguery, and an insatiable desire to score cheap points.

Second, Dinh's timing could certainly be better -- complaining about the Obama administration not capturing enough bad guys seems odd when it comes the same week that U.S. officials played a role in capturing the Taliban's top military commander, two of the Taliban's "shadow governors," and as many as nine al-Qaeda-linked militants in Pakistan.

But looking at the bigger picture, the complaint itself is bizarre. To help reduce the risk to U.S. troops, President Obama has ordered strikes that have killed dangerous terrorists. Of all the things for far-right Republicans to complain about, this has become a new talking point?

As we talked about the other day, consider the alternative. Imagine if President Obama and his team decided that they preferred to take out fewer terrorist leaders and would instead send U.S. servicemen and women into extraordinarily dangerous situations in order to capture more bad guys, in the hopes of interrogating them.

I think any honest person knows exactly what we'd be hearing from the media and Republicans: the president is refusing to kill terrorists and he's needlessly putting the troops in harm's way.

Heads, the right wins. Tails, the president loses.

Steve Benen 10:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is a report from radical TV preacher Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, which religious right activists and many on the far-right quickly embraced, but which didn't stand up well to scrutiny.

CBN reported, in an apparent "exclusive," that five Muslim-American soldiers at Fort Jackson in South Carolina "were arrested just before Christmas and are in custody. The five men were part of the Arabic Translation program at the base." If true, it's the kind of development that would likely have broad political and policy consequences. Except, as Marc Ambinder noted, CBN appears to have gotten it wrong.

[T]he Army says it's not true. No one has been arrested. The National Security Council was not aware of any arrests, a spokesperson said.

After the Ft. Hood massacre, the Army increased its counterintelligence presence at Ft. Jackson, a training base, because it is home a large number of non-citizen Muslims recruited under the Army's "09-Lima" translation program.

A few months ago, special agents from the Army's Criminal Investigation Division opened an investigation after receiving a tip that some Muslims at the base had communicated with others overseas, and that a group of Muslim non-citizens had tried to poison other soldiers. That investigation is open -- but no evidence has been found to support the tips, according to the Army.

In a follow-up piece, Ambinder added that the CBN report was "completely wrong," adding, "And in its wrongness, it's damaging because it provides fortification for those who believe that Muslims are infiltrating the ranks of the U.S. Army and intend to poison good Christian soldiers. Indeed, I detect a bit of religious competition in CBN's reporting. After all, it is CBN."

Also from the God Machine this week:

* Gallup reported this week on the states with the highest and lowest rates of church attendance. The results fell largely along regional lines: "Mississippians were the most frequent churchgoers in the nation in 2009, as was the case in 2008, with 63% of residents attending weekly or almost every week. Nine of the top 10 states in church attendance are in the South; the only non-Southern state is Utah, with 56% frequent attendance. At the other end of the spectrum, 23% of Vermont residents attend church frequently, putting it at the bottom of the list of churchgoing states. Other states at the bottom of the church attendance list are in either New England or the West."

* Nearly four out of 10 Texans believe in young-earth creationism, and nearly a third believe humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time.

* It's always heartening to see Americans' sense of decency shine: "Last week, the Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Nashville, TN was vandalized with anti-Muslim graffiti....The hate crime came after a local news station aired a controversial, inflammatory report about another local Muslim community. Since the hate crime at Al-Farooq, however, there has been 'outpouring of neighborly support' for the mosque, with neighbors helping to clean up the graffiti.... At least 150 people -- 'including spiritual leaders from several faiths' -- also went to an open house at the Islamic Center of Nashville on Saturday to learn more about the Islamic faith and pledge 'support for local Muslims in the wake of last week's defacement' of Al-Farooq."

Steve Benen 9:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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NOT BACKING OFF.... With less than a week before the White House hosts a bipartisan summit on health care reform, the forcefulness of President Obama's message on the issue seems to be picking up.

The president appeared at a town-hall event in Henderson, Nevada, yesterday, joined by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D). There were several questions about health care reform, and Obama offered a detailed summary of his thoughts on the matter.

First, he addressed why he decided to take the issue on, talking about Americans "who have lost their job and suddenly they don't have health insurance, somebody in their family gets sick, and they lose their house." Obama went on to talk about soaring premiums for people who already have coverage, the ways in which the status quo drives up the deficit, and the ways in which the current dysfunctional system undermines economic growth.

The president then transitioned to talking about what he planned to do about it.

"What we have said is this: If you have health insurance, we are going to pass a series of health reforms so that the insurance companies have to treat you fairly -- it's very straightforward -- that they can't prevent you from getting health insurance because of a preexisting condition; that they can't put a lifetime cap so in the fine print it turns out that you're not fully covered. So there are a whole series of insurance reforms -- that's number one.

"Number two, we've got a whole series of cost controls. So what we're saying is, for example, that every insurer, they've got to spend the vast majority of your premiums on actual care, as opposed to profits and overhead. We're saying that we've got to get out some of the waste and abuse, including subsidies to insurance companies in the Medicare system that run in the tens of billions of dollars every year. That's not a good use of your taxpayer dollars. And we're working to improve wellness and prevention, as I said before, so that people aren't going to the emergency room for care.

"Now, the third thing, and the thing that's most controversial, sadly, is what we're also saying is we've got to make sure that everybody can have access to coverage. And the way we do that is we set up something called an exchange, where essentially individuals and small businesses who aren't getting a good deal because they don't have the same negotiating power as the big companies when it comes to the insurance market, they can pool just like members of Congress and federal employees do in their health care plan -- they can pool so that now they've got the purchasing power of a million people behind them and they can get a better deal. That can lower their costs. And we'll give subsidies for working families who can't afford it even with lower premium costs." [...]

And, by the way, it would actually save us money in the long term, because all those wasteful dollars that we're spending right now, the experts estimate we'd actually save a trillion dollars by passing it.

He added that Republicans "say that they've got a better way of doing it. So I want them to put it on the table.... I'm not an unreasonable guy."

This morning, the president also devoted another weekly address to health care, emphasizing the "jaw-dropping" premium increases many Americans are facing, and explain that "the status quo is good for the insurance industry and bad for America.... And as bad as things are today, they'll only get worse if we fail to act." He added:

"What's being tested here is not just our ability to solve this one problem, but our ability to solve any problem. Right now, Americans are understandably despairing about whether partisanship and the undue influence of special interests in Washington will make it impossible for us to deal with the big challenges that face our country. They want to see us focus not on scoring points, but on solving problems; not on the next election but on the next generation. That is what we can do, and that is what we must do when we come together for this bipartisan health care meeting next week."

As Jonathan Cohn noted last night, "A president planning to give up on a major reform bill would be unlikely to talk that way."

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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A FEW TOO MANY FEUDS.... I've never seen "Family Guy." I hear it's pretty crass, but the animated show remains pretty popular, and I know plenty of friends who think it's hilarious. Whatever.

The political relevance of the show grew this week, however, because last Sunday's episode told a Sarah Palin joke. A "Family Guy" actress with Down syndrome voiced a character who was asked about her family. "My dad's an accountant, and my mom is the former governor of Alaska," the character replies.

The former half-term governor considered this mockery of her son with Down syndrome, and blasted the show online and on the air. Yesterday, Andrea Fay Friedman, the 39-year-old actress who did the voice-over work on the show told the New York Times, "I guess former Governor Palin does not have a sense of humor."

She added that in her family, "we think laughing is good," and that she was raised by her parents "to have a sense of humor and to live a normal life."

Ms. Friedman continued, "My mother did not carry me around under her arm like a loaf of French bread the way former Governor Palin carries her son Trig around looking for sympathy and votes."

In a telephone interview on Thursday, Ms. Friedman, who has also appeared in television shows like "Life Goes On" and "Saving Grace," said she was perplexed by Ms. Palin's criticism.

"I'm like, 'I'm not Trig. This is my life,' " Ms. Friedman said. "I was making fun of Sarah Palin, but not her son."

Who's right and who's wrong here? Beats me.

I do, however, think that Palin has a knack for getting into a few too many feuds.

Palin has feuded with David Letterman and Ashley Judd. She's feuded with her teenage daughter's ex-fiance and Rahm Emanuel and Arnold Schwarzenegger. She's feuded with the National Organization for Women and climate scientists. When beauty pageant contestant Carrie Prejean drew criticism, Palin jumped into that feud, too. Now it's a cartoon on Fox that's drawn her ire.

I suppose some of these disputes may seem more justifiable than others, but the point is, credible national figures don't usually feel the need to launch one feud after another. After a while, the former governor starts to look rather small, especially by engaging in squabbles with television shows and personalities.

Maybe Palin could try an "above the fray" approach sometime?

Steve Benen 9:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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THE SAD TELEPROMPTER JOKE.... Appearing at CPAC yesterday, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) demonstrated the far-right's dry and sophisticated wit, while showing his own attention to detail.

"President Obama was in a grade school classroom speaking to elementary school children and he was using a teleprompter," Pawlenty said Friday in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.

"You've got to be kidding me," he added. "That's not a joke. That's a real story."

Actually, it's not. The tale spread by bloggers over the Internet and in some media, including the Comedy Channel's Jon Stewart, blended together two Obama appearances Jan. 19 at the Graham Road Elementary School in Falls Church, Virginia, to make it appear he used the teleprompter when speaking to a classroom of 30 pupils.

In reality, Obama sat on a chair and spoke with the pupils without the device.

OK, so Tim Pawlenty doesn't know what he's talking about. That's hardly new.

But the fact that the right is still obsessed with this -- often telling teleprompter jokes while literally reading from teleprompters -- has quickly transitioned from odd to sad to pathetic.

All modern presidents have used teleprompters to deliver speeches. It's never been noteworthy, better yet "controversial," until today's right-wing GOP decided it's hilarious -- so much so that, as Pawlenty demonstrated, they're willing to lie about it.

It's worth pondering what, exactly, Republicans hope to accomplish with this. Apparently, the far-right thinks it can convince Americans that President Obama is, what, not as brilliant as he seems? The party that revels in anti-intellectualism and makes heroes of obvious dim-bulbs like Bush and Palin seriously believes the president is dependent on a prepared text to tell him what to say?

These clowns aren't concerned with details like reality, but Barack Obama has been on the national stage for several years now. He's spoken eloquently and intelligently -- without notes or teleprompters -- in debates, town-hall forums, media interviews, Q&As, and assorted appearances. Obama off the cuff is more cerebral than any figure in modern Republican politics.

I'd hoped we saw the end of this inanity a few weeks ago in Baltimore. House Republicans asked Obama what they thought to be really difficult questions. Perhaps believing their own nonsense about teleprompters, GOP lawmakers thought they'd show the president a thing or two. Instead, he made them look ridiculous, demonstrating a mastery of policy details and depth that they couldn't hope to match.

These folks have to realize eventually that to attack the president credibly, they'll have to do better than this.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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TORTURE-MEMO AUTHORS AVOID SANCTIONS.... Jay Bybee and John Yoo have effectively been slapped on the wrist.

After five years of often bitter internal debate, the Justice Department concluded in a report released Friday that the lawyers who gave legal justification to the Bush administration's brutal interrogation tactics for terrorism suspects used flawed legal reasoning but were not guilty of professional misconduct.

The report, rejecting harsher sanctions recommended by Justice Department ethics lawyers, brings to a close a pivotal chapter in the debate over the legal limits of the Bush administration's fight against terrorism and whether its treatment of Qaeda prisoners amounted to torture.

Justice's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) found that Bybee, now a federal judge, and Yoo, a Berkeley law professor, demonstrated "professional misconduct" when they authored the Bush administration's torture memos. OPR's ethics lawyers "said the lawyers had ignored legal precedents and provided slipshod legal advice to the White House in possible violation of international and federal laws on torture."

And while "professional misconduct" findings could have led to sanctions for Bybee and Yoo -- including disbarment -- Deputy Associate Attorney General David Margolis, a career Justice Department official tasked with reviewing the OPR report, overruled the ethics lawyers' conclusion. Specifically, Margolis cited the context of post-9/11 pressure, which led Bybee and Yoo to produce "flawed" advice, but not necessarily advice issued in bad faith.

Margolis nevertheless singled out Yoo for pointed criticism: "While I have declined to adopt O.P.R.'s findings of misconduct, I fear that John Yoo's loyalty to his own ideology and convictions clouded his view of his obligation to his client and led him to author opinions that reflected his own extreme, albeit sincerely held, view of executive power while speaking for an institutional client."

That'll sting, but that's all it will do.

Responding to the report, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) said, "Mr. Bybee and Mr. Yoo may keep their law licenses, but they will not escape the verdict of history."

Given the scope and consequences of their wrongdoing, this hardly seems satisfying.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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February 19, 2010

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

* Case closed: "After seven frustrating years probing the deadly 2001 anthrax mailings, the FBI closed the case Friday, concluding a mentally unhinged government researcher acted alone in the attacks that killed five people and unnerved Americans nationwide."

* The mortgage crisis isn't over: "President Barack Obama used a campaign push for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid Friday to announce a new fund to support homeowners in five states hit hardest by the housing crisis."

* In fact, the mortgage crisis may be shifting: "A mortgage crisis like the one that has devastated homeowners is enveloping the nation's office and retail buildings."

* Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) has a cancerous stomach tumor, but is expected to make a full recovery. He may miss some Senate votes, but intends to keep working throughout his treatments.

* Operation Iraqi Freedom becomes Operation New Dawn.

* When it comes to analysis of the federal budget, deficits, and government spending, Peggy Noonan is almost comically confused.

* The estimable Harold Pollack reminds us how truly ridiculous the Wall Street Journal's editorial page is on health care policy analysis.

* At CPAC, it's apparently not too soon to tell jokes about anti-government radicals flying airplanes into buildings.

* In tough times, states put Medicaid on the chopping block.

* Time for concealed weapons at college?

* In a depressing sign of the times, former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) was booed at a CPAC panel today when he described waterboarding as torture.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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REID AND THE PUBLIC OPTION.... As part of the ongoing look at the push to keep the public option alive, there are, as of this afternoon, 18 Democratic senators urging the party leadership to approve a health care reform bill with a public option through reconciliation.

What does Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have to say about this? First, a little context.

One of the consistent truths of the debate over health care reform is that, in the Senate, Reid has been sensitive to the demands of his caucus. He's their leader, but he's also serves as their representative. I can think of more than a few times when Reid would seem to have a direction in mind on a given issue, only to adjust course after a caucus meeting. Love him or hate him, Harry Reid listens to his members.

And Greg Sargent reports this afternoon that if his members want to pursue a public option, Reid is certainly open to moving forward accordingly.

In another surprising step forward for the public option, Senator Harry Reid's office says that if a final decision is made to pass health reform via reconciliation, the Majority Leader would support holding a reconciliation vote on the public option.

In a statement Greg re-published, a Reid spokesperson said the Majority Leader still supports the popular measure, adding, "If a decision is made to use reconciliation to advance health care, Senator Reid will work with the White House, the House, and members of his caucus in an effort to craft a public option that can overcome procedural obstacles and secure enough votes."

On a related note, I should also mention that Health and Human Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told Rachel Maddow last night that if a Senate majority is prepared to move forward on a public option, that would suit the Obama administration just fine. "Certainly. If it's part of the decision of the Senate leadership to move forward, absolutely," Sebelius said.

In the interest of providing a variety of important perspectives, I'd also encourage readers to check out concerns raised by Jonathan Cohn -- who, like me, is an enthusiastic supporter of a public option -- but who's "really nervous" about the renewed push. Cohn explained, "At this point, it's going to take a herculean effort by President Obama and the leadership to secure 50 votes even for a modest reconciliation bill, one that merely fixes some of the more egregious flaws in the bill the Senate finally passed. Adding a public option -- something more conservative Democrats never liked in the first place -- will make that task a lot harder.... [Y]es, adding a public option could produce an even better reform bill. It could also produce no bill at all."

Stay tuned.

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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ACROSS STATE LINES.... When it comes to the Republican approach to health care reform, the single most popular idea is encouraging consumer to purchase coverage across state lines. It appears that major news outlets tend to do a very bad job of explaining how this would work, and why the GOP plan, taken at face value, is a truly awful idea.

And that's a shame, because folks really should understand this. Ezra Klein had a helpful item on this the other day.

Insurance is currently regulated by states. California, for instance, says all insurers have to cover treatments for lead poisoning, while other states let insurers decide whether to cover lead poisoning, and leaves lead poisoning coverage -- or its absence -- as a surprise for customers who find that they have lead poisoning. [...]

The result of this is that an Alabama plan can't be sold in, say, Oregon, because the Alabama plan doesn't conform to Oregon's regulations. A lot of liberals want that to change: It makes more sense, they say, for insurance to be regulated by the federal government. That way the product is standard across all the states.

Conservatives want the opposite: They want insurers to be able to cluster in one state, follow that state's regulations and sell the product to everyone in the country. In practice, that means we will have a single national insurance standard. But that standard will be decided by South Dakota. Or, if South Dakota doesn't give the insurers the freedom they want, it'll be decided by Wyoming. Or whoever.

It's why this idea is generally characterized as promoting a "race to the bottom." The plan would effectively lead state policymakers to tell insurers that if they can set up shop in their state and write the rules in the industry's favor. The industry would go with the state that offered the sweetest deal -- which is to say, the most lax oversight with the fewest restrictions -- and before long, it would be consumers' only choice. Why? Because every insurer would move to that state, leaving Americans -- lacking a public option -- with no other coverage to buy.

That's exactly what happened with the credit card industry, and it's a model to be avoided, not followed.

President Obama has said he's willing to work with Republicans on allowing consumers to buy across state lines, just so long as there are minimum standards to prevent the race to the bottom. The GOP balks at the compromise, because minimum standards would mean ... federal regulations. And we can't have that because it would mean government looking out for consumers, which is, you know, bad. Or something.

It gets worse. The Congressional Budget Office did an analysis of the idea in 2005 (Republican Congress and Republican White House). Ezra noted the results of the CBO's research.

The legislation "would reduce the price of individual health insurance coverage for people expected to have relatively low health care costs, while increasing the price of coverage for those expected to have relatively high health care costs," CBO said. "Therefore, CBO expects that there would be an increase in the number of relatively healthy individuals, and a decrease in the number of individuals expected to have relatively high cost, who buy individual coverage."

That is to say, the legislation would not change the number of insured Americans or save much money, but it would make insurance more expensive for the sick and cheaper for the healthy, and lead to more healthy people with insurance and fewer sick people with insurance. It's a great proposal if you don't ever plan to be sick, and if you don't mind finding out that your insurer doesn't cover your illness. And it's the Republican plan for health-care reform.

I'm reminded that anyone who seriously believes Republicans are credible on this issue just isn't paying attention. I'm also reminded that most of the country isn't paying attention.

Steve Benen 4:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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ASHCROFT STRAYS FROM THE GOP SCRIPT.... If there's one thing Republicans agree on right now, it's that charging terrorists as criminals and holding trials for them in U.S. civilian courts is outrageous. They took the opposite position a few years ago, but they'd appreciate it if we didn't bring that up.

Former Attorney General John Ashcroft, who spent quite a bit of time charging terrorists as criminals and holding trials for them in U.S. civilian courts, apparently isn't sticking to his party's script.

In an acknowledgment that throws a wrench in Republican talking points, former Attorney General John Ashcroft said on Friday that the criminal justice system does, indeed, have a role to play in trying terrorist suspects.

In an interview with the Huffington Post at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the former Bush administration official said that there are "a variety of tools that ought to be available to an administration" in its efforts to curb terrorism and bring terrorists to justice.

Asked specifically about holding civilian trials for terrorists, he said such a venue "has use and utility."

This is, of course, a rational thing to say. During his tenure at the Justice Department, Ashcroft oversaw federal law enforcement officials who arrested, Mirandized, charged, convicted, and imprisoned hundreds of terrorists, all on American soil and in American courts. This was the norm, and it was not deemed controversial in the slightest. Ashcroft even bragged about it.

Sure there's a "use and utility" for civilian trials for terrorists. Of course there is.

The president believes this. So does the Justice Department. So does Gen. David Petraeus and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. This is all part and parcel of how the United States operates, and has always operated.

The only officials who disagree are the congressional Republicans who had the opposite position right up until Inauguration Day 2008.

That said, will Cheneys and the GOP go after Ashcroft now? Does he get labeled some kind of "weak on terror" enemy sympathizer by the shameless Republican hacks who endorsed the legal process up until very recently?

Steve Benen 3:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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CHUTZPAH WATCH.... This morning, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) declared that congressional Republicans "will say no to this health care bill." A couple of hours later, Eric Cantor insisted that it's incumbent upon President Obama to make a grand gesture of "bipartisanship."

President Barack Obama must take a procedural maneuver to pass healthcare with a simple majority off the table, the second-ranking House Republican said Friday.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) urged Obama to reject using the budget reconciliation process to pass health reform, a tactic that would allow Democrats to finish health reform without any GOP support.

"If the President is sincere about moving forward in a bipartisan fashion, he must take the reconciliation process -- which will be used jam through legislation that a majority of Americans do not want -- off the table," Cantor said in a statement.

First, it's painfully obvious that Cantor isn't "sincere about moving forward in a bipartisan fashion," since he, just this morning, declared his opposition to a bill he has not yet seen. It takes quite a bit of chutzpah to declare opposition to legislation in the morning, and then demand accommodation in the afternoon, all the while insisting it's the White House that needs to commit to "bipartisanship."

Second, Cantor's plea is itself idiotic. Before they talk about health care reform, Republicans want the president to agree in advance to give Republicans the opportunity to kill health care reform. Please.

Despite all of this, I still think there's a way for both sides to move forward in good faith. Democrats can agree to take reconciliation off the table if Republicans agree to take a filibuster off the table. The White House, Senate leaders from both parties, and House leaders from both parties can get together and have a substantive discussion about the policy. Soon after, the House and Senate can vote on health care reform -- if a majority in both chambers approve of the final bill, it goes to the White House for a signature. If a majority in either chambers disapproves, the bill dies.

That sounds fair, doesn't it?

Steve Benen 2:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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PENCE AND THE 'PARTY OF NO' LABEL.... As a rhetorical matter, House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-Ind.) has crafted a reasonable response to one of the standard Democratic criticisms. Here's his message to the CPAC crowd this morning:

"Some folks like to call us the party of 'no.' Well, I say 'No' is way underrated in Washington, D.C. Sometimes 'No' is just what this town needs to hear.

"When it comes to more borrowing, the answer is No. When it comes to more spending, the answer is No. When it comes to more bailouts, the answer is No. And when it comes to a government takeover of health care, the answer is No.

"Conservative Republicans are back. We're in the fight for fiscal discipline and limited government, and we are on the side of the American people."

This has always been the downside of the "party of no" label -- some Republicans seem to like it.

There are, however, some worthwhile takeaways from Pence's rhetoric. For example, it should put to rest any notion that Democrats need to reach out to congressional Republicans to try to solve problems. The GOP is so reflexively opposed to everything, they even say "no" to ideas they support. Pence's remarks are an unsubtle message to Democrats: please stop trying to work with us.

The prepared remarks should also make clear who's responsible for partisan gridlock. Pence is effectively telling the public, "If you want more political paralysis, vote Republican."

But on a more strategic level, I also wonder if Pence is pointing to an area of vulnerability for Republicans. After all, I can very easily imagine ads targeting potentially vulnerable Republican incumbents, reminding center-right voters about the GOP record. What do you suppose the reaction would be from conservative voters in "red" districts if they were reminded that Pence and Republicans like him voted to increase the budget deficit, voted to add $5 trillion to the debt, voted to increase government spending, voted for more earmarks, voted to increase the government's role in health care (Medicare Part D), voted to increase the size and scope of the federal government's powers (FISA, creation of DHS), and voted against one of the largest tax-cut packages in American history (the Recovery Act)? [Update: An emailer reminds me that these same Republicans also supported Mirandizing terrorists, trying them in civilian courts, and imprisoning them on U.S. soil.]

Maybe someone ought to remind voters about this.

Steve Benen 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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WHERE'S THE CPAC CROWD'S OUTRAGE?.... If there's one point that's started entering the political bloodstream in earnest this week, it's the notion of Republican hypocrisy on the stimulus. Keeping an eye on the CPAC event, it's curious that this seems to be deliberately ignored.

By now, the phenomenon is hard to miss. In Washington, Republicans say they loathe the recovery effort, believe it's incapable of helping the economy, and are proud to have voted against it. When it comes to their states/districts/constituents, however, the identical GOP lawmakers love the recovery effort and believe it's vital to improving the economy in their area. In some cases, Republicans have even taken credit for stimulus projects they opposed -- projects that wouldn't even exist if they had their way.

The examples keep piling up.

[Wednesday] marked the one-year anniversary of the historic American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the stimulus. Despite being called a success by most economists and independent analysts, Republicans have mocked the stimulus, calling it a boondoggle that has "failed to create a single job." Essentially, the GOP has lied about the stimulus in order to justify their unified opposition to its passage.

Yesterday, GOP.gov, the official website for the House Republican caucus, continued the anti-stimulus drumbeat, blaring press releases calling the stimulus a failure. Ironically, posted just above two releases attacking the stimulus, the website features a release from Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) taking credit for $35 million dollars in stimulus highway money.

This is hardly new. There are 178 members of the House Republican caucus. All told, 91 of them -- more than half of the entire caucus -- have either taken credit for stimulus-financed projects and/or requested stimulus money to help boost the economy in their area.

In the context of the ongoing Conservative Political Action Conference, it leads to a fairly straightforward question: are far-right activists O.K. with all of this? Does the CPAC/Tea Party crowd have principles they take seriously, or are they content to listen to Republican hacks reject and embrace President Obama's recovery campaign at the same time?

It appears the GOP leadership is playing its activist base for fools. If the right-wing "movement" has a problem with that, CPAC should be the place for them to say so.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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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.

* It looks like Indiana Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D) really will run for the Senate, hoping to succeed Sen. Evan Bayh (D).

* On a related note, there is a complicating factor: Indiana's Democratic state central committee will not formally be able to choose a candidate until after May 4. If, however, Ellsworth becomes a consensus pick, and no other top-tier candidates step forward for consideration, he might be able to position himself as a de facto candidate well before the formal selection.

* President Obama will be in Nevada today, hoping to give Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D) struggling campaign a boost. The powerful pair will attend a town-hall meeting in Las Vegas, before speaking later to the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce. Obama also joined Reid at a DNC fundraiser last night.

* South Carolina's gubernatorial race is getting a little clearer, at least on the Democratic side, with Mullins McLeod dropping out and endorsing state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, the frontrunner for the party nod.

* Speaking of South Carolina, remember Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer (R), who recently compared low-income families to stray animals? His burgeoning gubernatorial campaign released a new TV ad yesterday touting Bauer's support for ending "generational handouts."

* San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's (D) gubernatorial campaign didn't go especially well, but he's now considering running for lieutenant governor.

* The right-wing FreedomWorks group, led by Dick Armey, will throw its support to Utah's Mike Lee, who is challenging incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett in a Republican primary.

* A new poll out of Iowa shows Sen. Charles Grassley (R) with a 21-point lead over Roxanner Conlin (D), 56% to 35%.

* And in Pennsylvania, former U.S. Attorney and far-right loyal Bushie Mary Beth Buchanan (R) is running for Congress, and apparently doesn't like people talking about her suspicious prosecutorial judgment. (thanks to reader K.M. for the tip)

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

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FEEL THE BIPARTISAN MOMENTUM.... When President Obama invited congressional Republicans to participate in a bipartisan summit on health care reform, he asked GOP officials to do a couple of things.

The president, for example, urged Republicans to craft their own plan, which could be talked about at the event, and from which good ideas could be drawn. In response, GOP leaders replied that there will be no Republican plan.

Obama also encouraged Republican leaders to come to the table with a constructive attitude, with hopes of finding common ground and a genuine interest in solving an obvious problem. That's not going to happen, either.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) isn't exactly laying the foundation for the bipartisan part of next week's bipartisan health care summit at the White House.

At CPAC this morning, Cantor declared that "we will say no to this health care bill because no is what the American people want."

Well, the American people want a public option, too, but I suppose polls only matter when the public supports the already agreed upon position.

Nevertheless, Cantor's remarks couldn't have been clearer. Less than a week before the summit begins, and several days before Cantor even sees the White House plan, he's declared that Republicans "will say no" -- regardless of what's in it, regardless of what compromises the president is prepared to make.

Hari Sevugan, a spokesperson for the DNC, issued a statement soon after Cantor made his remarks.

"While Eric Cantor and his Republican colleagues have for months repeatedly charged that the President is shutting them out of the process, today's comments clearly demonstrate that Republicans are interested only in politicizing the debate and have no intention in working together on reform that makes health care more stable and affordable.

"We hope other Republican Congressional leaders will rebuke and disavow Mr. Cantor's comments and pledge to work in a truly bipartisan manner. The American people deserve no less."

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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PARTY LIKE IT'S 2005.... Reporting from the annual Conservative Political Action Conference yesterday, Evan McMorris-Santoro noted that "everywhere you look, people are saying nice things about George Bush and Dick Cheney. The return of Bush and Cheney to Republican good graces is the strongest evidence yet that conservatives are ready to come out of the shadows in the wake of their monumental defeat in 2008."

Given the scope of the Bush/Cheney cataclysm, this is rather unexpected. Indeed, given conservative ideology, it's also incoherent. What's the message right-wing activists are emphasizing right now? They want less spending, lower deficits, less debt, and smaller government. Bush/Cheney increased spending, carelessly created enormous deficits, added $5 trillion to the national debt in just eight years, and expanded the size and scope of the federal government.

There's a great deal about right-wing ideology I'll never fully grasp, but how these folks choose their heroes is one of the bigger mysteries.

Nevertheless, it now appears all is forgiven among far-right activist s when it comes to the failed former administration. Take Mitt Romney's bizarre speech, for example:

"I am convinced that history will judge President Bush far more kindly -- he pulled us from a deepening recession following the attack of 9-11, he overcame teachers unions to test schoolchildren and evaluate schools, he took down the Taliban, waged a war against the jihadists and was not afraid to call it what it is -- a war, and he kept us safe."

It's hard to imagine a sane person believing such nonsense. We should be thankful for Bush's economic policies? The Mittster may have trouble keeping up with current events, but the jury is no longer out on whether those policies were effective. We should applaud Bush for "taking down the Taliban"? Um, Mitt? Quick follow-up question: if Bush took down the Taliban, who's trying to kill American troops in Afghanistan?

Regardless, if the right is prepared to rally behind Bush/Cheney again, I suspect that suits Democrats just fine. One of the campaign themes Dems are anxious to push is urging voters to look forward, and not "turn back the clock" to the Republican fiascoes and debacles of the Bush/Cheney era.

If yesterday was any indication, some conservatives don't mind bolstering this narrative at all.

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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NO PLAN FOR YOU.... When the White House sent invitations to the health care summit, it also made a rather important request of the GOP minority.

"Since this meeting will be most productive if information is widely available before the meeting, we will post online the text of a proposed health insurance reform package," the materials read, adding, "It is the President's hope that the Republican congressional leadership will also put forward their own comprehensive bill to achieve those goals and make it available online as well."

Yesterday, Republicans quietly responded to the request.

"We will not be offering a comprehensive bill," said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), citing public anxiety about sweeping healthcare legislation.

Michael Franc, who oversees government relations for the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Republicans would be wise to steer clear of any public negotiating over healthcare legislation with the president, suggesting instead that they stick to their demand that the Democratic bills be scrapped.

"The last thing Republican leadership wants is to get drawn into something that upsets their base," Franc said.

This is entirely expected. Indeed, the debate over health care reform has dragged on for nearly a year -- if Republicans haven't presented their own comprehensive plan yet, they're not going to offer one now, just because the president asked for one.

But it should make for an interesting dynamic at the summit. President Obama envisioned a scenario in which both sides present their own plans, and then participants go through them, highlighting the best provisions of each. Republicans, however, will offer nothing concrete.

Of course, the dirty little secret is they can't -- Republicans' approach to health care policy is a rather pathetic joke. If they tried to produce their own plan, and then subjected it to scrutiny at a high-profile event, it'd be humiliating.

But by refusing to come up with a plan, the opportunity for embarrassment is still there. Dems will be able to point to a concrete plan that works and can be defended. Republicans will have an outline, built around "tort reform."

Sounds like must-see TV to me.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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A STIMULUS CONSENSUS.... For many on the right, the stimulus package that rescued the economy wasn't just a mistake, it actually hurt the economy. Can anyone, anywhere, find a credible expert to support this nonsense? Nope.

The NYT reported this week on the consensus among economists on the importance of the recovery initiative. ABC News ran a piece yesterday that ostensibly sought to prove that experts "disagree" on whether the stimulus was "vital," but nevertheless found a similar consensus.

Most of our panelists think the economy would be worse today without the big aid package, which totaled $787 billion and was signed into law by President Obama on Feb. 17, 2009. The bill, known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, included money for tax cuts, infrastructure projects, education and aid to state and local governments.

"The stimulus worked," said Stuart Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Bank. Without it, "the unemployment rate would probably be closer to 11 percent" and the economy might not have grown at all last year.

Mark Zandi of Moody's Economy.com thought the nation would be "still in recession."

"It played a significant role supporting recovery," said economist Diane Swonk of Mesirow Financial.

ABC found a couple of experts who argued the economy would have eventually started to improve on its own, but the Democratic proposal made recovery faster.

The number of experts who agree with the conservative Republican line? Zero.

As Matt Yglesias explained, "They've attempted to frame this as a standard piece of "experts disagree on shape of the earth" shoddy policy journalism, but what you're actually seeing here is that despite their best efforts they can't find anyone to endorse the standard Heritage/NRO/GOP view that the stimulus is harming the economy."

That's hardly surprising; this Republican crowd has been wrong about every major economic policy for at least a generation. What is surprising is that anyone might still take these folks seriously, given their uninterrupted track record of failure.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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BROWN'S TWISTED PERSPECTIVE.... Yesterday, Joe Stack crashed a small plane into an office building in Austin, Texas. Stack, apparently a deranged man with a grudge against the government in general, and the Internal Revenue Service in specific, killed at least three people, including himself.

And while I have no real interest in the "debate" over the killer's bizarre ideology, I couldn't help but notice that Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) seems to think he can relate to the deranged suicide bomber at some level.

Appearing on Fox News soon after Stack flew an airplane into a building, Brown told the national television audience that he "feels for the families" affected by the attack. In the next breath, however, the senator added:

"I don't know if it's related but I can just sense not only in my election, but since being here in Washington, people are frustrated. They want transparency. They want their elected officials to be accountable and open and talk about the things affecting their daily lives. So I am not sure if there is a connection, I certainly hope not, but we need to do things better."

Brown added that an incident like the one in Austin is "extreme," but added, "No one likes paying taxes obviously."

So, let me get this straight. An anti-government nut flies an airplane into a building and Scott Brown thinks the incident reminds him of ... his own campaign? Indeed, Brown almost seems to be rationalizing the actions of a domestic terrorist, as if Stack's murders can be understood if we just appreciate how "frustrated" people are.

This guy is a United States senator? Seriously?

Massachusetts, what hath thou wrought?

Brown is quickly proving himself to a dim-witted clown. He's let the far-right adulation go to his head, so much so that Brown actually believes he deserves to be taken seriously. His transition into Republican Celebrity status would be easier if Brown had any idea what he was talking about.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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WHITE HOUSE TO PRESENT ITS OWN REFORM BILL.... On Tuesday, White House officials offered their first hint that President Obama may present his own health care reform bill in advance of the Feb. 25 bipartisan summit. Now, the president and his team are poised to do just that.

President Obama will put forward comprehensive health care legislation intended to bridge differences between Senate and House Democrats ahead of a summit meeting with Republicans next week, senior administration officials and Congressional aides said Thursday.

Democratic officials said the president's proposal was being written so that it could be attached to a budget bill as a way of averting a Republican filibuster in the Senate. The procedure, known as budget reconciliation, would let Democrats advance the bill with a simple majority rather than a 60-vote supermajority.

"There will be one proposal. It is the president's," Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said, adding, "I think the idea is that it will take some of the best of the ideas [from the House and Senate bills] and put them into a framework moving forward."

The details of the White House plan are scarce, and by all appearances, still coming together. Based on reports, however, it seems the president's proposal will not be a scaled-back package -- it will include the same subsidies for the insured and consumer protections found in the House and Senate bills. Financing remains tricky, but the White House bill will apparently stick to the excise tax approach favored by the Senate, and include the compromise reached with union leaders before Massachusetts' special election to limit its impact on workers.

Keep in mind, this White House package is not necessarily the result of House-Senate negotiations. In fact, by all accounts, Democratic leaders haven't even seen the specifics of the president's plan and have not yet signed off on its provisions. That said, lawmakers have strongly urged Obama to get directly involved, explain exactly what he wants in the final bill, and take the lead in getting this done. It appears the president is doing exactly that.

Also note that this represents something of an ultimatum to congressional Republicans: Dems are moving forward on this. The president is inviting GOP leaders to present their ideas and arguments, and has promised to consider them in good faith, but by crafting his own proposal, Obama is also making clear that their permission to govern is not a prerequisite. He's open to incorporating Republican measures, but he's not open to letting Republicans kill reform.

In other words, the message to the GOP is simple: you'll get a chance to contribute, but we're moving on with or without you.

White House officials reportedly intend to publish the president's plan online by Monday morning. Stay tuned.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (76)

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February 18, 2010

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

* Domestic terrorism in Austin? "A software engineer upset with the Internal Revenue Service set fire to his home Thursday and then flew his plane into a multistory office building that houses federal tax employees, authorities said. The pilot was presumed to have died in the crash, federal law enforcement officials said. At least two people were injured and a third person who worked in the building was unaccounted for, fire officials said."

* Pakistan: "A bomb blast at a mosque in Pakistan's northwestern tribal belt killed 29 people including some militants Thursday, underscoring the relentless security threat here even as Pakistani-U.S. cooperation against extremism appears on the upswing."

* Bernanke better know what he's doing: "The Federal Reserve, taking its first step to normalize lending after more than two years of extraordinary actions to prop up the economy, on Thursday raised the interest rate it charges banks on emergency loans."

* IAEA: "The United Nation's nuclear inspectors declared for the first time on Thursday that extensive information it has collected raised concerns of the Iran military's 'past or current undisclosed activities' to develop a nuclear weapon. The report was an unusually strongly-worded conclusion that seems certain to accelerate Iran's confrontation with much of the rest of the world."

* China won't care for this: "President Barack Obama welcomed the Dalai Lama for closely-watched White House talks Thursday, risking fallout in China over the get-together and Obama's statement supporting preservation of Tibet's identity and human rights."

* Heckuva job, Rudy: "Bernard B. Kerik, a former New York police commissioner who rose to national prominence, was sentenced to four years in prison on Thursday after pleading guilty to eight felony charges, including tax fraud and lying to White House officials."

* The health insurance industry doesn't want to get blamed for the steep premium increases being imposed by the health insurance industry on its customers. The White House is unimpressed.

* College, without high school.

* It sure must have been nice to be filthy rich during the Bush/Cheney era, knowing that Republican policymakers were looking out for you.

* Karl Rove, still not very bright.

* I'm always looking for sophisticated political analysis of video games. Adam Serwer picks up the slack.

* And finally, I know the big political story of the day is the start of the CPAC event in D.C., but I just didn't have the stomach for it today. I'll look forward to reading the coverage of those who were on hand for the gathering, but in the meantime Media Matters and the Media Matters Action Network offer some of the highlights (or lowlights, as the case may be).

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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THE PUBLIC OPTION FINDS SOME FRIENDS.... It started as a reasonable question: if the Senate is going to have to take one last shot at health care reform, this time through reconciliation, why not bring back the public option? After all, if the public option was scrapped in order to get 60 votes, and legislation considered under reconciliation can pass with 50 votes, why not go back to the measures the Democratic mainstream wanted in the first place?

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), just this week, got to work on this, and 48 hours ago, Sens. Mike Bennet (D-Colo.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) sent a letter to the leadership. The four voiced their "strong support" for the reform bill approved in December by the Senate, but said bringing back the public option would "improve both its substance and the public's perception of" the final bill.

Yesterday, four supporters became six. Six became eight. A couple of senators signed on here, a few more there. By late morning today, the total reached 16. Soon after, Chuck Schumer, a member of the party leadership, became #17, and added some heft to the entire effort.

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, is backing the effort. Schumer's re-entry into the public option fight gives it a major boost. Schumer, as head of the party's campaign efforts in 2006 and 2008, elected one in six of those now in the caucus and is trusted for his political judgment. If Schumer thinks the public option effort is a political winner, his colleagues will take note.

Schumer made his announcement in a message to his supporters, obtained by HuffPost.

"This is far from a done deal," Schumer wrote, "but it's an opportunity to break through the obstructionism Republicans have pushed for the past year."

Given Schumer's role in the caucus, his signature on the letter will not only get other Democrats' attention, but also likely get additional caucus members to sign on.

For what it's worth, I'm not inclined to get my hopes up, despite my support for the public option, in part because I've been let down before. In fact, it's possible this push to make reform more progressive now is intended to serve as a counter-weight to any additional compromise efforts being considered in advance of next week's summit.

And that's not the only caveat. Having 17 Dems sign on in just two days is impressive, but 50 is still quite a ways off. For that matter, even if the Senate could approve a final bill through reconciliation with a public option, it would still need 218 votes in the House -- and just because it barely passed the House in November with a public option doesn't mean that level of support is still there. More than likely, the support is lower, and some of the Dems who voted against the bill before would need to switch in order to assure final passage.

Among Americans, the public option has long been one of the most popular ideas in the entire reform debate. Among lawmakers, it remains one of the most contentious elements of reform. For policymakers trying to figure out how to get this done, it would be, shall we say, out of character for them to start putting back in provisions that they perceive as excessively controversial. Indeed, given that reform's future is already in a precarious state, it's that much more difficult to imagine Dems taking a chance on a renewed debate over an idea most lawmakers thought they'd put behind them.

And yet, I also wouldn't have expected 17 senators to push this during the recess. If this number can grow some more -- say, to the 40 to 45 range -- by early Saturday, it might start to seem almost plausible.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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A WALK DOWN MEMORY LANE.... Take a wild guess who said this.

"Now, I know that some of these guys [at Guantanamo] are terrible, terrible killers and the worst kind of scum of humanity. But, one, they deserve to have some adjudication of their cases. And there's a fear that if you release them that they'll go back and fight again against us. And that may have already happened. But balance that against what it's doing to our reputation throughout the world and whether it's enhancing recruiting for people to join al Qaeda and other organizations and want to do bad things to the United States of America.

"I think, on balance, the argument has got to be -- the weight of evidence has got to be that we've got to adjudicate these people's cases, and that means that if it means releasing some of them, you'll have to release them.

"Look, even Adolf Eichmann got a trial."

The position here is unequivocal. Gitmo detainees deserve trials, and the detention facility itself has become an embarrassment that has helped al Qaeda.

If we try the detainees in court, this person added, and the evidence isn't there to convict, the U.S. should simply release them, regardless of the consequences.

So, who said this?

It was Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on June 19, 2005.

Now try to imagine what the fury would be like if President Obama, or really any Democratic official, repeated those identical words on national television today.

Steve Benen 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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BAYH SEEMS SERIOUS ABOUT FILIBUSTER REFORM.... It was encouraging yesterday when Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) appeared on MSNBC and voiced his support for lowering the filibuster threshold from 60 to 55. What was arguably even more heartening was evidence that he seems to mean it.

Last night, Bayh's press office sent out a press release with the headline: "Bayh Calls for Filibuster Reform ." It included a link to the senator's MSNBC interview, and referenced remarks Bayh made on the air:

"The minority needs to have a right. I think that's important. But the public has a right to see its business done and not routinely allow a small minority to keep us from addressing the great issues that face this country.

"I think the filibuster absolutely needs to be changed."

Now, Bayh obviously isn't seeking re-election, so his office has no one to impress with press releases like this. Maybe Bayh means it and intends to actually work on this during his final year on the Hill.

What's more Greg Sargent raises a good point about the media: coverage on Bayh's criticism of "partisanship" and political "dysfunction" has been pretty intense, but major outlets have generally ignored the senator's call for a solution that would actually make a difference. "I get that filibuster reform looks like a non-starter," Greg noted. "But given that Bayh's every pronouncement about the evils of partisanship is getting so much attention, it seems odd that his recommended solution to the governmental paralysis created by it is getting no attention at all."

This matters. The media is holding Bayh out as some saintly centrist, but news outlets are only reporting the parts of the senator's comments that fit into their preferred narrative -- "both parties" have created a bitter, toxic political environment -- instead of what the senator actually wants to do to help fix the problem.

Bayh's support for reforming the process Republicans broke can make a real difference -- his endorsement makes changing the filibuster rules seem like a necessary, mainstream idea. And it is. But this will only gain traction, and the Senate will only be able to function again, if the public hears about it.

Steve Benen 3:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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A 'TRUE POLICY WONK'.... Apparently, one of the more interesting political moments of the day came when Marco Rubio spoke to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington. Rubio, a right-wing Senate candidate in Florida, mocked President Obama's occasional use of teleprompters ... while reading his jokes from a teleprompter.

It reminded me of a point that I've been meaning to emphasize: Marco Rubio is just conservative enough to make far-right activists swoon, but not quite smart enough to avoid being an embarrassment to himself.

To be sure, the right just adores him. National Review recently singled him out as someone who is "geniunely [sic] interested in nitty-gritty of public policy," and "a true policy wonk."

Yeah, sure he is.

In an interview with the [Tampa] Tribune on that subject Friday, Rubio called Crist "a believer in man-made global warming."

"I don't think there's the scientific evidence to justify it," Rubio said.

About a month ago, Rubio also argued against forcing TARP recipients to repay bailout money, calling the White House's proposals "onerous and punitive" towards the financial institutions whose recklessness nearly destroyed the global economy. When Dems criticized his position, Rubio ran back to National Review to feel sorry for himself and spout mindless dogma.

This is life in Obama, Reid, and Pelosi's America, where not only is free enterprise attacked, but so too is anyone who dares to defend it."

Yep, a real "policy wonk" who just loves the "nitty-gritty of public policy."

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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GOP LEADERS SLOW TO RSVP.... The White House will host a summit on health care reform a week from today, with top lawmakers from both parties. As of this morning, the number of Republicans who have formally agreed to participate? One: Sen. Mike Enzi (R) of Wyoming.

The number is likely to grow, but it's interesting to see the GOP hesitate.

Congressional Republicans have continued this week to dismiss President Barack Obama's bipartisan health care summit as a useless political stunt, even as they send strong signals that they will in fact attend. [...]

House and Senate Republican leaders have still not formally accepted Obama's invitation to the health care summit, which was issued Friday. However, Cantor told Fox News on Feb. 9 that the Republicans would be there.

Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) said this week that Republicans should at least consider skipping the event, and other GOP leaders have at least hinted in that direction. The fact that the White House has called on Republicans to come to the event with their own plan for reform ups the ante a bit, since the GOP fundamentally opposes comprehensive reform and has nothing valuable to offer.

But I'd be very surprised if Republican invitees decided to simply skip the summit altogether. The party clearly worries that the White House is setting a "trap," but even if they're right, they have to show up anyway.

The consequences of a boycott would be too severe. Even if we put aside traditional norms -- when the President of the United States invites you to the White House for a chat, you show up -- the optics would likely be devastating for Republicans.

The GOP is already perceived as being unwilling to compromise. If Obama extends a hand, and gives Republicans a chance to engage in good-faith talks, but is rejected by GOP leaders who won't even attend a bipartisan summit, it would be a far bigger disaster for the minority party than a substantive conversation about how wrong they are about the issue itself. Nothing would look worse for Republicans than a bunch of empty GOP chairs at a televised gathering.

Indeed, a boycott might stiffen Democratic spines a bit, and make reform more likely to pass. Even the David Broders of the world would likely be outraged.

If they show up for a debate, they'll lose. If they skip the debate, they'll lose more.

Part of me hopes they really do boycott. It would change quite a bit about the larger debate.

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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TRUE COLORS.... In Virginia, gay and lesbian state workers enjoyed protections against discrimination thanks to an order from former Gov. Tim Kaine (D). His successor, Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), quietly rescinded the order a couple of weeks ago, taking the protections away.

Tim Fernholz isn't surprised, given that McDonnell attended radical TV preacher Pat Robertson's college, where McDonnell wrote a thesis calling on government to "restrain, punish and deter" homosexuality."

Of course, when the thesis -- written in 1989 -- became public, McDonnell argued that it wasn't representative of his career in government and that his campaign was focused on jobs. However, he had spent his time as a state legislator supporting a zero-exceptions anti-choice policy and promoting covenant marriage, which makes divorces harder to obtain. The fact that he advocated those policies, which were featured in the thesis, and also said that sexual orientation "raised questions" about a judge's qualifications, suggest that this document really is part of his blueprint for governing.

McDonnell is a far-right social conservative who ran a very good centrist campaign for governor, telling reporters and voters that his views had changed and that he did not support government discrimination. Some pundits even said that his thesis should be off-limits for discussion, despite the fact he wrote it as an adult. Now that he's in office, his true colors are showing. Don't be shocked -- expect more to come.

Exactly. The funny thing about conservative Republicans who downplay their ideology to get elected? Who seem moderate to centrist voters? They invariably stop downplaying that ideology just as soon as they have official powers.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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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.

* Former Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.), swept out of office four years ago in the midst of Republican failures, is now running to get his old job back. It's an open seat race in New Hampshire's 2nd district, with Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) running for Senate.

* Auto dealer and right-wing activist Tom Ganley (R) is ending his Senate primary campaign in Ohio -- he's been running an up-hill fight against Rob Portman, Bush's former budget director -- and will instead run against Rep. Betty Sutton (D).

* President Obama will be in Colorado today, to help generate support for Sen. Michael Bennet (D), who was appointed to the Senate last year, and is seeking a full term this year.

* Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D) is apparently very interested in running for the Senate in Indiana this year, but the DCCC hates to lose an incumbent in a district Republicans would likely pick up.

* Most of the potential Democratic candidates in Indiana are not well known statewide, and in a new Rasmussen poll, trail corporate lobbyist Dan Coats (R) in hypothetical general-election match-ups.

* In Kansas, there were real concerns that Sen. Sam Brownback (R) would run for governor effectively unopposed. Yesterday, however, state Sen. Tom Holland (D) announced he would take on the heavy favorite.

* In Vermont's gubernatorial race, Secretary of State Deb Markowtiz (D) has a narrow lead over Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie (R), 43% to 41%. Markowitz is part of a crowded Democratic primary field, but the other Dems trail Dubie in hypothetical match-ups.

* And in 2012 news, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) seems pretty serious about running for president (yes, of the United States).

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

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IT'S NOT JUST ANTHEM.... California's Anthem Blue Cross -- the largest insurer in the nation's largest state -- recently told nearly a million customers that, next month, they'll face premium increases up to 39%. Even those who have come to expect private health insurance companies to tighten the screws on their customers were taken aback. An LA Times editorial noted, "Anthem's actions offer the best argument yet for Congress to complete work on a comprehensive bill without delay."

Today, however, the Obama administration's Department of Health and Human Services is publishing a report called, "Insurance Companies Prosper, Families Suffer: Our Broken Health Insurance System." The point is to emphasize that Anthem's back-breaking rate increases are becoming increasingly common nationwide -- the report specifically points to premium increases proposed in Connecticut, Maine, Michigan, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington for those buying coverage as individuals because they're not covered by their employers.

Jonathan Cohn explains the structural problems that lead to these rate hikes.

The problem here, as the Blue Cross plans themselves have admitted, is the dysfunctional nature of the individual insurance market. Insurers divide the market up into blocks, then adjust rates to account for the past and projected medical expenses of each block. As the rates go up, healthier beneficiaries leave the block for other policy options, forcing rates even higher for those people who are left.

The problem gets worse when the economy is bad, because people are more eager to find cheaper coverage and more willing to risk going without. It can also get worse if an insurer is trying, deliberately, to isolate and then force out unhealthy subscribers.

How do you stop this cycle? Get everybody covered, either in one pool or a set of smaller pools that are "risk-adjusted" so that this cycle doesn't take place. But to do that, you have to require that insurers stop discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions, mandate all policies provide average coverage, make everybody carry some insurance, provide subsidies for people who can't afford premiums on their own, and implement systemic reforms that will make medical care itself less expensive over time.

This isn't complicated -- to address the problem, policymakers are going to have to pass health care reform. And given that Maine residents are poised to be especially screwed over by the premium increases, the fact that Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins don't even want reform to get an up-or-down vote in the Senate should be pretty scandalous in the Pine Tree State.

Steve Benen 11:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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GOP CONSIDERS BLOCKING JOBS BILL IT AGREES WITH.... Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would, by all accounts, like to see the Senate take up a jobs bill when members return to the Hill on Monday. Senate Republicans intend to block Dems from even bringing the proposal to the floor for a debate, and Reid does not yet have the votes to stop them.

But the amazing part of this is that Republicans actually like what's in the modest jobs bill. GOP leadership aides met behind closed doors yesterday with more than 100 corporate lobbyists to discuss strategy, and according to Roll Call, Republicans are leaning on waffling members to block consideration of a stripped down, $15 billion jobs package for reasons that have nothing to do with its merits.

Given the divisions within the GOP Conference -- and the fact that Republicans have largely backed most of the bill's provisions in the past -- leadership aides told lobbyists that the GOP plans to attack Reid's bill over process, rather than policy.

More than 100 lobbyists representing the National Federation of Independent Business, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Business Roundtable and other associations attended the meeting with staff from the offices of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.), Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Grassley.

"The feeling is they aren't going to say anything in opposition to the bill, except to say it's incomplete," a lobbyist who attended the meeting said. "They are not opposed to the bill, they just believe their rights as the minority have been abridged."

The GOP's willingness to reject the ideas they support continues to be almost impressive in its scope.

Reid wants a clean bill and an efficient process, so he's pushing for a vote on a jobs bill with no amendments. Republicans have decided that Reid's approach hurts their feelings, so they'd rather play partisan games.

It's worth emphasizing that GOP opposition is not yet unanimous, so it's still possible to see some constructive movement on Monday. But like everything else in the Senate that Republicans broke, this is looking awfully ugly.

Steve Benen 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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IN CONTEXT AND IN VIDEO.... The DNC's Organizing for America put together a pretty darned good video, putting the recession's unemployment numbers and the stimulus package in a helpful context.

As far as I can tell, the 90-second clip isn't going to be a televised commercial -- it's triple the usual length for a TV spot -- but it's the kind of thing Democrats hope can and will be spread around.

Notice the font and music, too -- it's very reminiscent of 2008. What's more, the video is a reminder that Dems still believe rescuing the economy can be a key part of the 2010 elections. David Plouffe recently encouraged Democrats to remember: "Make sure voters understand what the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act did for the economy."

This will take more, obviously, than a video and a p.r. push on the one-year anniversary of the stimulus, but it's a good start.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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TALIBAN SUFFERS ANOTHER 'SIGNIFICANT BLOW'.... We learned this week about the capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's top military commander. Baradar was the most significant Taliban figure to be detained since the war began, making this a key success story.

Better yet, it was the start of an apparent trend.

Two senior Taliban leaders have been arrested in recent days inside Pakistan, officials said Thursday, as American and Pakistani intelligence agents continued to press their offensive against the group's leadership after the capture of the insurgency's military commander last month.

Afghan officials said the Taliban's "shadow governors" for two provinces in northern Afghanistan had been detained in Pakistan by officials there. Mullah Abdul Salam, the Taliban's leader in Kunduz, was detained in the Pakistani city of Faisalabad, and Mullah Mir Mohammed of Baghlan Province was also captured in an undisclosed Pakistani city, they said.

When combined with the Baradar arrest, the developments represent "the most significant blow to the Taliban's leadership since the American-backed war began eight years ago." It also points to an unprecedented level of cooperation between U.S. officials and the Pakistani government.

And it gets better still.

Pakistani authorities using U.S.-gathered intelligence arrested up to nine al-Qaida-linked militants in a series of overnight raids in the southern city of Karachi, officials said Thursday. [...]

They said eight or nine militant suspects were arrested. One was identified as Ameer Muawiya, who the officials said was in charge of foreign al-Qaida militants operating in Pakistan's tribal regions near Afghanistan and was an associate of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

Go ahead, Republicans, tell us again about why we should question the Obama administration's approach to national security and counter-terrorism.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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ROVE'S RECOVERY RESERVATIONS.... Just this week, it seems we're starting to see conservatives worry about the state of the American economy. And by that I mean, they're concerned it's starting to improve in ways that may undermine Republicans' campaign plans.

Some of this was evident when House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-Ind.) tried to move the goal posts, arguing that government efforts that create jobs aren't good enough. Karl Rove appeared on Fox News yesterday to argue that the economy is growing, but policymakers should get no credit for the progress.

"This in many ways is a false debate," Rove said. "The economy is stabilized compared to where it was a year ago, but is it because the government has spent $200 billion in the stimulus program? I don't think so."

"If you take a look worldwide, the Federal Reserve and the central banks have injected $30 trillion into the world economy," Rove continued, before acknowledging: "Again, the economy is going to recover, no ifs, ands, or buts."

As a substantive matter, Rove, who's never demonstrated any credible understanding of public policy on any level, has no idea what he's talking about. For grown-ups, the fact that the recovery effort stabilized the economy is no longer open to debate -- the NYT reported yesterday, citing a consensus among economists, that the economy would not have improved without the stimulus.

But also note, there's just a touch of fear in Rove's spin. It's as if he realizes that his party may be peaking seven months too early, and that a stronger economy in the coming months may change the electoral equation in ways the GOP is unprepared for.

Indeed, National Review started pushing the line yesterday that the economy is starting to pick up in earnest, but that's awful news because "the Obama deficits" will have to be "paid for by our children."

What a sad little spin.

All of this may just be preventative rhetoric, laying the groundwork just in case the economy improves significantly this year. Either way, though, it seems Republicans are feeling a little antsy about this, and are starting to mull over strategies to downplay developments that are good for the country, but bad for their campaign strategy.

Something to keep an eye on.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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THE RIGHT'S VIOLENT PROCLIVITIES REAR THEIR UGLY HEAD.... Last summer, when organized right-wing activists were shouting down lawmakers and shutting down town-hall meetings, there was a little too much conservative talk that incorporated threats of violence. Regrettably, it hasn't gone away.

In July and August, it became unnervingly common for far-right activists to use nooses and swastikas to protest ... whatever it is that makes far-right activists so enraged. Lawmakers received death threats. Another was hanged from a noose in effigy in front of his district office.

We haven't heard as much about this of late, but the problem has obviously not gone away.

A tea party gathering in Asotin County, Washington turned more than a bit ugly on Saturday when a featured speaker actually called for the hanging of Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash), the fourth ranking Democrat in the Senate and a vulnerable re-election candidate.

"How many of you have watched the movie Lonesome Dove?," asked an unidentified female speaker from the podium. "What happened to Jake when he ran with the wrong crowd? What happened to Jake when he ran with the wrong crowd. He got hung. And that's what I want to do with Patty Murray."

Remember, this wasn't just some clown standing up in the crowd to shout nonsense, or a random nutjob talking to reporters in the parking lot. This was an invited, authorized Tea Party speaker.

What's more, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) -- generally the biggest far-right gathering of the year -- begins today in Washington. Attendees will be invited to swing a stick at a Nancy Pelosi pinata and take their best shot at a Harry Reid punching bag.

How subtle.

There's a sense, most notably among some reporters at major news outlets, that angry conservatives are just well-intentioned folks concerned about deficits and taxes. To ignore the extreme, ugly, and borderline-violent undercurrent is to overlook what makes some of these activists so worrisome.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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February 17, 2010

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

* Following a full meeting of the president's national security team: "Senior U.S. military leaders told President Obama that the offensive in southern Afghanistan is proceeding well, and that a significant number of Taliban forces have left the city in the face of the U.S.-Afghan forces. 'It's clear that a lot of individuals with the Taliban decided they did not want to stay in this stronghold and have left,' Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, describing the hour-long meeting Wednesday in the Situation Room."

* The threat of sectarian violence in Iraq, just weeks before national elections, remains very real, and there's not much the United States can do about it.

* For the first time in seven years, the size of the U.S. military presence in Iraq has fallen below 100,000.

* The White House named a new U.S. ambassador to Syria yesterday, which wouldn't be especially noteworthy except it's the first time we've had an ambassador to Syria since 2005.

* President Obama is moving forward with his bipartisan commission on debt reduction. He's chosen former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson (R) and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles (D) to serve as co-chairmen.

* The Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United vs. FEC is widely disliked by the vast majority of the American public.

* I tried to care about the new, right-wing "Mount Vernon Statement," but just couldn't find a reason to bother.

* Sallie Mae is part of the effort to kill a student-loan reform bill that would save taxpayers millions of dollars and help more Americans go to college.

* And if you think conservative Republican lawmakers are ridiculous at the federal level, consider how truly insane they can be at the state level. In South Carolina, one GOP lawmaker introduced a bill to prohibit the state from accepting U.S. currency. Seriously.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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NOTHING BUT 'NET'.... It's now impossible for serious observers to claim the stimulus didn't create new jobs. The leading economic research firms -- IHS Global Insight, Macroeconomic Advisers, and Moody's Economy.com -- estimate that the effort has already created as many as 1.8 million jobs, and will create about 2.5 million jobs when all is said and done. As far as the independent Congressional Budget Office is concerned, those are conservative estimates -- the CBO believes the stimulus is already responsible for as many as 2.4 million jobs.

It leaves the right looking for alternate rhetorical strategies. Today, House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-Ind.) tried a new tack in a press release. Notice the addition of one key word to the GOP talking points:

One year [after the stimulus bill became law], not one net job has been created as unemployment rose from 7.6 percent to nearly 10 percent nationwide. [emphasis added]

Matt Finkelstein explained why this rhetorical shift matters: "The distinction here is important. By shifting the focus to 'net jobs,' Pence is effectively conceding that the Recovery Act did create jobs -- that, while unemployment rose more than expected, we would be even worse off if the program hadn't passed."

This also suggests that Republican officials are starting to worry, at least a little, that the economy might be improving far more than they'd like. If job creation starts picking up in a meaningful way in the Spring, as the Obama administration expects, the good news for the country may be bad news for the GOP's midterm election strategy. They'll need something negative to say, and pointing to net job growth may fool a few people.

But probably not many. It's really very foolish -- the recession began in December 2007, and the economy fell off a cliff in September 2008. The month the president took office, thanks to conditions Obama inherited, the economy lost 741,000 jobs. A month later, it was 681,000. A month after that, it was 652,000. Of course there's going to be a net job loss. The net loss will exist for quite a long while. When a nation experiences a downturn of this severity -- easily the worst since the Great Depression -- it takes a very long time to make up the lost ground.

The goal is to see improvements and growth. Maybe Pence understands this, maybe not -- he is a few threads short of a sweater, if you know what I mean -- but either way, this "net job" talk is absurd.

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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NEARING THE HEALTH CARE 'ENDGAME'?.... Following up on an item from yesterday, Democratic policymakers working on health care reform are facing something of a deadline over the next week.

The White House has said it intends to "post online the text of a proposed health insurance reform package" in advance of the Feb. 25 bipartisan summit, just eight days away. While there's an ongoing possibility that the White House will simply present its own reform package at the event, the goal has been to strike a compromise between the already-passed House and Senate proposals.

Sources on the Hill yesterday suggested inter-chamber talks have borne no fruit of late, making it difficult to see how a final plan would be ready for Thursday -- or even earlier, since the plan would have to be online for a while in advance of the summit.

Greg Sargent reports today, however, that an "endgame" may be in sight.

...House and Senate Dem leaders are in fact edging towards reaching a deal on a health care reform package to take to next week’s big summit, leadership aides tell me, though it remains a steep uphill climb.

The aides also say that Senate Dem leaders are warming to the idea of using reconciliation to fix their bill after the summit -- suggesting an endgame may be taking shape.

It's been widely assumed that the House and Senate had hit a virtually insurmountable snag, and yesterday Robert Gibbs hinted that the White House might step in and forge a compromise of its own to take to the summit.

But leadership aides tell me that while the snag is still serious, there's still a decent chance of an agreement. That would allow Dems to head into the summit with a united front.

Greg characterized the debate over financing -- to go with the excise tax or not -- to be the key sticking point, just as it has been for quite a while. There are, however, some "tweaks" that are being considered, which could expedite matters on the House side, while the appetite for using reconciliation in the Senate appears to be growing.

Christina Bellantoni also reports this afternoon that a final agreement is likely to materialize, if not entirely before the summit, then soon after. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the DCCC, said a deal is 90% complete, and that the two chambers are "very close to reaching a final agreement."

It's taken a beating, and it's hardly out of the woods, but health care reform isn't dead.

Steve Benen 3:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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BAYH'S UNEXPECTED SUPPORT FOR FILIBUSTER REFORM.... With renewed interest in reforming the way the Senate does business, it's encouraging to see support from an unexpected corner: the one Democratic senator who seems to have the spotlight all to himself this week.

The Senate should reform the filibuster as a way to end partisan gridlock, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) said today.

Bayh, who cited partisanship and incivility as reasons for his retirement, said the filibuster has been used by the Republican minority too frequently.

"Now it's being routinely used to frustrate even low level presidential appointees," Bayh told MSNBC.... The Indiana Democrats said it may be time to lower that to 55.

"It's just brought the process to a halt and the public is suffering," Bayh said.

Good for Bayh. Indeed, asked specifically whether the rules can be changed before his retirement, the Indiana senator added, "I think it can happen," adding, "The public has a right to see its business done and not routinely allow a small minority to keep us from addressing the great issues that face this country. I think the filibuster absolutely needs to be changed."

A pleasant surprise, to be sure, especially after Sen. Chris Dodd's (D-Conn.) disappointing comments earlier.

It's often forgotten, but the Senate has altered this threshold before. Before 1975, it took 67 votes to end debate and allow an up-or-down vote. Faced with the prospect of never passing anything, the number was lowered to 60.

Now we're once again faced with a minority shutting down the legislative process. I'd prefer to see the filibuster disappear altogether, but lowering the threshold to 55 votes, as Bayh suggests, seems like a reasonable compromise.

What's more, given Bayh's reputation and media adoration, his support for reforming the dysfunctional status quo has the capacity to make a difference. If Bayh is known for being a leading "moderate" who's tired of "both parties" and "partisanship" -- and he is -- then his support for changing the filibuster rules characterizes reform as a necessary, mainstream idea that will help improve how the Senate does business.

Steve Benen 3:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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STRATEGERY.... This has seemed painfully obvious for quite some time, but it's helpful to be able to point to specific data.

A new national survey from Public Policy Polling (D) suggests that Democrats should go ahead and pass major initiatives such as health care reform and allowing gays to serve in the military. If they don't pass these things, the poll suggests, the people who are against it won't vote for them anyway. [...]

"Congressional Democrats really need to decide if they're going to let their agenda be dictated by voters who won't support them no matter what they do," writes PPP communications director Tom Jensen. "These numbers provide pretty clear evidence that most of the voters opposed to health care and repeal of DADT will not consider voting Democratic even if the party decides not to move on those issues."

The poll finds, for example, that 50% of respondents describe themselves as opposed to the Democratic health reform proposal, while 39% support it. But the numbers are skewed a bit -- among those who will not even consider voting Democratic in November, the opposition numbers on health care are a ridiculous 94% to 1%.

There are obviously Democratic policymakers who've thought in recent weeks, "Maybe I'd stand a better chance at re-election if I just let health care reform go away." These results should make it overwhelmingly clear how wrong this is -- opponents of reform simply aren't going to vote for a Democratic candidate no matter how the debate turns out.

On the other hand, Democratic policymakers do have to worry about generating some excitement among voters in their own party, and delivering on this once-in-a-generation opportunity is the ideal way for Dems worried about re-election to give themselves a boost with their own supporters.

And what of everyone else? I'll just quote Kevin Drum: "[A]mong those in the middle, those who might vote for a Democrat but aren't sure bets, support is about evenly split. These people are obviously persuadable, but they're only persuadable if Dems actually pass healthcare reform first and then campaign on it as if they actually believe in it. This is still a winnable campaign issue."

Exactly. Democratic policymakers must give success a chance. The polls are far more likely to improve if Democrats follow through on their campaign promises, pass health care reform, reap the rewards of a breakthrough victory, and then get out there and sell their handiwork -- making clear to the country that the scare tactics were wrong.

Why on earth would the majority party back down now, satisfying the demands of those who won't vote for them anyway?

Steve Benen 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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A WEAK DEFENSE.... Democrats are pushing the stimulus hypocrisy line pretty hard this week -- Republicans say they hate the stimulus, but that hasn't stopped them from trying to secure recovery funds for their states/districts. Republicans, perhaps worried about the effectiveness of the criticism, have embraced a straightforward response.

Conservative economist Greg Mankiw summarized the GOP argument, calling the Democratic cries of hypocrisy "baffling." (thanks to reader C.L. for the tip)

It seems perfectly reasonable to believe (1) that increasing government spending is not the best way to promote economic growth in a depressed economy, and (2) that if the government is going to spend gobs of money, those on whom it is spent will benefit. In this case, the right thing for a congressman to do is to oppose the spending plans, but once the spending is inevitable, to try to ensure that the constituents he represents get their share. So what exactly is the problem?

Let me offer an analogy. Many Democratic congressmen opposed the Bush tax cuts. That was based, I presume, on their honest assessment of the policy. But once these tax cuts were passed, I bet these congressmen paid lower taxes. I bet they did not offer to hand the Treasury the extra taxes they would have owed at the previous tax rates. Would it make sense for the GOP to suggest that these Democrats were disingenuous or hypocritical? I don't think so. Many times, we as individuals benefit from policies we opposed. There is nothing wrong about that.

This is no doubt the official Republican line. Indeed, Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) made the identical argument, with the exact same analogy, on "Meet the Press" over the weekend.

But the response is deeply flawed. The hypocrisy charge may sting, but it's also entirely legitimate.

It's not complicated -- Republicans have claimed, forcefully and repeatedly, that the stimulus effort was a mistake. The recovery spending couldn't generate economic growth and was simply incapable of creating jobs. The entire endeavor, the GOP said, was a wasteful boondoggle, and they're proud to have voted against it. Republicans rejected the very idea on ideological and policy grounds.

Now, we know the substance of these claims is demonstrably ridiculous, but the key to the hypocrisy charge is appreciating what else these same Republicans have said. When it comes to their states/districts/constituents, the identical GOP lawmakers have said the stimulus can generate economic growth, can create jobs, and can make an important and positive difference. In some cases, Republicans have even taken credit for stimulus projects they opposed -- projects that wouldn't even exist if they had their way.

GOP officials can take one position or the other, but when they embrace one side in D.C. while talking to the media, and then the opposite side when dealing with their constituents, it's more than just stupid -- it's hypocrisy.

As for Mankiw's analogy to the Bush tax cuts, this also doesn't stand up well to scrutiny. The only way this would make sense is if Democrats opposed and voted against Bush's policy in D.C., and then went back to their states/districts to take credit for the tax cuts and boast about how effective they were.

The fact that the hypocrisy charge seems to make Republicans nervous is itself encouraging. That the GOP has not yet come up with a coherent response should encourage Dems to keep it up.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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DODD WON'T HELP REFORM FILIBUSTER.... It's been about a week since Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) introduced their proposal to restore majority rule in the Senate, and not much has happened since. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) signed on as a co-sponsor, but with Congress on recess, no one else has endorsed the bill.

Realistically, there's almost no chance 67 votes will materialize to actually pass the measure, but the key is to have a debate that better informs the public about the Republican scandal. This morning, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) weighed in, but wasn't especially helpful.

"I totally oppose the idea of changing filibuster rules," Dodd said during an appearance on MSNBC. "That's foolish, in my view." [...]

Dodd said that changing filibuster rules wouldn't do much to change a culture of incivility he said had crept into the Senate.

"There's nothing wrong with partisanship. We've got to get over this notion that there's something evil about partisanship," the Connecticut senator said. "It's the lack of civility."

Some of this is compelling -- there's nothing wrong with parties standing up for their issues and principles -- but I would nevertheless love to hear more about what, exactly, Dodd proposes as an alternative to reforming the filibuster rules.

At this point, a 41-vote Republican minority has decided that a 59-vote Democratic majority shouldn't be allowed to vote on any meaningful legislation. The Senate, the GOP minority adds, also can't vote on key administration nominees or fill many judicial vacancies. Republicans will likely be rewarded for their unprecedented tactics -- perhaps even with their own majority -- because voters are disgusted that Congress can't get anything done. (That the electorate would reward the party that's responsible for the breakdown is the irony that most Americans fail to appreciate.)

Harkin, Shaheen, and Durbin believe bringing back majority rule would make it possible for Congress to govern again. Dodd disagrees. Fine. But how, then, does Dodd suggest policymakers proceed? If filibuster reform is "foolish," what's sensible?

I suppose the alternative is to wait for the Republican mainstream to become sane again, but that might take a while. One might also hope the GOP's tactics generate a backlash, which would discourage additional obstructionism, but the opposite seems to be occurring.

So if the existing rules must remain untouched, what's Dodd's Plan B for allowing American government to function again?

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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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.

* Connecticut's Ned Lamont (D) officially kicked off his gubernatorial campaign yesterday.

* New York Gov. David Paterson (D), undeterred by intense disapproval from voters and his party, is poised to officially launch his re-election campaign. He will likely face state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo in a Democratic primary.

* In California, a Rasmussen poll shows the gubernatorial race all tied up, with state Attorney General Jerry Brown (D) and Meg Whitman (R) with 43% each. Brown leads Whitman's primary opponent, Steve Poizner, by 12.

* In case there were any lingering doubts, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) yesterday ruled out running for governor this year.

* Democratic chances of picking off Sen. Richard Burr (R) this year in North Carolina aren't great, but they're better than expected given the larger climate.

* Former Gov. Mike Huckabee's daughter, Sarah Huckabee, has led the former presidential candidate's political action committee. Yesterday, she left HuckPAC to become the campaign manager for Rep. John Boozman's Senate campaign in Arkansas, suggesting Mike Huckabee might not be running for president in 2012.

* Former Vice President Dan Quayle's son, Ben Quayle, is finding his congressional campaign in Arizona is getting off to a rough start. The 33-year-old attorney registered to vote when he turned 20, but has never cast a ballot in a local election. Quayle, who kicked off his House campaign late last week, conceded, "I haven't been involved in politics." (thanks to reader T.K. for the tip)

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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MADDOW: STIMULUS HYPOCRISY IS A 'GIFT-WRAPPED OPPORTUNITY' FOR DEMS.... Arguably no one at the major media outlets has been as assertive on Republicans' stimulus hypocrisy as MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. Her segment on the matter last night, which included an interview with Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine, is well worth watching.

For those of you who can't watch clips from your work computers, Rachel explained, "At the one-year anniversary of the stimulus, it is turning out to offer not just economic recovery, but also Democratic political recovery. Democrats have basically three things to do between now and November: 1) they need to get good candidates to defend their open seats; 2) they need to pass health reform; and 3) they need to embarrass Republicans on their hypocrisy.

"The stimulus has been a gift-wrapped opportunity for Democrats to show how Republicans have denounced Democratic legislation in Washington for political effect, and then admitted in their home districts that the legislation works. It shows not only that Democratic policies work -- and when push comes to shove, in their home districts, Republicans know it -- it also shows that Republicans care so little about policy that they're O.K. with holding totally nonsensically contradictory positions on important stuff."

After noting the dozens of Republican lawmakers who've sought stimulus aid to help the economy in their states and districts, Maddow added, "These Republicans are acknowledging, in writing, that the stimulus is good policy. That it works. Thus proving that they don't mean it when they denounce the stimulus as worthless."

Democrats may be facing some headwinds this fall but, between stimulus hypocrisy and Republican embrace of a budget plan to privatize Social Security and eliminate Medicare, they'll have an opportunity to go on the offensive, too.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TALKING TOUGH AND BEING TOUGH.... Over the weekend, Vice President Biden made a rather bold claim about the administration's counter-terrorism efforts: "There has never been as much emphasis and resources brought against al-Qaeda. The success rate exceeds anything that occurred in the [Bush/Cheney] administration."

Today, David Ignatius considers whether the claim is accurate.

The Karachi raid [that led to the capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar] is part of a broad offensive that has sometimes been overlooked in the partisan squabbles over whether the Obama administration should be giving Miranda warnings to terrorist suspects. "The real action has been pounding the hell out of al-Qaeda and its allies around the world," the official argued.

The numbers show a sharp upsurge in operations against al-Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan since Barack Obama took office.... All told, according to U.S. officials, since the beginning of 2009, the drone attacks have killed "several hundred" named militants from al-Qaeda and its allies, more than in all previous years combined. The drones have also shattered the leadership of the Pakistani Taliban, which has been waging a terror campaign across that country. [...]

[S]urely the country can agree, looking at the evidence, that Obama has been no slouch in pursuing what he said in his inaugural address was a "war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred."

It's simply astounding to hear conservative Republicans claim that President Obama has been "weak" on counter-terrorism. Short of having the president air-dropped into mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan with a knife in his teeth and an assault rifle on his back, I'm not sure how more aggressive Obama could be. More to the point, he's far more forceful and successful on the issue than Bush -- who somehow managed to cultivate a bogus reputation of "toughness" -- ever was.

The AP had a similar assessment the other day, emphasizing, among other things, that Obama's decision to reduce the U.S. presence in Iraq has "freed up manpower and resources to hunt terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan." It's an approach that "intelligence officials, lawmakers and analysts" believe is working. Obama has also made regional gains with constructive outreach to Islamic allies, which has bolstered international cooperation.

Those of us who take national security matters seriously can take comfort in the fact that congressional Republicans can't filibuster the Obama administration's counter-terrorism efforts. GOP obstructionism can undermine the economy, the strength of our health care system, and our national energy policy, but fortunately, Obama is the Commander in Chief.

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

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IT IS 'BROKEN,' BUT WHO BROKE IT?.... Again, this is the right sentiment, but it's incomplete.

Vice President Joe Biden doesn't seem to miss his days as a senator.

In an interview with CBS "Early Show" co-anchor Harry Smith, Biden was blunt about the nation's political system. "Washington, right now, is broken."

Having served in the Senate for more than 30 years, Biden has seen a fair share of gridlock in Congress, but the current version is the worst ever, he said.

"I don't ever recall a time in my career where to get anything done, you needed a supermajority, 60 out of 100 senators.... I've never seen it this dysfunctional," he said.

Right. The system in Washington is "broken." Every effort does require an inexplicable "supermajority." The entire policymaking process is "dysfunctional."

But what officials need to understand is the importance of taking the next step -- explaining why this is and who is responsible.

As much as I'm sympathetic to the vice president's entirely accurate concerns, his omissions make all the difference. For viewers who don't know what filibusters or cloture votes are, they're thinking, "There's a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress. If the system is broken and dysfunctional, maybe it's Democrats' fault."

Except, for anyone interested in reality, that assumption couldn't be more wrong. If legislation received up-or-down votes in both chambers -- the way Congress operated for the better part of two centuries -- the system would work quite well and the dysfunction that drives everyone crazy would largely disappear.

Biden, in other words, needs to name names -- Republicans broke the American legislative process. They did so deliberately, during a time of crises, because they're desperate to undercut the Democratic majority, regardless of the consequences. The GOP's tactics have no precedent in American history, and violate every democratic norm that keeps our system moving.

It's not enough to share Americans' disgust; Dems need to help the public understand this mess. They can do so by avoiding jargon and legislative terminology, and calling Republicans' obstructionist tactics what they are: a dangerous political scandal.

Don't talk about "filibusters" or "supermajorities"; talk about the Republican "scandal" that has brought the system to a halt. Talk about Republicans "shutting down" the American policymaking process, and ignoring the will of the voters.

Steve Benen 9:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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A NEW DAY ON DADT.... Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen generated national attention two weeks ago when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he sees no reason to block gays and lesbians from serving openly in the U.S. military. He immediately faced pushback from far-right Republican senators, who publicly questioned his integrity.

Would Mullen face a similar reaction from U.S. troops, who were no doubt aware of his public stance on the issue? Apparently not.

Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was nearing the end of a 25-minute question and answer session with troops serving here when he raised a topic of his own: "No one's asked me about 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,'" he said.

As it turned out, none of the two dozen or so men or women who met with Mullen at Marine House in the Jordanian capital Tuesday had any questions on the 17-year-old policy that bars gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military — or Mullen's public advocacy of its repeal.

Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Darryl E. Robinson, who's the operations coordinator for defense attache's office at the U.S. Embassy here, explained why after the session. "The U.S. military was always at the forefront of social change," he said. "We didn't wait for laws to change."

Mullen has held three separate town-hall sessions with troops since his testimony on DADT, and the response among members of the military "has been little more than a shrug."

Army Staff Sgt. Peppur Alexander, 33, a 14-year veteran now serving at the U.S. Embassy, told Mullen that she's served with gays and lesbians. More than 13,000 troops have left the military since Congress enacted the policy.

"We have lost good soldiers because of that because they wanted to be who they are," Alexander said. "It's sad."

Mullen has changed the game. His testimony not only positions repeal as a mainstream position of the American military leadership, but it's largely signaled that the change is inevitable.

Time for Congress to follow through and get this done.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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GEORGIA SENATORS FORGET THE PRESIDENT'S NAME.... Reasonable people can disagree on whether to expand nuclear power in the United States. The Monthly has been more than a little skeptical about the idea, but support for and opposition to the idea do not necessarily fall along clear ideological or partisan lines.

President Obama, for example, has long expressed a willingness to consider domestic nuclear expansion, and yesterday took a big step in that direction.

President Obama seized a key Republican energy initiative as his own Tuesday, promising $8.33 billion in federal loan guarantees for a pair of Georgia reactors that he said would give new life to the U.S. nuclear power industry and create a surge of high-skill jobs.

By helping to finance the construction of the reactors -- the first new U.S. nuclear power units in more than 30 years -- Obama is hoping to jump-start his efforts to pass comprehensive climate-change legislation, which has stalled in Congress in the face of GOP opposition.

I'm happy to let energy policy experts weigh the merits of the loan guarantees. What I found interesting, though, was the reaction from Georgia's right-wing Republican senators, who are thrilled to see their state benefit -- the Obama administration's proposal is likely help create thousands of jobs in Georgia -- but can't quite bring themselves to even use the president's name.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Jay Bookman noted yesterday, for example, that Sens. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) issued a seven-paragraph, 392-word joint statement, lauding the new nuclear initiative. Number of times Isakson and Chambliss used the words "president," "Obama," and/or "White House"? Zero. Even though the senators were delighted to hear the president's announcement, as Bookman concluded, the two "just couldn't bring themselves" to agree with Obama by name.

The president suggested yesterday that an initiative like this one could help bolster bipartisanship, with a Democratic administration finding common ground with GOP policymakers. But the fact that Republican senators don't even want to mention the president, even when they're thrilled with one of his decisions, only reinforces the fact that Republicans just aren't interested.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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FINDING SUCCESS ONE YEAR LATER.... With the first anniversary of the stimulus package coming today, there's going to be a fair amount of analysis on the merits of the economic recovery initiative. A good place to start would be this piece from the NYT's David Leonhardt.

Imagine if, one year ago, Congress had passed a stimulus bill that really worked.

Let's say this bill had started spending money within a matter of weeks and had rapidly helped the economy. Let's also imagine it was large enough to have had a huge impact on jobs -- employing something like two million people who would otherwise be unemployed right now.

If that had happened, what would the economy look like today?

Well, it would look almost exactly as it does now. Because those nice descriptions of the stimulus that I just gave aren't hypothetical. They are descriptions of the actual bill.

Among people who know what they're talking about, the fact that the stimulus has been successful isn't even controversial anymore. The leading economic research firms -- IHS Global Insight, Macroeconomic Advisers, and Moody's Economy.com -- estimate that the effort has already created as many as 1.8 million jobs, and will create about 2.5 million jobs when all is said and done. As far as the independent Congressional Budget Office is concerned, those are conservative estimates -- the CBO believes the stimulus is already responsible for as many as 2.4 million jobs.

Leonhardt describes the skeptics as "misguided," adding that one can "pick just about any area of the economy" and find evidence of success.

To be sure, the recovery effort should have been bigger and more ambitious. And it would have been, had Senate Republican "moderates" not demanded that the bill be scaled back, offering less assistance to states and local governments -- one of the most effective areas of the legislation. As has become apparent, changing bills to generate "bipartisan" support invariably means making the bills worse, and the stimulus, alas, fits this model.

But the Recovery Act was nevertheless instrumental is rescuing the economy from the abyss.

One year ago, we had three choices: approve the Democratic stimulus plan, approve the Republican spending-freeze plan, or do nothing. We can all be deeply thankful President Obama and a Democratic congressional majority were in office at the time, because two of those three options would likely have been cataclysmic for the global economy.

That Republicans still claim any credibility on this issue is literally laughable. Every time they claim the stimulus didn't work -- an argument we'll no doubt be hearing quite a bit today -- the GOP, which was responsible for getting us into this mess in the first place, looks a little more ridiculous.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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February 16, 2010

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

* Afghanistan: "Fighting has slowed in the battle for Marja, with Taliban fighters still engaging in fierce resistance but with less consistency, a spokesman for the international forces said Tuesday."

* Speaking in Saudi Arabia, HRC sends Iran another message: "The confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program appeared to deepen Tuesday as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton escalated her verbal assault during a Persian Gulf visit and Russia joined the United States and France in bluntly questioning Iran's ultimate intentions in enriching uranium."

* The other nukes: "President Obama told an enthusiastic audience of union officials on Tuesday that the Energy Department had approved a loan guarantee intended to underwrite construction of two nuclear reactors in Georgia, with taxpayers picking up much of the financial risk. If the project goes forward, it would be the first nuclear reactor built in the United States since the 1970s."

* Upbeat earnings reports made Wall Street happy.

* John Murtha is laid to rest at a funeral service in Johnstown, Pa.

* Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) was hospitalized overnight after a fall in his home. He was diagnosed with a bleeding ulcer and is expected to make a full recovery.

* I still find it hard to believe the Washington Post hired Marc Thiessen.

* No, really. I still find it hard to believe the Washington Post hired Marc Thiessen.

* The story of SUNY Binghamton and its desire to compete in Division I athletics is a striking and cautionary tale.

* There's all kinds of talk about possible vacancies on the Supreme Court, but I'd be surprised if there's more than one.

* Nice to see Will Bunch join the Media Matters team.

* The Heritage Foundation isn't a very good think tank.

* And on Fox News this morning, Steve Doocy suggested that potential airline terrorists all "pretty much look alike." I don't know if Doocy has ever seen pictures of Richard Reid and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, but if he thinks the two look similar, he has a real problem.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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WOULD THE WHITE HOUSE PRESENT ITS OWN BILL?.... Last summer, the White House explicitly said that when it came to health care reform, it would gladly allow Congress to write the legislation itself. President Obama would establish the vision and lay out the principles, but let lawmakers do what lawmakers do. The Clinton White House presented its own bill in 1993, and the Obama team agreed it was probably a mistake.

Indeed, a month ago, when reform was poised to be a historic success, Obama's specific decision on this point was seen as a shrewd and wise move.

Quite a bit has changed since then. The House has its bill, which can't pass the Senate. The Senate has its bill, which apparently can't pass the House. There have been talks about striking a compromise deal, but the discussions have gone nowhere.

Would these circumstances lead the White House, left with limited options, to produce its own bill in advance of next week's bipartisan summit? Maybe.

With the House and the Senate still at loggerheads over their health care bills, the White House hinted on Tuesday that President Obama might post his own bill on the Internet before the bipartisan health care summit he is planning for Blair House next week.

In the nearly a year since Congress began debating a health care overhaul, Mr. Obama has yet to make his own priorities explicit.... During a news conference last week, Mr. Obama said he envisioned posting a merged House-Senate bill that would address his goals of controlling costs and expanding coverage. [...]

But Mr. Obama may be running out of time. His press secretary, Robert Gibbs, was asked Monday if the president would simply post his own bill if the House and the Senate cannot come to terms.

"Stay tuned,'' Mr. Gibbs said. He declined to elaborate.

Well, what an interesting response.

The White House has said it intends to "post online the text of a proposed health insurance reform package" in advance of the Feb. 25 talks. By all indications, that meant finding a compromise deal between the House and Senate proposals.

But I've talked to some staffers on the Hill today who sounded exceedingly skeptical that this was a realistic goal, and said there had be no meaningful progress on inter-chamber talks of late. To have a final Democratic package ready for Thursday -- or even earlier, since the plan would have to be online for a while in advance of the summit -- House and Senate leaders would already have to be very close to finalizing a deal. By all indications, that's simply not the case, at least not yet.

Maybe hints of a White House proposal are intended to give the House-Senate negotiations a kick in the pants; maybe the White House believes those negotiations are a dead end and sees a new reform bill as the most promising way forward.

But nine days before the summit, it seems just about everything is still in flux.

Steve Benen 4:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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RECONCILIATION STAYS ON THE TABLE.... The day after President Obama announced his plan to host a bipartisan support on health care reform, House Republican leaders wrote a letter to the White House, asking that the reconciliation process be taken off the table as a "show of good faith" to the GOP.

The request probably generated some laughter among Democratic leaders. In effect, Boehner and Cantor said they'd be more willing to talk about health care reform if the president agrees in advance to give Republicans the opportunity to kill health care reform.

Roll Call reports today that reconciliation will, thankfully, remain on the table.

Senate Democrats say they see no need to abandon the idea of using reconciliation to pass health care reform this year just because President Barack Obama has scheduled a bipartisan summit next week to try to break the impasse on Capitol Hill. [...]

Given the unified GOP opposition to their health care effort, Senate Democrats argued just before departing for the Presidents Day recess that Obama's summit is no reason to shelve reconciliation as a potential strategy.

The piece reports that Democratic Senate staffers "continue to explore a reconciliation bill." Delaware Sen. Tom Carper (D), a moderate, has been reluctant to embrace reconciliation, but is now open to the idea.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) added reconciliation should be "constantly pursued."

Next week's summit may put things in a clearer focus in this regard. If, as expected, GOP lawmakers refuse to make any concessions and demand complete failure, it should serve as a reminder to Senate Democrats that bipartisanship is impossible with this Republican Party and that reconciliation is the only available way forward.

Update: Also today, some Democratic senators voiced support for using reconciliation to approve a reform bill with a public option. That's probably a long-shot, but some are still working hard to keep it in the larger conversation.

Steve Benen 3:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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AVOIDING THE 'NIGHTMARE SCENARIO' IN INDIANA.... With Sen. Evan Bayh (D) shocking everyone with his retirement announcement, the state party took some comfort in knowing it would be in a position to choose the party's next Senate candidate. There was, however, a problem that had been described as the "nightmare scenario" for Democrats in Indiana and D.C.

Tamyra D'Ippolito, a cafe owner and political neophyte, was quietly challenging Bayh in a primary. If she could qualify for the ballot before today's filing deadline, she would be the sole Democratic candidate; it would all but guarantee a Republican victory; and there wouldn't be a whole lot the party could do about.

A leading Democrat told Jonathan Martin, "This would be a complete and unmitigated disaster. We'd be up shit's creek."

To help make this scenario more likely, conservative websites like RedState and the Washington Examiner rallied to help D'Ippolito collect signatures and get on the ballot, knowing it would give Republicans a huge boost.

To the relief of Democrats everywhere, the 11th-hour dash appears to have failed badly. D'Ippolito, who seems like something of an eccentric, claimed earlier today that she'd secured the petition signatures her candidacy needed. That wasn't exactly true.

No Democrats qualified to run for the seat of retiring Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) by the Tuesday noon deadline, a huge relief for party leaders who feared that an obscure candidate could make it on the ballot and seriously complicate Democratic prospects for holding onto the seat. State party officials will now select the party's Senate nominee for November.

According to the state elections division, no Democratic candidate other than Bayh had collected the required 4,500 certified petition signatures, including the requisite 500 from each of the state's nine congressional districts to make the ballot.

Tamyra d'Ippolito, a Bloomington cafe owner who had been challenging Bayh for the nomination, appeared to fall far short of the mark. According to state Democratic Party Chairman Dan Parker, she gathered just 22 valid signatures across the state.

That's only 4,478 signatures shy of the 4,500 she needed.

D'Ippolito seems to be arguing that there's still some question about her petitions, but she had to get at least 500 signatures in each of Indiana's nine congressional districts. In Marion County, she turned in one petition with three signatures -- 497 names short.

State Democratic Party leaders will now have until June 30 to select a candidate, though it almost certainly won't take that long. The leading contender appears to be Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.), who has expressed an interest, though the field of interested candidates has not yet come together.

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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IN DEFENSE OF SHAMELESS EXPLOITATION.... The capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's top military commander, is no small matter. It's a "major victory." Given that Baradar is the most significant Taliban figure to be detained since the war began, and his role in leading the Taliban's military operations, this is a success that may very well pay considerable dividends for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

As far as the politics is concerned, it's worth noting that U.S. leaders were well aware of Baradar's capture late last week, but deliberately kept the news under wraps in order to help bolster a sensitive and ongoing intelligence-gathering effort. This prompted Juan Cole to note:

[T]hat Joe Biden and others kept the arrest secret, in order to allow further operations against Taliban leaders in Karachi, shows a discipline that Bush and Cheney never had. They were always happy to prematurely release details of ongoing investigations to get a political bump, even if it meant allowing terrorists to escape.

Right. Dick Cheney was blasting the Obama administration on national security over the weekend, and it might have been tempting for Biden and others to use the Baradar capture as evidence that Cheney doesn't know what he's talking about. But the White House Grown-Ups knew the ongoing efforts were more important than making Dick the Clown look foolish. As Andrew Sullivan noted, the president and his team "are serious about national security and do not put domestic political games before it."

And that's obviously a good thing, which inspires confidence in the administration. That said, Steve M. raises an interesting observation.

[G]uys? You should probably take at least a small victory lap. There has to be something you can do that's more than stoic silence but still well short of the "Mission Accomplished" flyboy stunt. At least send Biden to the morning shows to talk about the capture ... subtly, but with pride.

That seems pretty persuasive to me. During the Bush/Cheney era, no counter-terrorism development was too small to trumpet. The arrest of some low-level thug who once said something nice about al Qaeda was reason enough for press conferences and media interviews with high-ranking administration officials. If U.S. officials had helped capture Baradar in the Bush/Cheney era, we'd probably see just about every official you can think of -- POTUS, VPOTUS, AG, Defense Secretary, HHS Secretary, NSA, etc. -- hitting the airwaves to pat themselves on the back. The goal would be to get a bump in the polls.

Obama and his team are obviously less interested in exploiting counter-terrorism victories for political gain, and prefer to treat Americans like adults, rather than manipulating their fears. As a result, capturing high-profile terrorists (Baradar), killing high-profile terrorists (Hakimullah Mehsud, Baitullah Mehsud, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan), and arresting would-be terrorists (Najibullah Zazi, Talib Islam, and Hosam Maher Husein Smadi) -- all victories that bolster our national security interests -- are treated as low-key successes. All in a day's work.

That's admirable, to be sure. But a little chest-thumping is hardly out of the question here. If the White House doesn't draw more attention to their victories, the public may not hear about them.

I can appreciate the president's mature, sensible restraint as much as the next guy, but the White House is also facing an aggressive misinformation campaign, launched by those who still want to convince Americans that Obama isn't reliable on national security, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

Some understated-but-public appreciation for the men and women in the military and intelligence agencies who make these successes possible seems more than fair.

Steve Benen 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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GOP GOVERNORS LOVE/HATE THE STIMULUS, TOO.... Congressional Republicans' cash-and-trash strategy -- trashing the economic stimulus, while embracing stimulus cash at the same time -- has become an interesting spectacle. But as Christina Bellantoni reminds us, the GOP's hypocrisy extends to governors, too.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell offered effusive praise for $24 million in federal funds that allowed him to establish an office of Health Information Technology and to fund a program helping Virginia doctors transition to electronic medical records.

Just one problem -- he thinks the government shouldn't have spent that money to begin with.

Yes, the new Virginia governor spent much of 2009 insisting that the stimulus investments were a wasteful idea, which wouldn't help the economy. As of yesterday, McDonnell thinks at least $24 million of those investments are a great idea that will help the economy.

Of course, McDonnell isn't alone. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), who's relentlessly attacked the stimulus as part of his presidential campaign, has described recovery efforts as "wasted" and "misdirected." As of this week, however, the governor released his plan to fill the shortfall in his state budget, and wouldn't you know it, "nearly one-third of the governor's budget fix would rely on $387 million in federal stimulus money."

Neither is quite as shameless as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) -- who's a Hypocrisy Hall of Famer -- but the list of Republican governors who love and hate the stimulus at the same time is certainly getting longer.

At face value, the Republican response may seem reasonable enough. The money has already been allocated, and is going to be spent, they say. It only makes sense, then, to help their constituents as much as possible.

But this misses the point. To hear GOP officials tell it, government spending isn't just inherently wrong, it's inherently useless. Investing tax dollars can't create jobs, can't generate growth, and can't be relied on to improve economic conditions. By asking for stimulus money, accepting stimulus money, and occasionally even handing out stimulus money, these same GOP officials are conceding that their argument is wrong.

And frankly, we knew they were wrong anyway. The recovery effort created jobs, generated growth, and rescued the economy from a depression. Seeing Republicans scramble to secure funds for their states and districts only makes clearer what's been obvious to economists for months.

The decent thing to do would be for Republicans to simply apologize for getting us into this mess, acknowledge how wrong they were to oppose President Obama's effective solution, and then thank Democrats for rescuing the economy.

I'm sure the White House would be gracious in response.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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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. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), retiring, Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.) is interested in running.

* Chris Cillizza reviews the top five most likely Democratic candidates in Indiana, a list that includes Ellsworth, Rep. Baron Hill, former gubernatorial candidate Jim Schellinger, Rep. Joe Donnelly, and longtime state lawmaker Vi Simpson.

* As for Bayh's future plans, he's not running for president.

* With Bayh departing, is there any chance Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) will reconsider his decision not to run? Apparently not.

* In Arizona, anti-immigration activist, Chris Simcox, the co-founder of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, has ended his Senate primary campaign against Sen. John McCain (R). He threw his support to former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, who formally entered the race yesterday.

* In California, a Rasmussen poll shows Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) leading all of her GOP opponents in hypothetical match-ups, but only by margins ranging from four to five points.

* Former Pennsylvania state Treasurer Barbara Hafer (D) announced yesterday she will run to succeed the late Rep. John Murtha (D), who passed away last week.

* In Washington state, a Rasmussen poll shows Sen. Patty Murray (D) with big leads over her GOP rivals, but trailing former gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi (R), who has not yet decided whether to run.

* House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) is facing two far-right primary opponents this year, a first in his 20-year career.

* And in Arizona, Ben Quayle, Dan Quayle's son, is running for the open seat in Arizona's 3rd district. The 33-year-old attorney has never before sought elected office.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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LEAVING HEALTH CARE TO THE STATES WON'T WORK.... It may be tempting to think that structural changes to our dysfunctional health care system shouldn't come from Washington, D.C., at all. Why not let the states deal with the problem? Haven't some states -- Massachusetts, Hawaii -- already taken some positive steps on their own?

Alec MacGillis had an important piece the other day, explaining why a state-by-state approach won't help. Part of the problem is discouraging but unavoidable: most uninsured Americans live in conservative states where policymakers have no interest at all in improving the failing system.

Supporters of a national approach counter that relying on states would mean accepting the status quo for years to come. A state-by-state approach makes it harder to rein in health costs with systemwide reforms. And cash-strapped states are in no position to launch new initiatives. [...]

And even in brighter times, the states with the highest rates of uninsured -- mostly in the South and West -- have shown little interest in expanding coverage.

"There just isn't the political will" in many states, said Jon Kingsdale, who runs the agency overseeing the Massachusetts health-coverage program. "To leave this to the states is not realistic -- it's what we did for the last 40 or 50 years."

By any reasonable policy standard, expecting states to tackle the problem has it backwards. States, which must maintain balanced budgets, are currently reducing coverage, just when families need the most help, as state and local governments find themselves in weaker financial positions.

Even as the economy improves, conservative states like Texas -- home to 6 million uninsured, the worst rate in the country -- reject improvements to the system on ideological grounds. It's not an accident that the most conservative states are already home to the highest rates of uninsured -- those are the states already predisposed to ignore the problem.

A few years ago, the Monthly published a helpful piece on this by Ezra Klein, and its arguments are just as compelling now as they were at the time.

If the dysfunctional status quo is going to be improved, the change is going to have to come from Washington. And if it's going to come from Washington, it's going to have to happen soon. And if it's going to happen soon, congressional Democrats -- who've already approved a reform bill in the House and Senate -- are going to have to finish their work and take advantage of this once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Pass. The. Damn. Bill.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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THE CASH-AND-TRASH HUMILIATION WORSENS.... It's often called the "cash-and-trash" strategy -- Republicans hate the stimulus package and "trash" it at every available opportunity, but love the stimulus package and grab the "cash" when it comes to creating jobs in their own states/districts. It's been going on for a year, but the phenomenon keeps spreading.

Last week, the Washington Times found that "more than a dozen Republican lawmakers," all of whom insisted that the stimulus package was an awful idea that couldn't possibly help the economy, privately urged the Department of Agriculture to send stimulus money to their states and districts, touting the investments' economic benefits.

Today, the Wall Street Journal moves the ball forward with still more GOP lawmakers who say they oppose the very idea of the stimulus package, but who nevertheless believe the stimulus will help improve the economy in their areas.

More than a dozen Republican lawmakers supported stimulus-funding requests submitted to the Department of Labor, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Forest Service, in letters obtained by The Wall Street Journal through the Freedom of Information Act.

It's quite a motley crew. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said the stimulus "misses the mark on all counts," but encouraged the Labor Department to invest stimulus money in his district, highlighting a project he said would create 1,000 jobs. Reps. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) and Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio), both right-wing opponents of the recovery efforts, did the same thing.

It's not just House Republicans, either. Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), Bob Bennett (R-Utah), and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) all told the Obama administration that the stimulus would improve the economy in their states by directing funds in their direction.

The takeaway here should be pretty obvious, and it goes beyond just the impressive levels of hypocrisy. When push comes to shove, and it's their constituents on the line, Republicans know that the stimulus works. For all their palaver about how government spending is simply incapable of creating jobs and generating economic growth, we know they don't mean it -- we have the written requests for stimulus funds to prove it.

Also note, the WSJ report only covers Labor, EPA, and Forest Service. It's very likely that many more Republican lawmakers who opposed the stimulus also reached out to other agencies, convinced that the money would do wonders in their state/district.

Expect the Democratic campaign committees to emphasize this heavily as the election season nears.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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SUCCESS BEGETS SUCCESS.... It's not exactly a secret that congressional Democrats, predisposed to panic, are feeling an overwhelming sense of dread right now. But elections aren't decided in February, and it's not entirely fanciful to believe some key accomplishments over the next several months can prevent an electoral disaster.

Senator Evan Bayh's abrupt announcement on Monday that he will retire at the end of his term has further united disparate voices within the Democratic Party behind the idea that legislative action is the only remedy to avoid future political calamity.

In the wake of the Indiana Democrat's announcement, a host of figures -- from the progressive wing of the party to devout centrists -- have chimed in to warn that failure in jobs and health care legislation have sapped the party's momentum and fortunes.

Markos Moulitsas, the founder of the blog Daily Kos, said that the best way for Democrats to salvage the fate of the party before the 2010 elections is clear: "Deliver on their campaign promises."

For all the palpable anxiety in Democratic circles, there's still time. Sinking poll numbers are largely the result of inaction -- Americans want to see results, and they're not getting any. If Dems run for the hills, matters will only get worse.

The panic is predictable, but unnecessary. President Obama's approval rating in the Gallup tracking poll released yesterday was 53%. Congress can soon pass a jobs bill, and health care reform can finally get done soon after. In the coming months, the national employment picture is expected to get stronger.

A proposal to reform Wall Street is both popular and feasible, and can be passed this Spring. An energy bill can come to the floor before the summer.

These are the kind of steps that will inspire confidence, motivate the base, and demonstrate the majority's ability to govern. A "comeback" narrative can kick in, just as voters begin to evaluate candidates for the midterm elections.

And what of Republican obstructionism and the Senate's inability to hold up-or-down votes? Health care can and should be completed through reconciliation, so the GOP's intransigence is irrelevant. Indeed, reconciliation has to be considered as much as humanly possible.

In other instances, the GOP may be reluctant to block votes on a jobs bill and Wall Street reform. If they do, the Democratic leadership may need to consider declaring this a "crisis" situation, and characterizing Republican efforts as a slow-motion government shutdown. All alternatives -- including the "nuclear option" -- will have to be on the table, and can be easily justified. In a crisis situation, a responsible governing party simply cannot allow a crazed minority to shut down the levers of government.

2010 can, in other words, be a strong year. It just might take a little audacity.

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

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OPPOSING THE IDEAS THEY SUPPORT.... It's been surprisingly easy of late to chronicle the many instances in which congressional Republicans have announced their opposition to ideas they support. From a deficit commission to PAYGO, cap-and-trade to a financial industry bailout, civilian trials for terrorist suspects to stimulus aid for their districts, it's become routine for Republicans to embrace and reject the same proposals, almost at the same time.

On an individual mandate as part of health care reform, Karen Tumulty noted this morning that Republicans "oppose their own idea." She referenced this piece from NPR's Julie Rovner.

For Republicans, the idea of requiring every American to have health insurance is one of the most abhorrent provisions of the Democrats' health overhaul bills.

"Congress has never crossed the line between regulating what people choose to do and ordering them to do it," said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT). "The difference between regulating and requiring is liberty."

But Hatch's opposition is ironic, or some would say, politically motivated. The last time Congress debated a health overhaul, when Bill Clinton was president, Hatch and several other senators who now oppose the so-called individual mandate actually supported a bill that would have required it.

In fact, says Len Nichols of the New America Foundation, the individual mandate was originally a Republican idea. "It was invented by Mark Pauly to give to George Bush Sr. back in the day, as a competition to the employer mandate focus of the Democrats at the time."

If we could expect consistency and intellectual seriousness from GOP lawmakers, it would be almost bewildering.

Over the summer, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told Fox News, "I believe that there is a bipartisan consensus to have individual mandates.... There isn't anything wrong with it." A few months later, he used individual mandates as an excuse to oppose reform, and voted for a resolution characterizing mandates as unconstitutional.

Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Bob Bennett (R-Utah), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) all declared their opposition to an individual mandate in December. All five of them are on record co-sponsoring a reform measure that included an individual mandate.

The point here is not just to highlight the bizarre inconsistencies of Republican opponents of health care reform. This is also important in realizing why bipartisanship on health care has been quite literally impossible -- Republicans are willing to reject measures they've already embraced, and ideas they themselves came up with.

All the Democratic outreach and compromise options in the world can't overcome the fundamental lack of seriousness that comes with a party that opposes and supports the same ideas at the same time.

Steve Benen 9:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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BOEHNER'S SHORT-TERM MEMORY LOSS.... It's been apparent for a while now that when it comes to the debate over health care reform, opponents have trouble taking "yes" for an answer. Yesterday, Chris Bowers highlighted a classic of the genre.

On Sunday, Feb. 7, President Obama announced his plan to host a bipartisan summit on health care reform. Exactly one day later, on Feb. 8, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) wrote to the White House with a reasonable question.

"If the President intends to present any kind of legislative proposal at this discussion, will he make it available to members of Congress and the American people at least 72 hours beforehand?"

Four days later, the White House announced that it would, in fact, present a legislative proposal at this discussion, and would make it available to members of Congress and the American people in advance.

Boehner, true to form, was outraged that the president's team would do exactly as Boehner asked, insisting that there be no legislative proposal at all at this discussion.

As Chris explained, it's "one from the 'negotiating in good faith' files."

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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TOP TALIBAN MILITARY COMMANDER CAPTURED.... Even the most rabid Republican partisans should find it difficult to disparage a success story of this magnitude.

The Taliban's top military commander was captured several days ago in Karachi, Pakistan, in a secret joint operation by Pakistani and American intelligence forces, according to American government officials.

The commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, is an Afghan described by American officials as the most significant Taliban figure to be detained since the American-led war in Afghanistan started more than eight years ago. He ranks second in influence only to Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban's founder and a close associate of Osama bin Laden before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Mullah Baradar has been in Pakistani custody for several days, with American and Pakistani intelligence officials both taking part in interrogations, according to the officials.

It was unclear whether he was talking, but the officials said his capture had provided a window into the Taliban and could lead to other senior officials. Most immediately, they hope he will provide the whereabouts of Mullah Omar, the one-eyed cleric who is the group's spiritual leader.

A former CIA official who led the Obama administration's Afghanistan and Pakistan policy review last year told the NYT that Baradar's capture has the capacity to cripple the Taliban's military operations.

Nearly as important is the shift in Pakistan's approach to the American efforts to combat the Taliban. Not only did Pakistan's intelligence service play a key role in Baradar's capture, but U.S. officials believe senior military leaders in Pakistan "have begun to distance themselves from the Taliban," and have "gradually come around to the view that they can no longer support the Taliban in Afghanistan."

The former CIA official said the successful raid constituted a "sea change in Pakistani behavior."

Spencer Ackerman, who explained the strategic importance of not torturing Baradar, added, "Boy, that Barack Obama sure doesn't know how to deal with terrorism, huh?"

That isn't partisan chest-thumping; it's just reality. Baradar's capture comes just two weeks after U.S. forces took out Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban and extremist with close ties to al Qaeda. In August, Baitullah Mehsud was killed. In September, U.S. forces took out Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, the ringleader of a Qaeda cell in Kenya and one of the most wanted Islamic militants in Africa.

And Republican whining notwithstanding, these successes have come without torture, with civilian trials on U.S. soil for suspected terrorists, and while attempting to close the detention facility at Gitmo.

When it comes to the domestic political divide, only one side inspires confidence on national security and foreign policy, and I'll give you a hint: it's not the Republican Party.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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February 15, 2010

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

* Afghanistan: "Coalition and Afghan forces continued taking fire on Monday from Taliban forces in northern and central parts of the city of Marja, the focus of a major offensive in Helmand Province. American patrols in northern Marja were fired on repeatedly throughout the day, and reporters for news agencies in the area said Taliban fighters were using roadside bombs and snipers."

* From the weekend: "Twelve Afghan civilians died Sunday after U.S. rockets mistakenly hit a house during the much-trumpeted offensive to clear the last Taliban stronghold in Helmand province, a loss of life that is likely to seriously undermine the operation and the renewed American-led mission to win the trust of the population."

* A little help from our friends: "Spain announced Monday that it will accept five detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the largest commitment by a European country and a boost for the Obama administration's dragging effort to close the military detention center."

* Goldman Sachs manages to look even worse: "Wall Street tactics akin to the ones that fostered subprime mortgages in America have worsened the financial crisis shaking Greece and undermining the euro by enabling European governments to hide their mounting debts."

* HRC speaking in Qatar about Iran: "Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday that the United States fears Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has gained enough power to potentially supplant the Tehran government."

* The bizarre and deadly tragedy of Amy Bishop -- and her multiple victims.

* President Obama chooses Rashad Hussain from the White House counsel's office as his special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

* A very unflattering portrait of the Congressional Black Caucus's political and charitable wings.

* Obama wants you to go to college.

* Good column from E.J. Dionne Jr. on what Bill Clinton could teach President Obama.

* Fact checking the Sunday shows.

* If Chris Wallace sounds confused and unformed after "studying up" for a discussion on climate change, perhaps he's in the wrong line of work.

* Fox News is worried about Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield jacking up their premiums right now -- not because it will hurt the public, but because the rate increase may help advocates of health care reform.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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LIKE A STEELE TRAP.... Sometimes, he just makes it so easy.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele appeared to be relishing Sen. Evan Bayh's (D-Ind.) decision not to seek re-election to his U.S. Senate seat in 2010.

In a statement, Steele put Bayh's announcement in the context of other recent Democratic retirements, saying that it was a sign Democrats were "running for the hills because they sold out their constituents and don't want to face them at the ballot box."

Is that so. Here are a handful of relevant details for the RNC to consider:

In the House, there are more Republicans retiring than Democrats.

In the Senate, there are more Republicans retiring than Democrats.

Among governors, there are more Republicans retiring than Democrats.

I can appreciate party hacks spinning as best they can, but c'mon. Does Michael Steele not have a staff to check his statements before they go out? Did it not occur to anyone at the RNC to think, "You know, if we use retirements as a baseline, and our retirements outnumber theirs, we may look foolish"?

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... A smart observer offers a smart assessment.

John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress, can describe the state of Washington politics with a single word. And it's not a nice one.

Asked in an interview with the Financial Times to comment on "the health of American political system," Podesta responded: "Sucks."

Podesta made the remark with a chuckle, but the man who chaired President Obama's transition team expressed deep concern about the White House's ability to pass big ticket items in the current political climate.

He blamed much of the gridlock on Republicans and a newly "strengthened" conservative movement.

"I think the president is trying to re-engage with Republicans, but quite frankly he is not dealing with the party of Lincoln, he is dealing with the party of Palin and the party of McConnell and the party of Boehner," Podesta said in the interview, which was filmed and posted online Monday. "They have a political strategy, really, which is that fierce opposition, trying to say no to everything will endure to their political benefit, and so far it looks like that is working for them, so I don't see them changing all that much."

Imagine, however, what the health of American political system would look like if the United States Senate operated the way it did for the better part of two centuries -- with a majority party that's allowed to bring its agenda to the floor for up-or-down votes. Imagine how much healthier the system would be if presidential nominees for key posts and for the judiciary were allowed to be approved with the support of a Senate majority, the way the American system used to operate without controversy.

Imagine the strength of our system, in other words, if a party could win national elections and then have the opportunity to govern with the agenda it had presented to voters during a campaign.

If the Senate majority were allowed to bring legislation up for votes, this Congress would be among the most productive and successful in a generation, approving economy-rescuing recovery efforts, health care reform, energy and climate packages, Wall Street reform, and a sweeping new student-loan bill.

And that wouldn't "suck" at all.

The only thing stopping this from happening -- literally, the only thing -- are Republican obstructionist tactics with no precedent in American history. The result is a system that Podesta described quite effectively.

Steve Benen 4:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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STILL WORKING ON A DEFINITION OF 'BIPARTISAN'.... Ross Douthat's column on health care reform notes that Democrats and Republicans not only disagree on the policy, but also on the definition of "bipartisanship."

For President Obama, being "bipartisan" means incorporating a few right-of-center proposals into an essentially liberal legislative package. For Republicans, it means doing only those things that legislators of both parties can agree on -- a far more stringent standard, and one that would produce a very different bill.

Hence the frustration on both sides with the way the health care debate has proceeded. To Democrats, the right's complaints about having its ideas ignored are purely cynical. Doesn't the proposed legislation include ideas endorsed by prominent conservative economists? Don't some of its proposals resemble those championed by John McCain? Didn't Democrats eschew a single-payer approach in favor of a reform that retains a role for private insurers?

To conservatives, this misses the point: It isn't the details of the bill that they object to, it's the overall design.

That's at least partially true. Republicans have concluded that the basic framework of the Democratic proposal -- subsidies for the uninsured, consumer protections -- is fundamentally at odds with failed minority party's ideology. (At least, that's what they've concluded now. A few months ago, Republicans agreed -- publicly and repeatedly -- that they found 80 percent of the Democratic plan entirely reasonable.)

With this in mind, when Democrats embrace specific GOP provisions, it doesn't seem to matter, precisely because, as Douthat noted, Republicans reject the premise. It's like Democrats chose to order a pizza for dinner, and invited the GOP to help pick the toppings. But Republicans don't want a pizza for dinner; they want tire rims and anthrax. Choosing toppings is little consolation.

But Douthat's description of the GOP's understanding of bipartisanship is overly broad. For Republican leaders, the idea isn't to stick to "only those things that legislators of both parties can agree on" -- itself a ridiculous notion when the parties differ -- but rather to stick to only those things the GOP can tolerate.

Indeed, just last week, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), among others, said the only health care reform package that can pass is the one created entirely by GOP lawmakers. Democrats may be in the majority, but the minority party believes only their ideas should be allowed to come to the floor for votes. The "only" health care plan Republicans will consider, Cantor said, is the Republican plan.

In this sense, "bipartisanship" is defined as giving Republicans exactly what they want, and nothing else. Period.

And if this were a normal legislative dynamic for the United States, such an argument would be laughed at and dismissed. But because Republicans have decided that the majority is no longer allowed to govern, and up-or-down votes can only occur if the GOP approves of the underlying bill, we're left with this maddening status quo.

Steve Benen 3:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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ACTIONABLE INTELLIGENCE.... For all the baseless whining about how the Obama administration handled the Abdulmutallab case, it appears increasingly obvious that the White House's approach was not only correct, but is paying dividends that benefit all of us. Eli Lake has this important report.

U.S. and allied counterterrorism authorities have launched a global manhunt for English-speaking terrorists trained in Yemen who are planning attacks on the United States, based on intelligence provided by the suspect in the attempted Christmas Day bombing after he began cooperating.

U.S. officials told The Washington Times that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, facing charges as a would-be suicide bomber, revealed during recent cooperation with the FBI that he met with other English speakers at a terrorist training camp in Yemen. Three U.S. intelligence officials, including one senior official, disclosed on the condition of anonymity some details of the additional bomb plots. [...]

Information about the bomb plots was shared with the FBI after Mr. Abdulmutallab's family traveled from Nigeria to help coax the former student into cooperating, after a period of about five weeks when he refused to help authorities.

Let's be really clear about this. Republican criticism hasn't just strayed badly from reality in the Abdulmutallab case; the more important takeaway is that if U.S. policy followed Republican talking points, we'd be less safe as a nation right now.

On the surface, one of the key GOP attacks is the notion that making Abdulmutallab aware of his rights meant that we were denied important intelligence about possible terrorist threats. It should be painfully obvious that Republicans have no idea what they're talking about -- Abdulmutallab has provided critically important information since getting a lawyer and being Mirandized.

But we can also go one step further and realize the depths of Republicans' misguided ideas here. If, for example, we'd locked up Abdulmutallab in a military prison and/or denied him Miranda rights, he wouldn't be cooperating right now.

The White House has defended the decision to treat Mr. Abdulmutallab as a criminal on the grounds that the suspect's family has coaxed him into cooperating, something that likely would not have occurred had he not been afforded access to counsel.

There's a "global manhunt" underway to prevent potentially deadly terrorist attacks precisely because the U.S. is operating under Obama's approach, and not Cheney's.

For anyone who takes American security seriously, this policy debate is over. The discredited right looks increasingly ridiculous with each passing day.

Steve Benen 2:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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ANOTHER SWING, ANOTHER MISS.... Republicans really want to force John Brennan, President Obama's senior counterterrorism adviser, to resign. They just haven't been able to find a reason yet.

In the latest dust-up, Brennan compared detainee recidivism to the American penal system, and concluded that "one out of five detainees" released from U.S. custody "returned to some type of extremist activity," which "isn't that bad."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) used the comments to call for Brennan's ouster, telling Fox News this morning that any official who compares the two recidivism rates has necessarily "lost touch with reality." Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) have also seized on Brennan's comparison as evidence that the senior counterterrorism adviser needs to go.

These guys really should use Google more before attacking White House officials.

[A]las, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a very similar argument during an AP interview in 2005. And she, like, Brennan likened the rates of recidivism among enemy combatants to that of American criminals.

"[B]y the way, recidivism isn't just a problem at Guantanamo; it is a problem with criminal justice as well," she said.

We checked the clips: None of the three Brennan critics so much as peeped when Rice made her comments.

Imagine that.

Keep trying, Republicans. I'm sure you're bound to think of something credible eventually.

And while the complaining at the kids' table keeps getting louder, grown-ups like Brennan can keep working on national security issues. By all appearances, the White House couldn't care less about the GOP campaign against Brennan, which is as it should be.

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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THE WEEK THE DEMS' HEALTH PLAN COMES TOGETHER?.... On Friday, the White House released invitations to its health care summit, scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 25. There was, as we talked about on Saturday morning, an important hint in the text of the invitation.

"Since this meeting will be most productive if information is widely available before the meeting, we will post online the text of a proposed health insurance reform package," the materials read, adding, "It is the President's hope that the Republican congressional leadership will also put forward their own comprehensive bill to achieve those goals and make it available online as well."

This certainly made it sound as if there will be a completed Democratic proposal in place by the 25th, which would be quite a breakthrough, since there is no completed Democratic package right now. Is that really the plan? Ezra Klein reports this morning that this is, in fact, what officials have in mind.

I spoke to the White House over the weekend and they indicated that the president's package will not be a new White House plan, but a compromise between the House and Senate bills. That is to say, the White House expects that the House and Senate will have a compromise plan by February 25th.

That would represent quite a breakthrough. It's unclear what, exactly, would be in the compromise package, or when the deal will be complete, but the effort itself is encouraging. Indeed, it suggests the White House is taking more of a hands-on approach, which makes a deal that much more likely.

Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, are in an awkward position. The invitation to the summit encouraged GOP officials to "put forward their own comprehensive bill ... and make it available online as well." Jonathan Cohn summarized the significance of the request.

Republicans want to make this event -- and, indeed, this whole debate -- a referendum on the Democratic health care reform plan. Obama wants to make this a referendum on what to do about the nation's health care problems, with each party putting forward its ideas. And it looks to me like Obama will get his way.

If the Republicans don't post a plan, everybody will see that the GOP isn't serious about health care reform. If the Republicans do post a plan, they'll have to defend it.

And they can't, because their plan isn't any good.

It's one of the main reasons Republicans are so outraged at the idea of meeting at the summit with two competing plans. For Obama, the pitch seems pretty straightforward: "Both sides will bring a proposal to the gathering, where we'll get together and talk about them." For the GOP, that's a disaster in the making -- the Republican plan is absurd, and looks even worse when both approaches are scrutinized side by side.

The GOP is feeling increasingly antsy about the summit. That's a good sign.

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

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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.

* Former congressman and right-wing radio host J.D. Hayworth (R) will officially kick off his primary challenge against Sen. John McCain (R) in Arizona today.

* With Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) retiring, prospective Dems are lining up to run for the seat. Providence Mayor David Cicilline and Bill Lynch, chairman of the state Democratic Party, have declared their candidacies.

* Iowa Gov. Chet Culver (D) is struggling badly in his re-election bid. A Des Moines Register poll shows the incumbent trailing former Gov. Terry Brandstad (R) by 20 points, 53% to 33%. Branstad, however, still has a GOP primary to win, and Culver fares far better against the other Republican candidates.

* Expect Ned Lamont (D) to formally enter Connecticut's gubernatorial race tomorrow. He'll face Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy in a primary, but Lamont will likely be the favorite.

* As if former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D), eyeing a Senate campaign in New York, didn't have enough early troubles, there are now questions surrounding the New York state income taxes he hasn't paid.

* On a related note, the "Draft Harold Ford" effort got off to a comically bad start last week.

* Despite a humiliating prostitution scandal, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) continues to lead in his re-election campaign. Rasmussen now shows the scandal-plagued incumbent leading Rep. Charlie Melancon (D) by 24 points, 57% to 33%.

* Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) looks like he'll have a very tough re-election fight, but his campaign may be slightly easier if there's a "Tea Party" candidate running, which may split the conservative vote.

* And in Texas, an Austin American-Statesman poll shows Gov. Rick Perry (R) leading the GOP field with 45% support in the primary, 16 points ahead of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) at 29%. A Research 2000 poll pegs Perry's support at 42%, 12 points head of Hutchison. To avoid a runoff, Perry will need to top 50% when voters head to the polls two weeks from tomorrow.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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WHAT BAYH IS THINKING.... Sen. Evan Bayh's (D-Ind.) retirement is a shocker, leading many to wonder what on earth a popular incumbent with plenty of money and a big lead in the polls is thinking. Bayh alluded to his frustrations on the Hill as part of his rationale.

"Two weeks ago, the Senate voted down a bipartisan commission to deal with one of the greatest threats facing our nation: our exploding deficits and debt. The measure would have passed, but seven members who had endorsed the idea instead voted 'no' for short-term political reasons," he said. "Just last week, a major piece of legislation to create jobs -- the public's top priority -- fell apart amid complaints from both the left and right. All of this and much more has led me to believe that there are better ways to serve my fellow citizens, my beloved state4 [sic] and our nation than continued service in Congress."

This sounds a bit like Bill Bradley's rationale in 1996 -- politics on Capitol Hill has become ugly and difficult, so I'm walking away.

But it's not exactly a compelling explanation. To hear Evan Bayh tell it, Republicans have made it impossible for Congress to work on issues important to him ... so he's decided to make it easier for the Republican caucus to have more power.

When the going gets tough, the conserva-Dems pack up and go home?

What's more, while I'm hardly familiar with Indiana's election procedures, reliable sources report that the filing deadline for candidates interested in the Senate race is this week, meaning Dems will have to scramble. If these reports are accurate, it would appear Bayh is hurting Democrats twice -- once by walking away when they need his vote, and again by making it extremely difficult for the party to find, recruit, and qualify a top-tier candidate to run in his stead.

For what it's worth, a great deal of the early talk -- and by "early," I mean "the last hour" -- is about the DSCC recruiting Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D), a Blue Dog and former county police sheriff from Indiana's Southwest corner.

Stay tuned.

Update: It appears that the signatures for a prospective candidate are due tomorrow, and it's extremely unlikely any Dem could pull this off in time. What's more likely, then, is that the Indiana Democratic Party will be responsible for selecting a candidate -- there would be no primary.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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BAYH TO RETIRE.... A huge surprise out of Indiana this morning, which will make the 2010 midterms that much more challenging for the Democratic majority.

Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh will not seek re-election this year, a decision that hands Republicans a prime pickup opportunity in the middle of the country.

"After all these years, my passion for service to my fellow citizens is undiminished, but my desire to do so by serving in Congress has waned," Bayh will say.

Like Sen. Byron Dorgan's (D-N.D.) announcement in January, Bayh's retirement comes completely out of the blue. The incumbent Hoosier had already raised $13 million for his re-election campaign, and while Republicans thought Bayh might be vulnerable this year, recent polls showed him with seemingly insurmountable leads over his GOP challengers. Indeed, less than a year ago, the National Republican Senatorial Committee conceded that it fully expected Bayh to run and win a third term.

Bayh's retirement gives Republicans yet another pick-up opportunity in a traditionally "red" state, but it's probably a stretch to call it a GOP lock, at least at this point. The Republican field is, after all, led by Dan Coats -- an inside-the-Beltway corporate lobbyist who hasn't lived in Indiana for a decade.

As for the possible Democratic field, it's hard to speculate who might consider a campaign -- there have been no rumors since no one seemed to have any idea that Bayh was even considering retiring. That said, Indiana's congressional delegation does include five Democrats: Reps. Peter Visclosky, Joe Donnelly, Andre Carson, Brad Ellsworth, and Baron Hill.

It will also be interesting to see if Bayh changes his approach now that he need not worry about re-election. Bayh has, after all, been an exasperating "moderate" at times. Will this decision free him up to be a more reliable vote on key issues? Time will tell.

And for those keeping score, there are now six Republican Senate incumbents who have decided not to seek re-election, and three Senate Dems. Expect the media to characterize this as a mass Democratic exodus.

Steve Benen 10:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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ANOTHER GOP TALKING POINT BITES THE DUST.... As part of the GOP effort to attack the administration's handling of the Abdulmutallab case, the president's detractors have gone through a variety of arguments. One of their favorites is the notion that federal officials read the attempted terrorist his rights after just 50 minutes of interrogation, and then the suspect stopped talking.

We've known for quite a while that the latter half of the claim is wrong -- Abdulmutallab didn't stop talking at all. We're also learning that the first half of the claim is wrong, too.

The 23-year-old Nigerian man accused of attempting to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day was read his Miranda rights nine hours after his arrest, according to a detailed chronology released Sunday by senior administration officials.

The timing of events during the arrest, initial interrogation and medical treatment of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was made available after Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) made statements about the process that administration officials believe are misleading. "It makes no sense to get a guy off an airplane who just tried to blow up the airplane and read him his rights within 50 minutes," Graham said in an interview on Fox News.

Graham is one of several Republicans who have cited the handling of Abdulmutallab as an example of what they see as the administration's faulty response to a terrorist assault on a U.S. airliner. On Feb. 3, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the American people and Congress wanted to know "why an al-Qaeda-trained terrorist fresh from Yemen and caught in the act of an attempt to blow up an airliner was handed over to a lawyer after a 50-minute interview."

Where does the "50-minute" claim come from? Apparently, officials began to question Abdulmutallab soon after he was taken into custody, but physicians said his condition had deteriorated and that the interrogation would have to be delayed. Five hours later, the questioning began again. Eventually, Abdulmutallab refused to cooperate -- he had been trained not to answer questions -- and at that point, officials made him aware of his Miranda rights.

Why on earth would conservative Republicans find this objectionable? Will every GOP voice who got this wrong now apologize?

Also keep in mind, when the Bush/Cheney administration took shoe bomber Richard Reid into custody, he was read his rights five minutes after being taken off the plane he tried to blow up. Funny, I don't recall Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell, Susan Collins, or any of the usual GOP suspects whining incessantly at the time. I wonder why that is.

It's been nearly seven weeks since the failed Christmas-day plot, and Republicans have made a wide variety of criticisms. I've been keeping a pretty close eye on developments, and at this point, I honestly can't think of a single claim that has stood up to scrutiny. Some of the arguments have proven to be blatant lies, while others are the result of confusion and ignorance, but literally nothing has panned out for the GOP -- on what's supposed to be their signature issue.

MSNBC reported last week, "[A]t what point do you start losing the P.R. war when the facts aren't on your side?" Good question.

Spencer Ackerman added, "The GOP, for the first time in decades, is completely discredited on national security." We should be so lucky.

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

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VOLCKER NEGLECTS TO NAME NAMES.... The sentiment Paul Volcker expressed yesterday couldn't be more accurate.

Congress has never been more dysfunctional than it is right now, and it's preventing progress on crucial financial reform, lamented Former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker on CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS."

"Capitol Hill -- the Senate - is dysfunctional. I'm very disturbed by the trend in the government generally and its inability to get together and do things," said Volcker, who serves as a top outside economic adviser to President Barack Obama.

Volcker said he had hopes that financial reform would prove an exception to that trend. "This is a relatively neutral subject politically. The need is so clear here, and it's not an ideological issue -- it shouldn't be anyway.... It's a practical issue. And I'm disturbed that they can't get together."

To illustrate the degree of dysfunction, Volcker pointed to the fact at a time when reforming the financial system is such a priority the Senate still hasn't confirmed high-level Treasury officials. In contrast, in 1969 he was nominated as undersecretary of treasury by Inauguration Day and confirmed about a week later, Volcker recalled.

"We are more than a year after the inauguration and neither the undersecretary for international [affairs] or the undersecretary for domestic finance -- you don't have them. It's not because people haven't been put forward. It took them a long time to get them nominated and an impossible amount of time to get them confirmed.... What's going on here?" Volcker asked.

Good points, all. The Senate's dysfunction is a national scandal, and Volcker's right to be frustrated.

And while I agree wholeheartedly with the concerns, Volcker left out one extremely relevant word: Republicans. Volcker summarized the problem nicely, but neglected to mention that we all know exactly what's causing the problem.

It's not like there's any great mystery here. It's not that "the government" is suffering from an "inability to get together and do things." There are key vacancies, the president has nominated qualified officials, and a Senate majority has wanted to confirm these nominees for months.

But Republicans won't allow the votes to happen. That's a disgrace that undermines the government's ability to function during a crisis, and I'm glad Volcker is shining a light on the problem. Let's not forget, though, exactly who's to blame.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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A BROKEN CLOCK IS RIGHT TWICE A DAY.... Dick Cheney's appearance on ABC News yesterday morning offered viewers quite a few errors of fact and judgment, but he got one thing right.

In an exclusive interview on "This Week," former Vice President Dick Cheney said he thinks it's time to "reconsider" the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that prohibits gays and lesbians from serving openly in the U.S. military.

"Twenty years ago, the military were strong advocates of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' when I was secretary of defense. I think things have changed significantly since then," Cheney said. Cheney served as the secretary of defense, from 1989 to 1993, in the Bush administration.

"I'm reluctant to second-guess the military in this regard," Cheney said. "When the chiefs come forward and say, 'We think we can do it,' then it strikes me that it's -- it's time to reconsider the policy.

He added that he believes "society has moved on" from where it was when the DADT policy was crafted 17 years ago.

I've seen some rather excessive praise for Cheney's comments, but I'm reluctant to give the failed former V.P. too much credit here. Cheney's position has remained consistent for nearly two decades, but as Andrew Sullivan noted, during his tenure in office, Cheney "never moved a finger to help on any of these issues as vice-president, and led a party whose homophobia has become more and more pronounced with every year that has passed.'

Nevertheless, his support for President Obama's position on DADT repeal is welcome, and adds to the momentum. Late last month, the president called for an end to the absurd policy in the State of the Union. In the three weeks since, we've seen endorsements of the White House position from the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, and 75% of the American people.

I don't doubt they'll try, but conservatives hoping to characterize repeal as some kind of radical, liberal experiment may find it more than a little difficult under these conditions.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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DON'T BRING A DOLT TO AN MTP FIGHT.... If you missed it, there was an exchange on "Meet the Press" yesterday, which only lasted about a minute and a half, but which deserves the attention it's received.

For those who you can't watch clips from your work computers, Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) joined the roundtable discussion. He argued, at one point, that the stimulus package would have been more effective if it had "stimulative tax cuts in it."

We know that's foolish. The stimulus effort included tax cuts, but it was the part of the recovery effort that was the least effective in stimulating the economy. Rachel Maddow reminded the overmatched and underprepared congressman of this pesky detail: "[W]hen you assess what creates jobs, in the stimulus bill it's the tax cuts that were put in in order to try to win Republican votes -- that didn't come anyway -- that are the least effective thing in the stimulus bill. So the theory doesn't match the practice here."

But then Rachel made Schock look even worse:

"[I]n your district, just this week you were at a community college touting a $350,000 green technology education program, talking about how great that was going to be for your district. You voted against the bill that created that grant. And that's happening a lot with Republicans sort of taking credit for things that Democratic bills do, and then Republicans simultaneously touting their votes against them and trashing them. That's, I think, a problem that needs to be resolved within your caucus, because, I mean, you seem like a very nice person, but that's very hypocritical stance to take."

Schock responded, "Well, Rachel, with all due respect, I can assure you Republicans were not consulted on the stimulus bill." As responses go, this was nonsensical and missed the point entirely. Later, Schock added, "With all due respect, Rachel, does that mean you're going to give back your Bush tax cuts that you continue to rail against?"

If Rachel were running around bragging about how great Bush's tax cuts are, after having opposed them before, this might make sense. Instead, it was another reminder that Schock not only isn't ready for prime-time; he's not ready for Sunday mornings, either.

But there are also some relevant larger truths here. For example, Republicans really are proud to endorse stimulus funds that help their state/district, even after opposing the recovery effort, and even while pretending the stimulus didn't give the economy a critically important boost. As Schock helped prove, the GOP does not yet have a coherent response to the obvious hypocrisy, so watch for this to be a key part of the midterm debates.

As for Schock being made to appear foolish, I can't help but wonder, why is it that Rachel Maddow seems to be the only media professional calling out Republican hypocrisy on this? One of the reasons the clip generated so much attention was because it was something we see so rarely -- blatant GOP hypocrisy being called out on national television, accurately and fairly. It seems a little silly to make a fuss over what should be a common occurrence, but since it's not a common occurrence, moments like these are all the more satisfying.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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February 14, 2010

BUSH/CHENEY TOO LIBERAL FOR CHENEY.... I'm reluctant to make too much of Dick Cheney's latest musings -- the failed former vice president gets too much attention already -- but given the larger debate about national security and counter-terrorism policies, this seems like a relatively important development.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney says he disagreed with the Bush administration's release of prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay detention center and with the decision to subject terrorists to criminal courts.

Cheney says he opposed the Bush administration decision to charge shoe bomber Richard Reid in criminal court rather than declare him an enemy combatant and hold him in military custody.

Obama administration officials have responded to Republican-led criticism of their handling of terrorism suspects in part by pointing to similar actions by the administration of Republican President George W. Bush.

And it's a fairly compelling response. For every far-right Republican that tells the Obama administration, "I can't believe you're Mirandizing terrorist suspects, trying them in federal courts, imprisoning them on American soil, and closing Gitmo," the administration responds, "Bush/Cheney Mirandized terrorist suspects, tried them in federal courts, imprisoned them on American soil, and supported closing Gitmo ... and you never said a word."

So, today, Cheney said the only rational thing someone who wants to trash President Obama can say: he disagreed with his own administration.

Indeed, Cheney even acknowledged that his administration could have tried Richard Reid in a military court, but chose to go the civilian route.

That's not all. When confronted with a Bush-era Justice Department document praising civilian courts as an effective weapon against terror, Cheney acknowledged that some in the administration saw things this way. "We didn't all agree with that," Cheney said, acknowledging that there was a "major shootout" inside the administration over the merits of civilian trials.

This, again, is a clear acknowledgment that many Bushies endorsed the current Obama approach.

What an odd dynamic. The debate pits two groups -- one is led by President Obama, whose judgment has been endorsed by the military establishment, the intelligence establishment, policy experts, and is in keeping with the practices of all modern presidential administrations. The other group is led by Dick Cheney, neocons, congressional Republicans, Joe Lieberman, and a little too much of the media establishment.

But the bottom line remains the same: as far as Cheney is concerned, Bush and his team were too liberal when it came to national security. That's seems crazy, but that's his argument and he's sticking to it.

Steve Benen 2:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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ELECTIONS USED TO HAVE CONSEQUENCES.... I was looking over the election returns from 2008 last night. I hadn't thought about it in a while, but I was reminded just how remarkably successful Democrats were in the cycle. It was a genuinely impressive electoral display -- Dems didn't just win, they dominated.

Obama won states a Democrat hadn't carried in a generation. Democratic candidates won Senate races in states where the party is supposed to be weak -- Alaska, North Carolina, Louisiana, Montana, and Arkansas. House Dems built up the largest congressional majority in three decades. Obama's 52.8% of the popular vote was the highest of any candidate in either party in 20 years, and the highest for a non-incumbent in 56 years.

Republicans were left as a small, demoralized, and discredited party. The GOP found itself leaderless and directionless, with a policy agenda that is as unpopular as it is ineffective. They had held the reins of power and failed in such a spectacular fashion, some wondered how long it would take for the party to recover. It was the beginning of a new day in American politics.

At least, that's what it seemed like at the time.

The word "unprecedented" is almost certainly thrown around too much -- I know I probably overuse it -- but in every similar American electoral situation ever, the result of an election like this has been exactly the same. When a party and its presidential ticket dominate on this scale, that party earned the opportunity to govern. "Moderates" from the minority party would tend to go along with the majority as often as was possible. That the new administration would be able to fill key government posts and judicial vacancies with Senate-approved nominees wasn't even open to question; it was a foregone conclusion.

Most of the congressional minority, in these situations, would continue to oppose the majority's agenda -- in other words, they'd vote against it -- but the notion of simply blocking the nation's lawmaking process, immediately in the wake of their own catastrophic failures, was simply ridiculous. Such an option was so genuinely absurd, it was literally out of the question.

It's part of what makes the Republican tactics of the last 13 months so extraordinary -- it's the first time in memory that a major political party decided, en masse, that elections simply shouldn't have consequences. We've never had a minority lose a national landslide and then decide that the huge governing majority must not even be able to vote on its own agenda.

As an institutional matter, it's almost tragic to see Republicans deliberately break the American political process, and then stand to reap rewards for their reckless intransigence. But as an electoral matter, I'm not at all sure Democratic policymakers appreciate the situation they find themselves in.

Looking over the latest NYT/CBS poll, Americans are still predisposed to reject Republicans and prefer Democrats, but Congress' approval rating is down to 15%, its lowest support in two years. Anti-incumbent attitudes are overwhelming -- just 8% of respondents said members of Congress have done a good enough job to deserve another term.

That's the worst result for incumbents since 1994 -- and as I recall, 1994 was a fairly consequential year for Congress.

There are competing explanations for this, and not everyone who's angry with policymakers is upset for the same reasons. But if Democrats are going to save themselves, they're going to have to decide, immediately, that they're not going to accept failure. Or put another way, they're going to have to stop accepting failure.

Now, the party's response to this is compelling: "Brilliant advice, jackass, but thanks to Massachusetts, we can't break Republican filibusters. Sheer force of will is meaningless, and so is telling lawmakers to 'get it done.' They can't."

It's precisely why the status quo can't continue. Democrats can't let Republican break Congress out of spite; the consequences are too severe for the institution and the country. Some possible strategies for the majority to consider:

* Start using the phrase "up-or-down vote" all the time. If Republicans had a dominant governing majority, and a failed Dem minority prevented Congress from functioning, the apoplexy would be overwhelming. Americans would hear about the obstructionism constantly. There would, in all likelihood, be organized marches on Washington. Put simply, I'd like Democratic leaders to think about what Republicans would do if the situations were completely reversed. Then they should do that. Americans would be outraged if they had any idea what the GOP has been doing -- maybe someone should tell them.

* Take advantage of every opportunity. Using reconciliation as much as humanly possible should be a no-brainer. The "nuclear option" should be put on the table, too. Endorse Harkin/Shaheen. Scour the rules and procedural minutiae and figure out if Republicans who want to filibuster can't be forced to literally do so. Search for GOP statesmen -- Lugar? -- and ask if they're really willing to destroy the workings of the United States Senate.

* Go on the offensive. Organize rallies in Maine and explain that Olympia Snowe, by endorsing her party's obstructionism, is single-handedly responsible for the fact that Congress can't function, and it's within her power to put things right and let key bills get up-or-down votes.

* Give voters who elected Democrats something to be excited about. Voters will be impressed with accomplishments, so maybe it'd be wise to give them some. Dems can start by passing the damn health care reform package.

It's not too late. Finish health care. Pass a jobs bill. Go after irresponsible banks. Bring some safeguards to Wall Street. Fix student loans. Pass an energy bill. Repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." This not a fanciful wish-list; it's all entirely feasible.

Democrats were elected to do exactly this. It's time to prove that elections have consequences -- whether those who lose the elections like it or not.

Steve Benen 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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KILLING OVER CAPTURING.... This week, former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen was critical of the Obama administration's counter-terrorism efforts for an unusual reason. As Thiessen sees it, President Obama is doing too much to go after terrorists, and is taking out too many bad guys before they can be captured and tortured.

Thiessen was widely mocked, here and elsewhere, for suggesting the president has been too quick to kill terrorists. But today, the Washington Post has a fairly-long front-page piece lending credence to the Thiessen thesis.

When a window of opportunity opened to strike the leader of al-Qaeda in East Africa last September, U.S. Special Operations forces prepared several options. They could obliterate his vehicle with an airstrike as he drove through southern Somalia. Or they could fire from helicopters that could land at the scene to confirm the kill. Or they could try to take him alive.

The White House authorized the second option. On the morning of Sept. 14, helicopters flying from a U.S. ship off the Somali coast blew up a car carrying Saleh Ali Nabhan. While several hovered overhead, one set down long enough for troops to scoop up enough of the remains for DNA verification. Moments later, the helicopters were headed back to the ship.

The strike was considered a major success, according to senior administration and military officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the classified operation and other sensitive matters. But the opportunity to interrogate one of the most wanted U.S. terrorism targets was gone forever.

The analysis isn't exactly persuasive. Indeed, the bulk of the piece seems to rest on complaints from Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), who has already proven himself to be hopelessly confused about even the basics of current events, coupled with the concerns of one "senior military official" and one "former intelligence official."

More importantly, the piece buries the relevant details that bring the thesis into question. In the first three paragraphs, we learn that the president decided to take out an al Qaeda leader rather than try to capture him. Then, 21 paragraphs later, the piece reports that the president weighed the alternative, but given all the circumstances, made the right call.

The Somalia calculus, several officials said, included weighing the likelihood that U.S. troops on the ground for any amount of time in the militia-controlled south would be particularly vulnerable to attack. Looming large, they said, was the memory of the last time a U.S. combat helicopter was on the ground in lawless Somalia, the 1993 Black Hawk debacle that resulted in the deaths of 18 soldiers.

"There are certain upsides and certain downsides to certain paths," the administration official said. "The safety and security of U.S. military personnel is always something the president keeps at the highest level of his calculus."

In other words, for Obama, the risk to U.S. troops was too great, so he instead ordered an airstrike that killed a dangerous terrorist. This is, of course, what one would expect the president to do, and need not be the basis for an entirely new round of criticism.

Consider, for a moment, the alternative. Imagine if President Obama and his team decided that they preferred to take out fewer terrorist leaders and would instead send U.S. servicemen and women into extraordinarily dangerous situations in order to capture more bad guys.

I think any honest person knows exactly what we'd be hearing from the media and Republicans: the president is refusing to kill terrorists and he's needlessly putting the troops in harm's way.

Heads, the right wins. Tails, the president loses.

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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THE NATIONAL ANTHEM.... Even those who've come to expect private health insurance companies to tighten the screws on their customers were taken aback this week when Anthem Blue Cross -- the largest insurer in the nation's largest state -- told nearly a million customers that, next month, they'll face premium increases up to 39%. That's on top of last year's increases. The LA Times noted, "Anthem's actions offer the best argument yet for Congress to complete work on a comprehensive bill without delay."

But the AP explains today that the outrage in California is not unique, and that consumers in at least four other states, all of whom buy coverage as individuals because they're not covered by their employers, will see premiums increase by at least 15%. In Maine, some Anthem Blue Cross customers saw premiums go up 32% last year, and some will see a 23% increase again this year. Karen Tumulty noted that a family of four in Maine can now expect to pay over $22,000 a year for health insurance.

And yet, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe won't even give health care reform an up or down vote.

This is only going to get worse nationwide.

Premiums are far more volatile for individual policies than for those bought by employers and other large groups, which have bargaining clout and a sizable pool of people among which to spread risk. As more people have lost jobs, many who are healthy have decided to go without health insurance or get a bare-bones, high-deductible policy, reducing the amount of premiums insurers receive.

Steep rate hikes in this sliver of the insurance market -- about 13 million Americans, as of 2008 -- have popped up sporadically for years. Experts see them becoming increasingly common.

"You're going to see rate increases of 20, 25, 30 percent" for individual health policies in the near term, Sandy Praeger, chairwoman of the health insurance and managed care committee for the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, predicted Friday.

Now, regular readers at this point know full well what I'm thinking: pass ... the ... damn ... bill.

But let's go just a little further and consider the politics here. With these kinds of premium hikes, politicians should be tripping over each other to support reform. Maine's senators should, in theory, be begging Democrats to help them pass a comprehensive package. The electorate should, if our discourse were sane, be demanding immediate passage of reform, and be threatening obstructionists who stand in the way of passing legislation.

And yet, here we are. The ridiculous and dysfunctional status quo is deteriorating further, and Republicans still want to block even a vote on health care reform, and panicky Dems are wondering if they should walk away from their already-approved fix.

The mind reels.

Steve Benen 9:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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THEY'RE NOT ABOVE LYING.... Time will tell what, if anything, the 111th Congress will manage to actually accomplish in 2010 -- or rather, what Republicans will allow Congress to vote on -- but high on the list of priorities is reforming the way Wall Street does business.

Conservatives and the financial industry, not surprisingly, are fighting to prevent new safeguards and accountability for those who brought the global economy to the brink of collapse. As part of their lobbying efforts, they've come up with a message that turns reality on its head.

The right-wing group "Committee for Truth In Politics" seems to have taken the advice of the postmodernist Frank Luntz, and cast new regulations on Wall Street, which Wall Street is furiously attempting to kill, as a giant favor to Wall Street. [...]

There's just some diabolical genius involved in casting opponents of Wall Street as its courtiers and vice versa.

This may sound like a comical exaggeration. It's not. Those who hope to rein in Wall Street's recklessness and prevent another crash are being characterized by Wall Street's allies as ... Wall Street's allies. The plan to clean up the industry is being presented as a doing a big favor for the industry.

Up is down, black is white, left is right.

Kevin Drum added the other day:

And that, boys and girls, is how the game is played. Just portray a bill meant to rein in banks as a bill meant to bail out banks and see if the noise machine plays along. If it doesn't, try something else. Maybe suggest that instead of protecting consumers, it will remove consumer protections. Or that instead of regulating derivatives, it will set them free. Simple. Why bother making up complicated lies when simple ones will do just fine?

Of course, with a 59-vote majority in the Senate, Democrats shouldn't necessarily care. But even after Wall Street nearly destroyed the global economy, Senate Republicans will likely to try to block a vote on reform. If the Orwellian "Committee for Truth In Politics" can convince people that Wall Street's critics are actually Wall Street's allies -- in other words, if they can successfully pull off the con -- it will only serve to embolden the GOP.

Steve Benen 8:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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CONFUSION-BASED RAGE.... National Review published a couple of items recently about President Obama having cut taxes for 95% of working families. This is, in reality, what happened, but the conservative magazine was incredulous. "If the taxes of 95 percent of Americans actully [sic] had been cut, surely somebody other than Obama would have noticed," one NR writer put it.

It was a curious argument. It doesn't matter what President Obama did -- in this case, approval of a tax cut -- it matters what people perceive, even if the perceptions are patently false.

And perhaps no group of people is fueled more intensely by misperceptions of reality than the Tea Party crowd.

Of people who support the grassroots, "Tea Party" movement, only 2 percent think taxes have been decreased, 46 percent say taxes are the same, and a whopping 44 percent say they believe taxes have gone up.

Now, we know that this 44% is wrong. We also know that in nearly every instance, the 46% are wrong, too. Indeed, my challenge to them would be to go look at their most recent paystub, and then dig up their paystub from, say, December 2008, before Obama took office. The math isn't that hard -- did their tax rate go up, down, or stay the same? Opinions and perceptions are nice, but arithmetic can be stubborn.

But as this relates to politics, John Cole noted that these folks "don't even know what they are mad about." Indeed, it's easy to forget this, but the first Tea Party crowds started protesting in March 2009 -- exactly one month after President Obama signed one of the largest tax-cut packages in American history into law. The protestors wanted to make clear that they are "taxed enough already," choosing to pretend that they hadn't just received a tax cut from the president they hate so intensely.

John added, "It really is quite amazing what you can do with a group of people who are completely uninterested in the truth, unwilling to believe anything that comes from someone other than Rush or Glenn Beck or an 'acceptable' source of information, and who have a vested interest in believing what they want to believe, reality be damned."

This is important to the extent that there are still some who believe the political mainstream should do more to listen to the Tea Party crowd and take its hysterical cries seriously. But how can credible people take nonsense seriously and hope to come up with a meaningful result?

The truth may sound rude, but in general, Tea Party activists have no idea what they're talking about. Their sincerity notwithstanding, this is a confused group of misled people.

Steve Benen 8:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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February 13, 2010

THE CONSEQUENCES OF FAILURE.... Frequently, when the political world ponders the consequences of health care reform's possible demise, talk centers around electoral considerations. If reform fails, Democrats would look incompetent, the party's base would feel demoralized, President Obama would suffer a devastating setback, policymakers will fear further efforts for at least 20 years, etc.

But health care is not principally about parties or electoral consequences; it's about a failing system that costs too much, covers too few, and keeps getting worse. The AP's Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar has a good piece today outlining exactly what would happen to the existing American health care system if Democratic policymakers come up short this year.

[T]here's no doubting the consequences if lawmakers fail to address the problems of costs, coverage and quality: surging insurance premiums, more working families without coverage, bigger out-of-pocket bills, a Medicare prescription gap that grows wider and deeper, and government programs that pay when people get sick but do little to keep them healthy.

The AP piece takes a closer look at the consequences for a variety of key groups.

* Seniors: If the AARP-backed health care reform bill fails, older people will miss out on a chance to eliminate co-payments on preventive care. Even more importantly, the "doughnut hole" prescription coverage gap will get worse unless the Democratic plan becomes law.

* Workers: If health care reform fails, more Americans will go without the coverage they need, more families will face costlier bills if they get sick, and co-payments and deductibles will become even more costly. The total number of uninsured Americans will grow to 54 million people before the end of the decade.

* Those with health problems: If health care reform fails, Americans with pre-existing conditions will continue to struggle with either no coverage or coverage they can't afford. Rescissions will also continue, leaving families with no insurance when they need it most. Those in their 50s and 60s should expect to pay premiums up to seven times higher than those in their 20s. Younger people who would be able to stay on their parents' insurance if the Democratic plan becomes law would run the risk of getting left out.

* Employers: If health care reform fails, big employers will continue to pass on higher costs to their employees in the form of higher premiums and co-payments. Small employers will continue to drop coverage altogether.

This isn't some fanciful nightmare -- this is what has been unfolding for years after conservatives killed the last real effort to reform the dysfunctional system. The point is, the existing problems that everyone already hates will just keep getting worse, and everyone at every level of the debate knows it.

It's a good time, then, to remind policymakers that for all of our sakes, they really need to pass ... the ... damn ... bill.

Steve Benen 4:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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THE MEDIA LOVES THOSE LOYAL BUSHIES.... When Scott Lemieux noted yesterday that the Washington Post had hired Marc Thiessen as a columnist, I thought there had to be some kind of mistake.

There are, of course, a limited number of slots for paid columnists at the Post, and it seemed hard to believe that the paper would hire George W. Bush's former chief speechwriter and then hire George W. Bush's other chief speechwriter. Fox News, maybe. But the Washington Post is supposed to have standards.

Alas, Lemieux's report was accurate. At the bottom of a Thiessen piece yesterday, there was text explaining that he "will be writing a weekly column for The Post."

This strikes me as noteworthy for two reasons. The first is that Thiessen is a truly awful choice. As Adam Serwer explained:

Thiessen ... has spent the entirety of his post-Bush administration career attempting to defend the use of torture by his former boss. I'd have to say the highlight would be the time he argued that torturing Muslim terrorist suspects was necessary because of their religion -- and since that column appeared in the Post, I'm guessing Hiatt thinks there's something to this. Clearly, Hiatt felt that between Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol and Richard Cohen he still didn't have the whole "I heart torture" contingent covered.

Editorial page editor Fred Hiatt said Thiessen deserves to be a paid columnist because he "makes some strong arguments" and "argues them forcefully." And which arguments would those be? His love of torture? His insistence, two days after the president's inauguration, that Obama is "proving to be the most dangerous man ever to occupy the Oval Office"?

I can appreciate "strong" and "forceful" voices as much as the next reader, but isn't there something to be said for morally defensible voices who also tell the truth?

The other thing to keep in mind here is that there's a remarkable revolving door between the mainstream media and the staff of the Bush White House.

It's been tough to keep up with all of them, but the list is getting pretty long: Dana Perino (Fox News), Michael Gerson (Washington Post), Mary Matalin (CNN), Sara Taylor (MSNBC), Tony Snow (CNN), Frances Fragos Townsend (CNN), Nicole Wallace (CBS News), Dan Bartlett (CBS News), Jeff Ballabon (CBS News), Tony Fratto (CNBC), Juan Carlos Zarate (CBS News), Karl Rove (Fox News, Newsweek, and the Wall Street Journal), and now Thiessen.

The revolving door is so intense, NBC News hired one of the former president's daughters, despite her not having any background in journalism at all.

Given the previous administrations' spectacular failures, it's tempting to think these former officials would stay out of the public eye. After all, haven't they done enough damage to the country already? Do we need to be reminded of their comical ineptitude while trying to keep up on current events?

Remember, conservatives are convinced that major news outlets were not only deliberately unfair to the Bush administration, but also hate conservatives. The media outlets presumably, then, keep hiring leading Bush administration officials as part of an elaborate ruse to throw us off their liberal trail.

The end of the Bush/Cheney era, alas, does not mean the end of loyal Bushies misleading the country. If there's a rational explanation for these bizarre media decisions, I'd love to hear it.

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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THE NEED FOR 'A CREDIBLE MAJORITARIAN THREAT'.... Is it likely we'll see 67 votes materialize for Harkin/Shaheen, restoring majority rule to the Senate? Let's call it a long-shot. Is it likely Senate Democrats will exercise the "nuclear option" and end the filibuster rule altogether? Probably not.

But Matt Yglesias raised an important point yesterday about the nature of policymakers responding to threats.

[T]he way you get to reform is through a credible majoritarian threat. If you look at the successful 1975 filibuster reform you'll see that this is how it went down. Reform opponents feared that reformers were getting close to pulling the trigger on filibuster-elimination, so they formed a compromise proposal. That's how we got to 60 down from 67. Similarly, during the 2005 standoff it was the existence of a credible "nuclear option" threat that got Democrats to allow the confirmation of Bush's judges.

If people think it's plausible that 50 Democrats will band together and eliminate the filibuster in 2011, then I think it's likely you'll get 67 votes for some kind of phase-out proposal that would be friendlier to the interests of the Republicans. But if people know that the rules will only change if 67 Senators agree to change them, then the rules will never change.

Right. Senate Republicans are well aware of the fact that they're breaking the American legislative process, and making it impossible for the majority to govern, which suits them fine. They're also confident that Senate Democrats won't really do anything about it, except complain. Indeed, Dems reinforce this by expressing anxiety about even considering their top legislative priority through reconciliation -- hesitancy the GOP did not show when they used the identical process during the Bush/Cheney era.

But procedural changes happen when there's a credible threat. A quarter-century ago, the threat of eliminating the filibuster altogether led to reform. Five years ago, the Gang of 14 got together when the "nuclear option" appeared likely to happen. Just a couple of days ago, President Obama threatened a slew of recess appointments, prompting the Senate GOP to quickly approve 27 pending administration nominees.

To be sure, it's naive to think Republicans would simply stop filibustering to prevent a Democratic "nuclear option" from coming to fruition. But a credible threat is far more likely to have an effect than the alternative -- which is to simply tolerate the GOP's unprecedented abuse.

If Harry Reid were to make clear, with varying degrees of subtlety, that the status quo is simply untenable, and that he feels like he has no choice but to make it possible for a majority to govern again, it would possibly change the nature of the existing dynamic. At this point, he has nothing to lose.

Steve Benen 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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TRAINS ON DIFFERENT TRACKS.... A major global power is making the necessary infrastructure investments to generate tremendous economic growth and create tens of thousands of good jobs. It's not us.

The Chinese bullet train, which has the world's fastest average speed, connects Guangzhou, the southern coastal manufacturing center, to Wuhan, deep in the interior. In a little more than three hours, it travels 664 miles, comparable to the distance from Boston to southern Virginia. That is less time than Amtrak's fastest train, the Acela, takes to go from Boston just to New York.

Even more impressive, the Guangzhou-to-Wuhan train is just one of 42 high-speed lines recently opened or set to open by 2012 in China. By comparison, the United States hopes to build its first high-speed rail line by 2014, an 84-mile route linking Tampa and Orlando, Fla.

Speaking at that site last month, President Obama warned that the United States was falling behind Asia and Europe in high-speed rail construction and other clean energy industries. "Other countries aren't waiting," he said. "They want those jobs. China wants those jobs. Germany wants those jobs. They are going after them hard, making the investments required."

Indeed, the web of superfast trains promises to make China even more economically competitive, connecting this vast country -- roughly the same size as the United States -- as never before, much as the building of the Interstate highway system increased productivity and reduced costs in America a half-century ago.

An Amtrak executive noted, "The sheer volume of equipment that they will require, and the technology that will have to be developed, will simply catapult them into a leadership position."

We can compete, and the Obama administration wants us to compete, but it would take considerable infrastructure investment and a functioning legislative process. Since government spending has suddenly become a bad thing, while mandatory supermajorities have suddenly become good things, the United States will just have to watch as a global rival is "catapulted into a leadership position" that should be ours for the taking.

I continue to think the debate over how to maintain American preeminence in the 21st century is the political debate that needs to happen, whether Republicans like it or not. On high-speed rail, for example, a massive federal investment would be a huge economic stimulus, make us more competitive, and help the enviromment. But it's not really an option anymore.

It's easier to stick our heads in the sand and count on tax cuts as the solution to every problem, but it's reasonable to think just about every policy dispute on the American landscape can, and probably should, be reframed to answer the question: how does this position the United States for global competition in the 21st century?

On health care, energy, education, manufacturing, President Obama doesn't want to settle for second place. Republican policymakers don't even want to compete if it means government action and government spending.

Americans, accustomed to being on top, may not realize that our preeminence on the international stage is going to take a lot of hard work going forward. If the only relevant question in the American discourse is over big vs. small government, we're in a race we're very likely to lose.

Steve Benen 9:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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DAN QUAYLE, JUST AS WE REMEMBER HIM.... In the category of "ridiculous former vice presidents whose opinions are of no real value," the field is not limited to Dick Cheney.

Former Vice President Dan Quayle appeared on Fox News [yesterday] afternoon to chip in his two cents on the health care debate. Namely, he warned that using the reconciliation process would set a "very bad precedent" because a simple majority is just unconstitutional.

"They're gonna go to budget reconciliation, which I believe would set a very bad precedent, because essentially -- if they could do it, and I don't know if they can do it, but if they could do it -- what you have done, effectively, is to take away the filibuster in the United States Senate," Quayle said. "So, therefore, you have 51 votes in the House and 51 votes in the Senate. That is not what our Founding Fathers had in mind. That is not the constitutional process."

I realize that correcting Dan Quayle is probably a little too easy, but in case similar sentiments start popping up elsewhere, let's note just how incredibly wrong the former vice president really is.

Overlooking the fact that it takes more than "51 votes in the House" -- he probably meant 51 percent -- the notion that reconciliation "would set a very bad precedent" is just foolish. The "precedent" has already been set. Quayle may not realize this -- details were never really his strong point -- but reconciliation has been used, legitimately, to pass everything from welfare reform to COBRA, Bush's tax-cut packages to student-aid reform, nursing home standards to the earned income tax credit. Not too long ago, Senate Republicans even considered using reconciliation to approve drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In each instance, the Senate survived, the republic endured, and the filibuster rule remained intact.

As for Quayle's understanding of history, and "what our Founding Fathers had in mind," it's worth remembering that the filibuster is not in the Constitution. Indeed, there's a very reasonable case to be made that requiring three-fifths supermajorities on all legislation is, in fact, unconstitutional. The Senate was designed to operate on majority rule, and it did just that for the better part of 200 years. If the framers wanted to prevent majorities from governing, they could have, and would have, written the requirement into the text. They didn't.

"That is not the constitutional process"? Having a bill come to the Senate floor, and allowing members to register an up-or-down vote, is the very definition of "the constitutional process."

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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ARE DEMOCRATIC HEALTH TALKS STILL UNDERWAY?.... Those following the debate over health care reform closely may have noticed something over the last couple of weeks: it's been awfully quiet.

For a while, there were spurts of activity -- caucus meetings, leadership discussions, quiet negotiations, presidential pronouncements -- which at least offered us hints about the status of the initiative. But once the bipartisan summit was announced, it seemed like everyone was told they could take a breather, wait for the 25th, and watch for possible progress soon after.

But yesterday, there were signals that more may be going on behind the scenes than may be obvious. We talked earlier about the White House invitations to participants in the upcoming summit. Note this specific language in the invitation:

Since this meeting will be most productive if information is widely available before the meeting, we will post online the text of a proposed health insurance reform package. This legislation would put a stop to insurance company abuses, extend coverage to millions of Americans, get control of skyrocketing premiums and out-of-pocket costs, and reduce the deficit. [emphasis added]

It is the President's hope that the Republican congressional leadership will also put forward their own comprehensive bill to achieve those goals and make it available online as well.

This makes it sound as if there will be a Democratic proposal to offer in place by the 25th, which would be quite a breakthrough, since there is no completed Democratic package right now. Indeed, House Republican leaders seem to believe that Democratic talks are still going strong -- and they insisted that those negotiations end immediately before additional progress is made.

Apparently, the White House would like to have a completed Democratic proposal to present at the summit, and then have it compared to a completed Republican proposal. Participants would go through each plan, with Dems incorporating provisions from the GOP package as appropriate. Republicans, in contrast, want to throw out all of the work that's already been done, and presumably not craft their own plan at all.

Now, Democratic policymakers may not be able to craft a final proposal before the 25th, and they may go into the summit with some unanswered questions. Just because Dems intend to post the text of a reform package before the event doesn't mean they'll be able to work out their differences.

But the fact that it seems to be the new stated goal, and that Republicans are actually worried about it, points to the most encouraging news on health care reform I've seen in a while.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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INVITATIONS ARE IN THE MAIL.... We learned about a week ago that President Obama would host a bipartisan summit on health care reform on Feb. 25, but the details have been relatively scarce. Yesterday, the White House sent formal invitations to the participants, giving us a sense of how the gathering will shape out.

One of the first things to jump out is just how crowded it's going to be. The House and Senate leadership of both parties will be there, as will the relevant committee leaders from both parties in both chambers. The invitation also encourages party leaders to invite four additional lawmakers from each party, and a staffer with an expertise on health policy. Factor in the president and his staff, Vice President Biden, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebilius, and officials from OMB, CBO, and the Joint Committee on Taxation, and we're looking at a very full house.

The invitation also explains that the summit will cover "four critical topics: insurance reforms, cost containment, expanding coverage, and the impact health reform legislation will have on deficit reduction."

But the invitation, sent out over Sebelius' and Rahm Emanuel's signatures, also hinted at an interesting development.

"Since this meeting will be most productive if information is widely available before the meeting, we will post online the text of a proposed health insurance reform package," the letter said, adding, "It is the president's hope that the Republican congressional leadership will also put forward their own comprehensive bill."

That stood out for me because it suggests there will be a Democratic version of "a proposed health insurance reform package" to present. At present, such a package does not really exist -- the House and Senate have their own bills, so there isn't one text to post anywhere. Does the White House expect to have a final package in place before the 25th, or will officials post a more general outline of a proposal, with details to be completed later? More on this later.

For their part, congressional Republicans continue to whine about the event, but appear unlikely to boycott. House Minority Leader John Boehner's (R-Ohio) office still wants to see policymakers go into the summit with "a blank sheet of paper," but that's obviously silly.

The event will kick off at 10 a.m. (ET), will be televised live and will take place at Blair House, which is located across the street from the White House, and is frequently used for cabinet retreats and diplomatic accommodations.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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February 12, 2010

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

* A major offensive in Afghanistan: "Thousands of U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers traveling in helicopters and mine-resistant vehicles began punching into a key Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan early Saturday morning, as one of the largest operations to assert government control over this country got underway."

* Former President Bill Clinton was released from an NYC hospital earlier today, and is reportedly in good health.

* Inflation fears in China: "For the second time in less than five weeks, China's central bank has moved to limit lending to consumers and businesses by ordering big commercial banks to park a larger share of their deposits at the central bank."

* Relatively good economic news: "A modestly better-than-expected report on retail sales for January could suggest stronger economic growth in coming months. The 0.5 percent gain reported Friday by the Commerce Department exceeded the 0.3 percent increase economists had expected."

* Nodar Kumaritashvili: "A men's Olympic luger from the country of Georgia died Friday after a high-speed crash during training. IOC president Jacques Rogge said the death hours before the opening ceremony 'clearly casts a shadow over these games.'"

* Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) worked for months with Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) on crafting a bipartisan reform plan for Wall Street. Shelby proved impossible, and the talks collapsed. This week, Dodd began trying again, this time with Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).

* Sarah Palin refuses to allow the media access to her speeches. Isn't she technically a paid media professional, snubbing her own colleagues?

* If you haven't read Krugman's column on Republicans and Medicare, please do so.

* Higher ed in Nevada is kind of screwed.

* Fox News personality Dana Perino, still not the sharpest tool in the shed.

* Fox News is not above politicizing Bill Clinton's heart troubles.

* An incredibly irresponsible report from the Nashville CBS affiliate on a Muslim community in rural Tennessee leads to vandalism.

* I'm finding it difficult to be surprised: "The Massachusetts man charged this week for stockpiling weapons after saying he feared an imminent 'Armageddon' appears to have been active in his local Tea Party group, and saw Sarah Palin, on a 'righteous 'Mission from God,' as the only figure capable of averting the destruction of society."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE.... The typical American does not know or care about legislative procedures. It's challenging to keep up on current events, and getting a grasp on things like "cloture votes" and "holds" takes some effort. Most folks don't want to bother, and I don't necessarily blame them.

For folks who aren't especially familiar with the ins and outs of modern American politics, the existing power structure must seem exasperating. If there's a Democratic Congress working with a Democratic White House, we should be seeing all kinds of progress on a wide variety of fronts. What they don't realize, regrettably, is that Republicans have enough power to make legislating impossible, and the GOP is abusing that power in ways no party ever has in American history.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) isn't some random person who lacks familiarity with the political process -- he's a member of the congressional leadership. He knows full well why Congress is dysfunctional, and he knows that it's his party that's responsible.

So today, it was almost nauseating to see the Post Turtle's office issue a press release that read, "Quick question for the Administration: Who controls the process?" It noted that the Democratic Party at least ostensibly has authority in the House, Senate, and White House -- suggesting that Dems should be able to govern as they please, even though intelligent observers know better.

It makes clear the problem we've discussed many times: voters will blame Dems for failing to deliver, and won't blame Republicans for preventing Dems from governing. It's insane, it's exasperating, it turns logic and reason on their head, but it's the truth. Dems are running the show, so they'll get blamed, even if the GOP sabotages the show.

Greg Sargent explains very well that it leaves Democratic leaders with a limited number of options.

[Democrats] can scale way back and find common ground with the GOP. Or they can press forward and continue highlighting GOP obstructionism, in hopes that the public will eventually tune in to the procedural shenanigans and blame everything on Republicans. That's unlikely, however.

Or Dems can try to change the underlying dynamic -- as hard as this might appear -- by challenging, and perhaps changing, the procedural realities that make this dynamic possible.

A fourth possibility -- Dems pursue the agenda they promised voters to work on, and the public pressures Republicans to cooperate -- no longer appears feasible. The GOP is immune to public pressure, and the public isn't engaged.

So, Democrats, what's it going to be? Passing weak and ineffective legislation, passing nothing and blaming the GOP, or working on restoring the legislative process that served the United States well for its first 200 or so years.

There are no other choices. Your majority and legacy are on the line.

Steve Benen 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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RECONCILIATION EXISTS FOR A REASON -- THIS REASON.... When all is said and done, the "summit" is complete, and policymakers decide what happens next on health care reform, they will choose from a limited menu of options.

(1) Let health care reform die; (2) pass a weak, watered-down plan that does very little good; (3) wait and hope that some Republican votes will materialize, enough for a conference package to get an up-or-down vote; (4) the House passes the Senate bill; (5) the House passes the Senate bill, and the Senate approves changes through reconciliation.

Option (1) is obviously political suicide, and option (2) is nearly as bad. Option (3) would have the same practical effect as option (1), since Democrats have already included GOP ideas in the reform package, and Republicans won't take "yes" for an answer. Option (4) has appeal, but almost certainly won't have the votes to come to fruition. Which leaves the painfully obvious option (5), which every reasonable observer already recognizes as the only credible choice.

There are some hurdles to making option (5) work, but the biggest seems to be Democratic reluctance to how reconciliation might "look." Republicans would characterize use of the rules as an "abuse," and Dems fear that voters would perceive the procedure as skirting the rules.

Brookings' Henry Aaron, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, explains why Democratic fears are mistaken. The reconciliation process exists for a reason -- and this is the reason. (via Jonathan Cohn)

The idea of using reconciliation has raised concern among some supporters of health care reform. They fear that reform opponents would consider the use of reconciliation high-handed. But in fact Congress created reconciliation procedures to deal with precisely this sort of situation -- its failure to implement provisions of the previous budget resolution. The 2009 budget resolution instructed both houses of Congress to enact health care reform. The House and the Senate have passed similar but not identical bills. Since both houses have acted but some work remains to be done to align the two bills, using reconciliation to implement the instructions in the budget resolution follows established congressional procedure.

Furthermore, coming from Republicans, objections to the use of reconciliation on procedural grounds seem more than a little insincere. A Republican president and a Republican Congress used reconciliation procedures in 2001 to enact tax cuts that were supported by fewer than 60 senators. The then-majority Republicans could use reconciliation only because they misrepresented the tax cuts as temporary although everyone understood they were intended to be permanent -- but permanent cuts would have required the support of 60 senators, which they did not have.

There is simply no reason to Democratic skittishness on this. None. Reconciliation has been used, legitimately, to pass everything from welfare reform to COBRA, Bush's tax-cut packages to student-aid reform, nursing home standards to the earned income tax credit. Not too long ago, Senate Republicans even considered using reconciliation to approve drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

This should be a no-brainer. The reconciliation process was developed for exactly these circumstances, and even the most panicky Democrats have to realize that there's nothing wrong with using a fair, legitimate Senate rule to complete the legislative process.

Ezra added this morning, "At this point, Democrats have passed health-care reform bills through the two legislative chambers charged with considering them. The president stands ready to sign the legislation. The roadblock is that 41 Republicans have sworn to use a parliamentary maneuver to obstruct any effort to smooth out differences between the bills. It's pretty clear who's stepping outside the traditional workings of the process here. Yet Democrats have allowed the other side to make it look like they're the ones who are bending the rules! It's completely astonishing."

Steve Benen 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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A BONA FIDE CONSENSUS.... In these contentious, divisive times, it's difficult to get a large majority of Americans to agree on much of anything. That's why it's all the more encouraging when we see results like these.

Three-quarters of Americans say that they support openly gay people serving in the U.S. military, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, a finding that could lend momentum to the Obama administration's effort to dismantle the policy known as "don't ask, don't tell."

The level of public support for allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly far outpaces that in the spring of 1993, when Congress and the Clinton administration established the policy.

Indeed, it's not even close. When Clinton attempted to end the discriminatory policy 17 years ago, 44% of Americans agreed that openly gay servicemen and women should be allowed to wear the uniform, while a 55% majority did not. Now, it's 75%-24% split in the other direction.

Even 64% of self-identified Republicans agree that it's time for DADT to end.

The results were similar in the new NYT/CBS News poll, which found 70% of Americans supporting the change in policy, and only 19% endorsing the status quo. (Oddly, support drops when the question asks about "homosexuals" serving in the military, as compared to "gay men and lesbians.")

Ideally, the polls wouldn't really matter, and policymakers would want to do the right thing because ... it's the right thing. But given the political realities, members of Congress are far more likely to take a step they consider "controversial" if they believe the electorate will agree.

So let's be clear: repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" isn't "controversial" anymore -- it's the national consensus, which has been endorsed by the Commander in Chief, the Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Conservative proponents of the status quo are in a fairly small minority, and have lost the national debate.

Time for Congress to get it done.

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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A BROOKSIAN DISCONNECT.... I found reading David Brooks' column today to be a uniquely frustrating experience.

Obama was inaugurated in the midst of an economic crisis, and the activist policy proposals took precedence. If, a year ago, you had been asked to describe the administration's goals in one sentence it would have been this: Barack Obama will usher in the third great wave of Democratic reform. Franklin Roosevelt had the New Deal. Lyndon Johnson had the Great Society. Obama would take the third step, transforming health care, energy, education, financial regulation and many other sectors of American life. [...]

It was not to be. Voters are in no mood for a wave of domestic transformation.

Sure they are. Americans loathe the health care status quo and endorsed Obama's solution, right up until a massive misinformation campaign. (When asked for their opinions on specific health reform provisions, the public still endorses Democratic ideas.) Americans still endorse cap-and-trade, DADT repeal, letting tax cuts for the wealth expire, the president's education proposals, and the Wall Street reform initiative.

Brooks sees a political landscape in which the country has no appetite for a progressive agenda. But that's a misread -- the public desire for effective, constructive change hasn't subsided at all. The dour public mood is shaped in large part by a struggling economy, which Obama inherited, and which would be improved had Republican "moderates" not watered down the stimulus; and the sense that the government isn't solving problems, which it's not, because the GOP refuses to let the majority govern.

The "third Democratic wave," Brooks added, "is dead." Perhaps. But it was killed by obstructionism unlike anything ever seen in American history and conservative hysterics about routine governance (czars! bowing!), not an electorate that shifted sharply to the right a year after electing progressive policymakers.

The columnist urges the president to "show that this nation is governable once again." And how, pray tell, should Obama do that, when Republican holds and filibusters make governing all but impossible?

Brooks has a variety of suggestions, ranging from the vague (consider constitutional amendments "of one sort or another") to the already-tried:

[The president] could take several of the Republican health care reform ideas -- like malpractice reform and lifting the regulatory barriers on state-based experimentation -- and proactively embrace them as part of a genuine compromise offer.

In our reality, the White House and Democratic policymakers have already incorporated GOP ideas into the heath care reform plan, including "lifting the regulatory barriers on state-based experimentation." What's more, Obama told GOP leaders directly that he'd be happy to incorporate malpractice reform into the health bill, if they'd be willing to compromise on other areas. They refused.

In other words, what Brooks suggests Obama do to improve the political climate and make the policymaking process better has already been tried and rejected by Republicans.

Steve Benen 2:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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RESTORATION OF MAJORITY RULE GAINS SOME ATTENTION.... Not long after Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) introduced their proposal yesterday to bring majority rule back to the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was largely dismissive. For Reid, the likelihood of the bill getting 67 votes is so small, the effort is doomed to fail.

That's not necessarily wrong. But the more attention the debate receives, the more the public might begin to understand that the Republicans' unprecedented obstructionism is responsible for Democrats being unable to govern effectively. And with that in mind, I'm pleased to see some noteworthy developments this afternoon.

I noted earlier that Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) was likely to endorse the legislation, and it's now official -- Durbin is on board. Better yet, the Senate leader is reportedly "in talks with a number of other Democratic senators regarding possible changes to Senate rules."

We also learned today that a new NYT/CBS poll found 50% of Americans already support changing Senate rules to allow for the return of majority rule.

And what about the White House? The president, obviously, doesn't get a vote, and can't tell the Senate how to operate. But an endorsement from Obama would raise the profile of the issue considerably.

Today, ABC News' Jake Tapper noted that the president has "expressed frustration at how often Republicans have required Democrats to achieve 60 votes since becoming the minority party after the November 2006 elections."

In December, interviewed by Jim Lehrer on PBS's NewsHour, the president said, "as somebody who served in the Senate, who values the traditions of the Senate, who thinks that institution has been the world's greatest deliberative body, to see the filibuster rule, which imposes a 60-vote supermajority on legislation -- to see that invoked on every single piece of legislation, during the course of this year, is unheard of. I mean, if you look historically back in the '50s, the '60s, the '70s, the '80s -- even when there was sharp political disagreements, when the Democrats were in control for example and Ronald Reagan was president -- you didn't see even routine items subject to the 60-vote rule."

The president said "if this pattern continues, you're going to see an inability on the part of America to deal with big problems in a very competitive world, and other countries are going to start running circles around us. We're going to have to return to some sense that governance is more important than politics inside the Senate. We're not there right now."

He suggested that if the 60-vote requirement is "used prudently, then I don't think it's harmful for our democracy. It's not being used prudently right now. And my hope would be that whether a senator is in the majority or is in the minority, that they're starting to get a sense, after looking at this year, that this can't be the way that government runs."

It stands to reason that White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs will be asked to comment on the legislation, not just today, but going forward. Here's hoping for some encouraging words.

Post Script: For those of you who keep track of such things, the Harkin/Shaheen proposal now has a bill number: S.RES.416. If you use Thomas, you can use the bill number to track its progress, and keep an eye on which senators (if any) sign on as co-sponsors.

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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TEXAS' FUNKY COLD MEDINA.... One of the nation's most fascinating primary contest is Texas' Republican gubernatorial primary. What was once a contest of two heavyweights has turned into a bizarre three-way affair.

Incumbent Gov. Rick Perry, who's still the frontrunner, has been going up against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in a fairly heated confrontation. But recently, Tea Party activist Debra Medina, a nurse and political neophyte, has been coming on strong, gathering support with the right-wing fringe (which isn't a small number when we're talking about Texas GOP primary voters).

Medina's momentum hit a speed-bump yesterday.

Fox News pundit Glenn Beck threw a wrench into Debra Medina's Texas gubernatorial campaign Thursday when he asked her about her opinion on whether the 9/11 terrorist attack was an inside job. [...]

Beck asked her, "Do you believe the government was any way involved with the bringing down of the World Trade Centers on 9/11?"

"I don't, I don't have all of the evidence there, Glenn," Medina said. "So I don't, I'm not in a place, I have not been out publicly questioning that. I think some very good questions have been raised in that regard. There are some very good arguments, and I think the American people have not seen all of the evidence there. So I've not taken a position on that."

Later in the interview, Medina tried to clarify her remarks, first saying that she wasn't going to take a position on the issue, then saying, "These questions have been raised and they are not answered."

After the radio interview, Beck told listeners, "I think I can write her off the list."

Like Adam Serwer, I can't help but find this rather amusing -- Glenn Beck thinks one of his like-minded allies is nuts for lending credence to a bizarre conspiracy theory. As Adam explained, "That's a lot of crazy theories without any evidence to believe. So you can hardly blame tea-party folks if they get confused about which evidence-free conspiracy theories are OK, which ones you have to believe to be taken seriously as a member of the movement, and which evidence-free conspiracy theories might get you disavowed. It's confusing!"

For Medina, it's apparently very confusing. She recently told Alex Jones that she agreed that there's "Soviet brainwashing" in the Texas police. Medina also expressed outrage that Texas hasn't nullified federal laws (a.k.a., secession lite). And, of course, she's a Birther.

This is interesting in a campaign context -- whether Medina's radical ideas help her chances or hurt remains to be seen -- but it's also a reminder about that the Tea Party crowd can be genuinely fanatical. Some like to characterize these folks as mainstream Americans, with reasonable concerns about taxes and deficits. That may describe some of the "movement," but there's also a sizable extremist contingent.

As Dave Weigel explained, "I think because the mainstream media were slow to cover the Tea Parties as anything but a ridiculous joke, there's been a lot of overcompensating that imbues these activists with fresh, bold, out-of-nowhere political tactics. But that the fact is that some people on the political fringes have made lateral moves from Alex Jones-listening or Obama birth certificate-sleuthing or Bilderberg-obsessing into the Tea Party Movement. And if Glenn Beck hadn't decided to see how far Medina wanted to go with this, she'd be on track to get into a gubernatorial run-off."

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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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.

* Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D) will retire at the end of his term after 16 years on the Hill. Kennedy's district is heavily Democratic, and high-profile Dems, including Providence Mayor David Cicilline and Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts, are likely to consider the race.

* Despite rumors and faltering support, New York Gov. David Paterson (D) told supporters via email yesterday that he will seek another term. Paterson will almost certainly face state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo in a Democratic primary.

* In Missouri's closely watched Senate race, Rep. Roy Blunt (R) now leads Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D) by seven, 49% to 42%. Blunt's lead is one point larger than it was a month ago.

* A University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll shows incumbent Gov. Rick Perry (R) with a big lead over primary challengers, though he's still short of 50%. Houston Mayor Bill White (D) is leading the Democratic field.

* Former Sen. Dan Coats (R), hoping to make a comeback, has registered to vote in Indiana -- the state he left about a decade ago -- and rented a house to establish residency.

* In related news, a Research 2000 poll shows incumbent Sen. Evan Bayh (D) leading Coats by 20 points in a hypothetical match-up, 55% to 35%.

* North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr (R) will face a primary challenger this year, with Asheboro City Councilman Eddie Burks throwing his hat in the ring yesterday.

* In a bit of surprise, Nevada Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki's (R) on-again/off-again interest in taking on Sen. Harry Reid (D) in November is off again. Krolicki said he will instead seek re-election to his current post.

* Joyce Murtha, Rep. John Murtha's (D-Pa.) widow, may be the Dems' top choice to run for her late husband's seat.

* And in Florida, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) announced his retirement yesterday, and a few hours later, his brother, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), announced he's giving up his seat to run in his brother's district.

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

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TAUZIN LEAVES PHRMA.... The White House decided early on that when it came to health care reform, it could only handle combating so many enemies. The insurance industry would prove daunting enough, and policymakers didn't want to take on the pharmaceutical industry at the same time. A compromise was struck, and PhRMA endorsed the Democratic reform framework (and invested in advertising that seemed to make no difference whatsoever).

Brokering the deal was PhRMA's top lobbyist Billy Tauzin, a powerful former GOP lawmaker. Yesterday, Tauzin announced his departure.

Billy Tauzin, one of Washington's highest-paid lobbyists, is resigning as president of the drug industry trade group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America amid internal disputes over its pact with the White House to trade political support for favorable terms in the proposed health care overhaul. [...]

Like almost every other seasoned Washington player, Mr. Tauzin, who makes $2 million a year, bet on health care reform early -- only to watch it come to a screeching halt... [A]fter the health care overhaul stalled when Democrats lost the Massachusetts Senate seat, some industry leaders felt the trade group had gone too far giving concessions and could lose on some important legislative issues without gaining the protection it had sought.

Tauzin's deal proved to be contentious among nearly every constituency -- the left thought PhRMA was getting off easy; Republicans wanted the industry (a long-time GOP ally) to help in killing reform; and the industry thought Tauzin had conceded too much.

The question, at this point, is whether Tauzin's absence will help or hurt the larger effort. There's a reasonably strong possibility that, with Tauzin leaving, PhRMA will not just walk away from reform, but will try to put a nail in reform's coffin. It's also possible that the industry's opinion wouldn't necessarily dictate the outcome -- Dems are either going to muster the strength to finish the job or they won't.

The larger dynamic is unsettled, but Politico makes it sound as if policymakers have been dealing with industry executives directly, not Tauzin, so his departure won't necessarily change anything. What's more, Jonathan Cohn spoke to some industry insiders last night, who were skeptical that the landscape was poised to change significantly.

Still, it's one more opaque piece to an ever-changing puzzle. Keep an eye on PhRMA's next move.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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ASSIGNING BLAME.... Going through the results of the new NYT/CBS poll, this assessment sounds about right.

At a time of deepening political disaffection and intensified distress about the economy, President Obama enjoys an edge over Republicans in the battle for public support, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

While the president is showing signs of vulnerability on his handling of the economy -- a majority of respondents say he has yet to offer a clear plan for creating jobs -- Americans blame former President George W. Bush, Wall Street and Congress much more than they do Mr. Obama for the nation's economic problems and the budget deficit, the poll found.

They credit Mr. Obama more than Republicans with making an effort at bipartisanship, and they back the White House's policies on a variety of disputed issues, including allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military and repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

To be sure, the public is deeply dissatisfied and pessimistic when it comes to just about everyone and everything. A 62% majority believe the country is on the wrong track -- the highest number in a year. Congress' approval rating is down to 15%, its lowest support in two years. Anti-incumbent attitudes are at their highest level since 1994.

But it's worth paying close attention to who, exactly, Americans blame for the nation's troubles. Asked who's chiefly responsible for the weak economy, a 31% plurality blame Bush. The next closest is Wall Street, at 24%. Just 7% blame the Obama administration.

Similarly, asked who's responsible for the budget mess, 41% blame Bush, while only 7% blame Obama.

This matters. Americans are obviously unsatisfied with the speed with which the president is cleaning up the messes he inherited -- Obama's approval rating is down to 46% -- but the public at least seems to realize that he didn't create the mess.

What's more, as discouraging as the numbers are for the White House, they're worse for Republicans. Americans still prefer Democrats on most issues, still think Republicans aren't compromising enough, still think Dems are stronger when it comes to understanding the problems of regular people, and still think the GOP is worse at proposing solutions to problems.

And of particular interest, when asked whether the Senate should be able to pass legislation by majority rule, 50% want to see the chamber change the way it operates. It's a start.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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SPINNING WITH THE ENEMY.... John Brennan, President Obama's senior counterterrorism adviser, had an op-ed in USA Today this week, offering a persuasive and accurate assessment of the administration's handling of the Abdulmutallab case. It explained quite clearly why the criticism from the GOP is simply wrong.

But towards the end of the piece, Brennan added a provocative sentence: "Politically motivated criticism and unfounded fear-mongering only serve the goals of al-Qaeda." This, according to conservatives, was evidence that the administration is equating dissent with subversion -- an assertion conservatives made repeatedly throughout the Bush/Cheney era.

To be sure, I disapprove of any effort, by anyone, to characterize criticism of U.S. leaders as "emboldening terrorists." But that's not what Brennan wrote. In reality, "unfounded fear-mongering" really does serve al Qaeda's goals. When prominent American voices tout terrorists' failures as "successes" and give al Qaeda the attention it craves, those voices indirectly make terrorists' p.r. efforts easier. As Jay Bookman recently noted, "Cheney, Kristol and a lot of top Republicans in Washington are acting as unpaid PR agents for al Qaida, trying to turn even its failures into successes. The attempted bombing of Flight 253 was a terror attack; a terror attack succeeds only if it terrorizes its target audience."

This was almost certainly Brennan's point, and it's entirely defensible.

But conservatives, anxious to once again play the victim, are pretending to be outraged. Take Joe Lieberman, for example.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) appeared on MSNBC Thursday afternoon, and made a bold pronouncement on the political debates surrounding the interrogation of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the suspect in the attempted bombing of Flight 253: That critics of the White House should not be accused of aiding al-Qaeda.

The catch here is that during the Bush years, Lieberman himself made some similar comments about critics of the Iraq War -- saying that when they attacked the Bush administration they were harming America, or helping al-Qaeda, or attacking America's allies.

It's funny how that happens.

Throughout the Bush/Cheney era, this was as common as the sunrise. Dissent was equated with disloyalty. Prominent conservatives would casually throw around words like "treason," "traitor," "fifth columnists," and "Tokyo Rose" comparisons. In his capacity as the White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer went so far as to warn Americans that they "need to watch what they say."

It wasn't complicated -- to be patriotic was to support the president in a time of war. "Don't you understand?" conservatives would ask Bush/Cheney detractors. "Al Qaeda can hear you. We can't appear divided in a time of crisis. We can't let the world think our Commander in Chief lacks Americans' support. We can't show weakness -- and you're helping our enemies." As Eric Kleefeld noted, it's a sentiment Lieberman himself offered with varying degrees of subtlety before Election Day 2008.

And yet, the moment the Deputy National Security Adviser makes a reasonable assessment about Americans inadvertently helping terrorists' p.r. efforts, conservatives throw a fit. Their crocodile tears are hardly moving.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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REID NOT ON BOARD WITH FILIBUSTER REFORM EFFORT.... If anyone can relate to the frustrations surrounding Republicans' unprecedented abuse of Senate filibuster rules, it's Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). GOP obstructionism is, after all, directly responsible for Reid's difficulties in trying to govern, a fact that the Senate leader is quick to emphasize when given the opportunity.

There are, however, some efforts underway to change the way the Senate operates. Yesterday, Reid made it clear he doesn't think any changes are going to happen.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) on Thursday dismissed an effort by some Democrats to eliminate the filibuster, saying the chamber's procedures were designed to prevent the majority party from unilaterally changing the rules.

Minutes before a pair of colleagues formally unveiled their proposal to eliminate filibusters, Reid told reporters he adhered to the long-standing Senate rule that only a two-thirds majority could change the chamber's rules. This high hurdle -- established decades ago in an effort to prevent a party with a simple majority from ruling the chamber with an iron fist -- would require eight Republicans to join the 59 members of the Democratic caucus to alter the rules, something Reid said is not going to happen.

"I'm totally familiar with his idea," Reid said of the latest filibuster-reform resolution, from Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). "It takes 67 votes, and that, kind of, answers the question."

The point, it seems, is that Reid doesn't think Harkin/Sheehan has any chance of garnering 67 votes. He's almost certainly right. But at least having the debate over the bill offers some hope of bringing Republican abuses to the attention of more voters -- the same voters who can't imagine why a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate can't seem to pass legislation.

And while a two-thirds majority is probably out of the question, it will nevertheless be interesting to see who endorses Harkin/Sheehan, signaling their desire to see the restoration of majority rule. Rumor has it that Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) will sign on as a co-sponsor of the reform effort, which would give it a bit of a boost.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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THE TRAVAILS OF THE JOBS BILL.... Mid-day yesterday, the top two members of the Senate Finance Committee, Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), unveiled "bipartisan" jobs bill to some fanfare. There were, however, a few problems that quickly became apparent.

For one thing, the Baucus/Grassley jobs bill was a little weak in the job-creating department. For another, their bill included a variety of tax-cut measures that had nothing to do with creating jobs.

A few hours after the "compromise" measure's unveiling, the Democratic leadership said the Baucus/Grassley jobs bill simply won't do.

Key Democrats and Republicans in the Senate reached a rare bipartisan agreement on Thursday on steps to spur job creation. But Democratic leaders said they would move ahead on only some elements as the two parties maneuvered to address both the struggling economy and voter unrest over gridlock in Washington.

Senator Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat and majority leader, said he would take four core job-creating initiatives from the bipartisan proposal -- including tax breaks for businesses that hire unemployed workers and increased public works spending -- and seek to move those rapidly through the Senate.

"We feel that the American people need a message," Mr. Reid said. "The message that they need is that we're doing something about jobs."

At this point, the details are still in flux, and will presumably be worked on over next week's recess, but Reid signaled his intention to only accept portions of the Baucus/Grassley jobs bill that actually relate to jobs.

So, the Majority Leader didn't exactly make the jobs bill better, so much as he made it less bad.

By some accounts, Reid was responding to the concerns of the majority caucus, which met yesterday afternoon and expressed deep reservations about the concessions made to Republicans. Most notably, Baucus agreed to move forward with a proposal to cut the estate tax -- in other words, slash taxes on the extremely wealthy -- in exchange for possible GOP support on a weak jobs package. Dems rightly considered the concessions excessive.

Work will continue next week, with a vote expected early the following week. And if you're wondering why Dems didn't try to pass this through reconciliation, you and I are wondering the same thing.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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SENATE GOP BACKS DOWN AFTER RECESS APPOINTMENT THREAT.... There wasn't much doubt what President Obama had in mind for the congressional break that begins today. In light of the unprecedented number of holds Republicans have placed on key, high-level nominees, mostly for reasons that have nothing to do with qualifications, the White House seemed poised to use recess appointments for several pending officials.

As of last night, the Senate scurried to make this unnecessary.

Before leaving for the Presidents' Day break, the Senate on Thursday night confirmed -- by unanimous consent -- more than two dozen of President Obama's nominees to federal positions.

Mr. Obama and Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, had warned this week that the president might use the weeklong holiday break to make recess appointments, a threat underscoring his frustration with months of delays in confirming some key nominees.

Mike Allen reported that the president "won" the showdown with Senate Republicans, and last night's breakthrough was the result of a "tense exchange" between Obama and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Apparently, the president explained that he could no longer tolerate the "unprecedented" holds. When McConnell said Dems did the same thing to Bush that Republicans are doing now, "Obama disagreed, saying that when Bush made his first recess appointments, a handful of nominees had been waiting for more than a month. Obama had more than 60 waiting."

After the Senate approved the 27 high-level nominees, the White House issued a statement describing the process as "a good first step," but added, "[T]here are still dozens of nominees on hold who deserve a similar vote, and I will be looking for action from the Senate when it returns from recess. If they do not act, I reserve the right to use my recess appointment authority in the future."

A list of the 27 newly-approved officials is online, but it's worth noting that Craig Becker, the blocked National Labor Relations Board nominee, is still not getting the post for which he is qualified, and the three Pentagon nominees blocked by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) will continue to wait for Senate confirmation.

So, last night represented meaningful progress for the White House -- and a victory for the notion of a functioning American government -- but there's obviously a great deal more work that needs to be done. That said, the leap forward will apparently take the option of recess appointments off the table -- for now.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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February 11, 2010

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

* Former President Bill Clinton was hospitalized this afternoon in New York City, reportedly for a condition related to his heart.

* Tehran: "Iran's president boasted Thursday that his nation had the capacity to make weapons grade nuclear fuel if it chose to, in a speech designed to rally the nation as it marked the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution."

* Unrest in Iran: "A massive Iranian security presence, including riot police and gangs of motorbike-riding militia, appeared to snuff out attempts Thursday by anti-government protesters to orchestrate counter-demonstrations on the anniversary of the revolution that created Iran's Islamic republic."

* Preventing a Greek tragedy: "European leaders, facing a crucial test for the credibility of their common currency, promised 'determined and coordinated action' to safeguard the euro as they sought to persuade jittery bond market investors that Greece would not be allowed to default on its government debt."

* Some more encouraging economic news: "The number of U.S. workers filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell more than expected last week, welcome news for the White House as it predicted more than a million jobs will be created this year."

* Concerns about the "bipartisan" jobs bill: "Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is rewriting a jobs bill after Democrats complained of too many concessions to Republicans."

* A serious economic warning: "Over the next several years, failed commercial real estate loans could litter American cities with empty stores and office complexes, cause hundreds of bank failures and weaken the economy, a watchdog report says."

* It's the kind of news that hasn't generated a lot of attention, but many colleges were able to stay open last year due to the stimulus package.

* John McCain's willingness to humiliate himself is almost limitless. The senator who used to take global warming seriously now claims to not understand the very phenomenon.

* For now, marriage equality in Iowa and New Hampshire appears safe.

* I think it's a shame Marvel Comics felt the need to apologize for mocking the Teabaggers.

* A right-wing state senator in Missouri opposes gay servicemen and women serving openly in the U.S. military because it might "offend the terrorists." I seem to recall quite a bit of "appeasement" talk during the Bush/Cheney era; I wonder whatever happened to all of that.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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COLLINS 1, BROOKS 0.... I hadn't heard about this, but apparently every Wednesday, New York Times columnists David Brooks and Gail Collins have a little chat about current events, writing their exchange for everyone to see. Yesterday's discussion made for some fun reading.

David Brooks: Gail, there I was watching the snow drift down on the Brooks estate in suburban Maryland last Saturday, when suddenly, after some spluttering and coughing, I was without power. Now I know how the Republicans feel.

Gail Collins: David, I think the Republican analogy would work only if your next step was to barricade yourself in the power station, turn off service to all the people who did have power and announce that nobody was going to do anything until the company promised to build its next generator on your block and employ all your family, friends and neighbors at handsome salaries to do the assembling. But I'm sorry, you were saying about the snow...

This is my kind of chat.

Brooks went on to explain that he's "never been more depressed about Washington's ability to do anything." I know the feeling. He added that he expects "a nasty set of squabbles over small amounts of money that are not there."

Collins helpfully clarified matters: "If we ever get to the small amounts of money. We could spend the rest of this year just trying to confirm the top appointments to the Agriculture Department."

It concluded with some words of wisdom from Collins:

...I think we just need one simple change that will get us back to the good old days when Congress was capable of passing standard legislation and could occasionally summon the will to make large, imperfect fixes of urgent national problems.

Get rid of the Senate filibuster. It wouldn't make things tidy. It wouldn't be utopia. The Democrats will miss it next time they're in the minority. But when people elected a government, it would get to govern again.

This came in an online back-and-forth, so it probably won't get read by too many people, but that's a shame. Collins' point needs to be trumpeted -- Congress used to be able to legislate, and policymakers used to be able to govern. One simple rule prevents this and "one simple change" can make it right.

Steve Benen 5:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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NOT BACKING DOWN AN INCH.... For good or ill, the Obama White House is generally reluctant to throw elbows. But when it comes to the Abdulmutallab case, in the face of breathtakingly dishonest nonsense, the president's team hasn't backed down an inch, and has embraced a tone with a sharp edge. Today, the White House called out one of more ridiculous critics by name.

The White House excoriated Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) on Thursday for politicizing the ongoing investigation into the Flight 253 terror plot.

Bond asserted earlier this week that top counterterrorism chief John Brennan ought to be fired, in part because he and other national security advisers were wrong to read suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights. He later added that Brennan was not "credible" and had thus become the "mouthpiece of the political arm" of the White House.

However, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs aggressively dismissed that line on Thursday, remarking: "I don't know whether Kit Bond was confused or whether he just doesn't want to admit the truth."

Responding to the notion that Bond was notified of Abdulmutallab arrest, but not of Abdulmutallab being Mirandized, Gibbs told reporters, "I'll let you ... just ask Kit Bond if he understands the protocols of how the FBI handles suspects."

And that's basically what it comes down to. After all of Bond's foolish claims were easily debunked, what we're left with is a clownish senator complaining about his own ignorance of FBI protocols. Seriously, that's all Republicans have left.

Why Republicans think this debate has a political upside for them is less clear. They probably assume any discussion about national security necessarily benefits the GOP -- even if Republicans are made to look like incompetent fools in the process -- but the White House pushback has been both aggressive and accurate.

The GOP will probably keep trying -- they can't help themselves -- but they're losing this debate. Badly.

Steve Benen 4:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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THE CASE OF AAFIA SIDDIQUI.... Marc Ambinder highlights an important court case that went entirely overlooked last week, but which matters quite a bit.

Last week, as Republicans ratcheted up their criticism of the administration's counterterrorism framework, a jury in the Southern District of New York quietly convicted a woman named Aafia Siddiqui on charges related to the attempted murder of U.S. soldiers and FBI agents in Afghanistan. She faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.

What makes Siddiqui's conviction relevant for the current debate is that she was captured, on a recognized battlefield -- Afghanistan -- and tried to kill FBI agents and American soldiers who had come to question her. Siddiqui, 40, could easily have been designated as an enemy combatant. But the Bush administration determined instead that she be tried in federal court. She was read her Miranda rights, and given access to a lawyer.

Afghanistan police arrested her in July 2008 -- she was reportedly loitering nearby a sensitive facility -- and Siddiqui was found to have materials suggesting an intention to commit acts of large-scale terrorism in the United States, including documents that referenced the Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building.

When U.S. military interrogators and FBI agents sought to interview her, Siddiqui opened fire on the Americans, one of whom returned fire and wounded her. She was treated by Americans in a U.S. military hospital, transferred to American soil, arraigned in New York, charged as a terrorist.

Last week, Siddiqui was convicted, and will no doubt spend the rest of her life behind bars.

Republicans haven't said a word about this, but based on their increasingly stupid rhetoric, this series of events is not only outrageous, but actually dangerous. By GOP standards, Bush administration officials "imported" a foreign terrorist to American soil, and will now transfer said terrorist to an "American community."

So, here's the invitation: go ahead, Republicans, tell us how awful last week's conviction was. We're waiting.

Steve Benen 3:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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HARKIN, SHAHEEN EYE FILIBUSTER REFORM.... Nearly 15 years ago, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Joe Lieberman presented a plan to eliminate the Senate filibuster and allow Congress to pass bills by majority rule. The bill failed miserably, 76 to 19.

About a month ago, the progressive Iowan signaled his interest in trying again. In about 20 minutes, Harkin and his new co-sponsor will kick off a new effort to allow the legislative branch of the government to function again. A press statement from Harkin's office reads:

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) will be joined by Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) at a press conference this afternoon following the introduction of their bill to reform Senate rules that have been abused by the minority to create record gridlock. Senator Harkin introduced a similar bill in 1995, when the Democratic Party was in the minority.

"In an economic climate that has been devastating for Americans, it's time for the Senate to get moving on a jobs bill, on financial regulatory reform, and on health care," Senator Harkin said. "The minority party has ground Senate business to a halt by abusing the rules, and it's time to reform the process."

In the 1950s, there was an average of one filibuster per Congress. Last Congress, motions were filed to end filibusters a record 139 times, and they continue at a similar pace through 2009 (67 cloture motions last year).

If approved, the measure would not do away with extended debate altogether. Harkin proposes a new procedural model: the first go-around, the minority could demand a 60-vote majority, as is the case now. But if 60 votes aren't there to end debate, a week or so later, 57 votes could bring the bill to the floor for a vote. If 57 votes aren't there, it drops again and again, and after a month or so, a bare majority could approve cloture.

Does Harkin/Shaheen stand much of a chance? It's best to keep expectations low -- it would take 67 votes to approve Harkin's measure, which makes it extremely unlikely that this will succeed. But I can't wait to see what kind of support this generates, and exactly who does (and does not) sign on as co-sponsors.

Also note, the existence of the legislation creates an