Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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March 31, 2010

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

* Another attack in Russia: "Two suicide bombers -- including one impersonating a police officer -- killed 12 people Wednesday in southern Russia. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the blasts may have been organized by the same militants who attacked the Moscow subway."

* Doku K. Umarov, a Chechen rebel leader, claimed responsibility for Monday's double bombing in Moscow, and warned that more attacks were likely.

* Big federal court ruling: "A federal judge ruled Wednesday that government investigators illegally wiretapped the phone conversations of an Islamic charity and two American lawyers without a search warrant."

* I didn't realize this was an option: "The Army secretary said on Wednesday he would not discharge gay personnel who admitted their sexual orientation to him, despite the 'don't ask, don't tell' stance that remains official military policy."

* What a surprise: "The first of several British investigations into the e-mails leaked from one of the world's leading climate research centers has largely vindicated the scientists involved."

* Fascinating piece from Andrew Sabl on the rhetoric of the health care debate, specifically the efficacy of the word "mandate." I wish I'd thought to write this one.

* Former Florida GOP chairman Jim Greer facing a criminal investigation?

* Dear state of Utah, you can't take federal land just because you want to.

* When your right-wing uncle sends you an email saying the IRS will hire 16,000 new agents to enforce the health care law, remember that the claim isn't true.

* Great segment last night from Rachel Maddow on the infamous C Street house and some unresolved tax-law questions that need answers. (thanks to M.R. for the reminder)

* Shelby Steele appears to have published oneof the worst op-eds of all time.

* Trinity College will probably resist efforts to remove "Our Lord" from its diplomas.

* I found this story about the 10 personal letters President Obama reads every day pretty compelling.

* Yep: "Obama could propose cutting taxes to zero, deporting everyone who can't speak English, renaming the country 'Jesusland' -- doesn't matter. The GOP answer will always be the same."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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DEAR RNC, LET THE EXPENSE REPORTS GO.... The Republican National Committee was knocked on its heels this week in a story the party would no doubt prefer to forget. Publicly-available expense reports showed that the RNC had made a variety of odd spending decisions, most notably the nearly $2,000 charge at "a bondage-themed nightclub featuring topless women dancers imitating lesbian sex."

In the wake of the story, the RNC fired one of its employees, and the controversy was starting to die down. But today, the Republican National Committee, in its infinite wisdom, deliberately brought party expense reports back to the attention of political reporters.

In hopes of redirecting incoming fire about its spending habits, the Republican National Committee on Wednesday tried to turn scrutiny to the spending habits of the Democratic National Committee but came up with nothing nearly as risque as almost $2,000 in expenses for a night out at a bondage club and no private planes.

It tallied up, instead, two years worth of catering, luxury hotels and limousine bills.

RNC Chairman Michael Steele has been widely criticized for his expensive travel tastes -- especially for using private jets and car services. An e-mail from RNC Communications Director Doug Heye pulled together DNC expenses dating back to October 2008.

"The DNC spent at least $2,204,000 for luxury hotels and caterers," Heye writes at the top of the e-mail.

At face value, the RNC's research appears to be legit. Over the last 18 months, the DNC really did spent $2.2 million for luxury hotels and caterers. That's probably supposed to sound scandalous, but it's actually a rather dull observation -- parties host events at nice places. It's all pretty routine. If the sum total of the RNC expenditure reports had to do with nice hotels and caterers, few would have even raised an eyebrow.

But therein lies the point: the controversy surrounding the RNC's spending included a lot of money on private planes (a practice that did not turn up in the DNC's reports), and nearly $2,000 at "a bondage-themed nightclub featuring topless women dancers imitating lesbian sex."

I can't help but wonder what genius at the RNC thought it'd be a good idea to bring all of this back up. They poured through DNC filings looking for dirt, and they came up with mundane hotel and catering expenses. The smart thing to do, then, would be to say nothing more about expense reports, and instead work on changing the subject.

But, no. The RNC thought it'd be fun to hit the hornets' nest with a stick, and then hang around to kick it a little more.

DNC spokesperson Hari Sevugan seemed only too pleased to respond to the RNC's latest efforts.

"The RNC got in trouble not because it was doing traditional fundraising at hotels, or holding meetings at hotels -- and we've never raised that issue. They got in trouble with their donors because they are spending more money than they are raising (deficit spending is a pattern with Republicans) and because they are doing so in part at sex clubs. [...]

"[I]f Republicans want to compare our spending to their spending and allow us to say Michael Steele approved spending money at a Hollywood sex club a few more times -- that's fine with us."

The RNC should appreciate the value of quitting while they're behind.

Steve Benen 4:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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THE POWER OR REPETITION, REPETITION, REPETITION.... We've seen ample evidence in recent months that the public was turned off by the process of reforming the health care system. Whether these concerns were well grounded or not is a separate question, but the frustration has obviously been real.

Gallup, for example, published this result today:

Regardless of whether you favored or opposed the health care legislation passed this week, do you think the methods the Democratic leaders in Congress used to get enough legislation -- were [they] an abuse of power, or were [they] an appropriate use of power by the party that controls the majority in Congress?

Abuse of power 53%
Appropriate use of power 40%
No opinion 7%

Substantively, this is bizarre. The "methods the Democratic leaders in Congress used" were entirely legitimate and above-board. Reform went through the committee process, had floor debates, passed both chambers, etc. There was literally nothing that constituted an "abuse of power." Some of the side deals were unsavory, but (a) the deals were ultimately removed by Democratic lawmakers; and (b) the deals were entirely consistent with the way Congress has operated for more than 200 years.

Democrats promised voters they'd pass health care reform, they worked on health care reform for more than a year, and then they voted for it. That's not "abuse," it's "a governing majority fulfilling its campaign promises."

So, what explains the poll results? Greg Sargent's take sounds right to me: "This suggests, I think, that the claim by Republicans and conservatives that Dems were going to 'ram' the bill through Congress via dictatorial fiat really succeeded in riling up people up a great deal -- even though Republicans repeatedly used the reconciliation tactic themselves to pass ambitious legislation.... Moral of the story: Message discipline works."

Does it ever. Republicans, in all likelihood, knew full well there was nothing untoward about a majority of the House and a majority of the Senate approving health care reform. But they kept hammering away at their message -- GOP lawmakers decried the "sleazy" and "abusive" process, and conservative pundits echoed the sentiment. Mainstream outlets, obliged to pass along reports of debates, regardless of merit, covered the sausage-making process at a granular level, offering procedual coverage in a way that probably has no precedent in American history.

Casual news consumers, who don't generally care about legislative procedures, were no doubt left with the impression that Dems were handling the process the wrong way. After all, that's what "everyone is talking about." They heard "something about this on the news."

Fortunately, this will fade, and the public can start caring more about policy than process. But in the meantime, poll results like these are frustrating.

Steve Benen 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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IT'S FUNNY WHAT A PRIMARY CAN DO.... When it comes to immigration policy, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona has consistently been to his party's left. He was, for example, a co-sponsor of the DREAM Act, which would grant legal status to illegal immigrants' kids who graduate from high school. McCain also championed a 2007 effort on comprehensive reform, which included a path to citizenship that the far-right labeled "amnesty."

He moved sharply to the right during the 2008 presidential primaries -- McCain famously announced he'd vote against his own immigration bill, if given the chance -- and then back again after he was the GOP nominee. Now that McCain is facing a primary challenge for his Senate re-election bid, he's conservative on immigration once more.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), under fire from the right for not being tough enough on immigration in his Senate primary race, has called on Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to dispatch National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border.

In a letter sent to Napolitano's office yesterday, McCain says that rising drug violence across the border in Mexico endangers the lives of American citizens. He says the situation now calls for troops to be sent to the "southern border region."

Immigration reform advocates -- McCain's former allies -- recognize shameless pandering when they see it. "All the language he's using is red meat for conservatives," Gabe Gonzalez, a national director at the Center For Community Change, told TPM. "He's getting attacks on the right, so he's going right."

Matt Yglesias noted the ways in which the opportunism contradicts one of McCain's pervious personas.

It's relatively rare for a politician to make a point about how principled he is. Not that politicians don't call themselves principles. It's just that for most politicians, they try to do what they're going to do, make the case for their issues as they make them, and hope that the results look like principled leadership to others. Senator John McCain of Arizona is different, he always wears his principledness on his sleeve, talks about it all the time. Presumably because he's given to a substantially more incoherent approach than most people.

Like remember when McCain was a champion of immigration reform? Well, now he's got a primary to win.

I'm sure the increasingly far-right Arizonan will be able to explain all of this during one of his many upcoming Sunday show appearances.

Steve Benen 2:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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FRIVOLOUS HCR LAWSUIT'S SCARCE DEFENDERS.... Finding an ambitious, far-right state attorney general willing to waste tax dollars challenging the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act is easy. Finding legal experts who think their case has any merit at all is surprisingly difficult.

The University of Washington tried to organize a debate on whether the health-care reform bill is constitutional. But it couldn't find a law professor to argue that it isn't, reports the Seattle Times.

"I will say that we tried very hard to get a professor who could come and who thinks this is flat-out unconstitutional," said the moderator. "But there are relatively few of them, and they are in great demand."

Even a former Bush/Cheney U.S. attorney was on hand, and he agreed that the Republican litigation not only lacks merit, but should be "seen as a political exercise."

Elsewhere, however, Republicans continue to take the frivolous lawsuit seriously. In Georgia, for example, state Attorney General Thurbert Baker (D) said he would not waste taxpayer money on the case that no serious person can defend. As of yesterday, 31 Republicans in the state legislature had signed a resolution calling for the AG's impeachment. Seriously.

"It's a disappointing response by some members of our legislature," Baker said. "I don't think it speaks well for the future of this state or the image of Georgia."

You don't say.

As of now, 14 states, thanks to conservative attorneys general with time and public resources to waste, are pushing a lawsuit against the new health care law that even conservative legal experts consider a weak joke. It was 13, but Indiana's AG signed on this week.

Steve Benen 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... A 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll released the other day found that 50% of respondents would be willing to support an openly-gay presidential candidate. The Family Research Council, a prominent religious right group with ties to the Republican leadership, suggested yesterday that President Obama may effectively (not literally) already be "our first gay president." (via Right Wing Watch)

[I]f it was argued during his two terms in office that Bill Clinton was "our first black President" because of his supposed liberal policies that would benefit African-Americans (though I'm not quite sure what President Clinton did, that he wasn't forced to do, that would benefit any minority except for Chinese monks with political donations to spend.) With that argument shouldn't Barack Obama already be our "first gay President" due to his liberal policies pushing the homosexual agenda?

The Family Research Council isn't saying President Obama is gay; it's saying President Obama might as well be considered gay, the same way Bill Clinton was considered black.

And the religious right wonders why it's so hard to take their movement seriously.

For the record, I continue to find it interesting to see the difference in impressions when it comes to Obama and his efforts on issues important to the LGBT community. On the one hand, some conservatives are prepared to label him our "first gay president" and are convinced that Obama "is pandering to the gay lobby."

On the other hand, many in the LGBT community see the White House as deeply disappointing, ignoring the issues that matter.

As Obama's presidency continues, I still think it's the latter group that will be satisfied. In his first year, the president has presented a package of domestic partnership benefits for federal workers, lifted the travel/immigration ban on those with HIV/AIDS, expanded hate-crime laws, addressed the diplomatic passport issue, issued a strong Pride Month proclamation, hosted a White House event to honor the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, and taken the initial steps in ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." He's also publicly expressed his support for repealing the Defense of Marriage Act and making the Domestic Partners Benefit and Obligations Act law.

It's a start, and it's apparently enough to make major religious right groups publish foolish things.

Steve Benen 1:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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GOP 'INCREASINGLY WORRIED' ABOUT REPEAL.... They can't say they weren't warned.

Top Republicans are increasingly worried that GOP candidates this fall might be burned by a fire that's roaring through the conservative base: demand for the repeal of President Barack Obama's new health care law.

It's fine to criticize the health law and the way Democrats pushed it through Congress without a single GOP vote, these party leaders say. But focusing on its outright repeal carries two big risks.

Repeal is politically and legally unlikely, and grass-roots activists may feel disillusioned by a failed crusade. More important, say strategists from both parties, a fiercely repeal-the-bill stance might prove far less popular in a general election than in a conservative-dominated GOP primary, especially in states such as Illinois and California.

Democrats are counting on that scenario.

How antsy are Republicans? Texas Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the NRSC, issued a new memo, called, "Moving Forward," to his candidates yesterday. The point was to offer a rhetorical blueprint on health care to Republicans running for the Senate this year.

The memo mentions the word "repeal" only once, in passing, and makes no effort to encourage GOP candidates to run on a repeal platform.

It's not exactly a mystery why -- repeal is an electoral loser. If Cornyn & Co. thought the demands from the right-wing base were sensible and likely to produce victories at the ballot box, they'd quickly embrace the line Republican voters want to hear. They haven't because they know better, and want to win.

Thus, top Republicans are "increasingly worried." We saw a great example of this yesterday with Rep. Mark Kirk (R), an increasingly-conservative Senate candidate in Illinois. Kirk already signed a pledge, promising the right to pursue a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act, but when pressed on whether he intends to stick to it, Kirk suddenly got shy.

On the list of campaign angles Democrats are anxious to talk about in the fall, this ranks pretty high.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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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.

* Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) gave her word last year that she would step down from Congress this year, regardless of the outcome of her gubernatorial campaign. Hutchison has since changed her mind, and will stay on through 2012.

* Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) had hoped to get a re-election boost in Nevada this year with Scott Ashjian running as a right-wing Tea Party candidate, which might split the conservative vote. That plan is looking shaky: Ashjian is now facing up to 14 years in prison.

* Dems got some good news in Ohio today, with a new Quinnipiac poll showing Democrats leading in both the gubernatorial and Senate races this year.

* Sen. Arlen Specter's (D-Pa.) campaign got a bit of a boost yesterday when he picked up an endorsement from Pennsylvania's AFL-CIO.

* In Florida's closely-watched Republican Senate primary, Marco Rubio has won the backing of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), an influential far-right senator. Coburn said his decision was based in part on Charlie Crist's support for economic recovery efforts last year.

* California Senate candidate Carly Fiorina (R) ran into some trouble yesterday when she extended Passover best wishes to Jewish voters, and said the holiday is an occasion in which "we break bread." Not in Judaism, they don't.

* In Alabama, the latest survey from Public Policy Polling shows Rep. Artur Davis (D) leading the state's Democratic gubernatorial primary by 10 points over state Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks.

* And in South Dakota, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D) is leading her GOP challengers in hypothetical match-ups, by margins ranging from 2 to 12 points, at least according to Rasmussen. In related news, Herseth Sandlin's Democratic primary challenger ended his bid yesterday.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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IN A HISTORICAL, PERSONAL CONTEXT.... The parties and their campaign committees release various web videos on a very regular basis, and they're generally pretty forgettable. But this one, released earlier by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is more like a short-film on the importance of the health care reform fight.

To summarize for those who can't watch clips from your work computers, the first half of the clip puts the successful reform push in a historical context, noting just how long a journey it's been. The second half features Democratic House leaders -- Speaker Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, Caucus Chair John Larson, Caucus Vice-Chair Xavier Becerra, and DCCC Chair Chris Van Hollen -- reading letters from constituents who either urged Congress to pass reform, are grateful the ACA is now law, or both.

I found it pretty compelling.

Steve Benen 11:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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ALL PART OF THE PLAN.... We talked earlier about the Obama administration's apparent intention to allow new oil and natural gas drilling along the Atlantic coastline, the eastern Gulf of Mexico, and the north coast of Alaska. Given that this move could be used as a bargaining chip with Republicans during negotiations on energy policy, I questioned what the White House would get in exchange for the president's concession. If the president has already effectively given Republicans what they wanted on energy, what will he get in return?

A Hill staffer I know emails with an alternative look at the same dynamic, suggesting President Obama is playing a game we've seen before. I'm republishing the staffer's email with permission.

Obama preempts the other side's most resonant arguments, which forces them to come up with more and more extreme claims in order to differentiate themselves. In the end, he occupies the reasonable middle ground and his opponents are Palinized. It doesn't always work -- on the national security/gitmo/Miranda stuff, for example, it turns out the utter extreme positions the right is left with given the centrist ground Obama has staked out turns out to be fairly popular. But even there, the Administration has had reasonable success pushing back on the Miranda nonsense and, because they effectively occupy the tough, pragmatic middle ground, they routinely get cover from non-crazy Republican national security voices, which has helped blunt the force of these issues. (I understand that the term "middle ground" is very slippery and dangerous here, but I basically use it to mean policies that, before the great crazy of 2009 had broad consensus support from large portions of both parties and the Broder/Friedman/Brooks axis.)

At the same time, the policy is a tailored, measured version of what the Republicans have urged -- so, yes, the headline is, 'Obama Allows New Offshore Drilling/Presses For Energy Independence,' but at the same time, California/Oregon/Washington where opposition is strongest isn't included, and there are environmentally-friendly changes to Alaska leasing policy announced at the same time. And again, as we've seen before, Republicans are sort of forced to twist and parse, and even to oppose things they have long supported, just because the Administration hasn't gone far enough.

Finally, by announcing the drilling policy without seeking to extract concessions, the Administration makes clear that it is their policy and they are the centrist/flexible/pragmatic ones -- making it harder for Republicans to argue that they accomplished this or that they forced Obama to do it. [...]

[O]f course, if there was any reason to believe that Republicans would engage in normal negotiation/compromise, then I see why holding this back and trading it for support of a broader package would make sense. But does anyone really think there are Republicans to negotiate with on this stuff? And if Republicans do come to the table, Obama still has plenty of room to give, including by simply agreeing to sign a law that makes proposals like this a matter of statute, not executive discretion.

That's an interesting take. Something to keep in mind.

And by the way, right on cue, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) denounced the administration's drilling plan, despite its similarity to GOP demands, with Boehner expressing his outrage that the president didn't go further. What a shock.

Steve Benen 11:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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'REPEAL AND REPLACE' SOCIAL SECURITY, TOO?.... CNN's Larry King hosted a discussion this week with some leaders of the Tea Party "movement," asking right-wing grassroots organizers Dana Loesch and Wayne Allyn Root about their ideologies. It led to an interesting exchange about Social Security.

KING: Would anyone turn away Social Security now? Would you do away with it?

LOESCH: I would, yes.

KING: You would?

LOESCH: Yes, absolutely.

KING: Would do you away with it, Wayne?

ROOT: I'd certainly like to....

Noting the exchange, Steve M. wrote, "There's your attack ad, Democrats: 'Call Congressman So-and-so and ask him if he agrees with these leaders of the tea party movement that Social Security should be abolished.' How hard is that, Democrats? And if Congressman So-and-so stammers the usual defense of Social Security, make sure the teabaggers know he or she is just another dirty socialist."

That strikes me as sound advice. It's especially potent since Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) far-right "roadmap" effectively calls for the same thing, privatizing Social Security out of existence. Ryan, not incidentally, would be the House Budget Committee chairman if the Republicans retake the House majority.

This should put Congressman So-and-so in an even more awkward position. The Tea Party activists are demanding the elimination of Social Security, and the Republicans' top budget guy wants the same thing. Does Congressman So-and-so think his party and its base are right or wrong on this issue?

If Democrats want to go on the offensive in the midterm cycle, they'll have plenty of opportunities to do so.

Steve Benen 10:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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DON'T ENCOURAGE POLITICAL ROAD RAGE.... About a week ago in Nashville, Mark Duren picked up his 10-year-old daughter from school and was headed home, when Harry Weisiger saw that Duren's family car has an Obama-Biden bumper sticker. Weisiger, who did not know Duren, proceeded to lose his mind.

"He pointed at the back of my car, the bumper," Duren said, "flipped me off, one finger salute." Weisiger proceeded to ram into Duren's vehicle, with Duren and his young daughter inside. Weisiger was caught and charged with felony reckless endangerment.

A few days later, Sarah Palin appeared at a right-wing rally in Nevada and encouraged her minions to "stop" those who drive cars with Obama bumper stickers:

"[T]hat bumper sticker you see on the next Subaru driving by, an Obama bumper sticker. You should stop the driver and say, 'So how is that hopey, changey thing working out for you?'"

First, that "hopey, changey thing" is working out pretty well, thanks.

Second, encouraging right-wing activists to confront perfect strangers based on bumper stickers with the president's name on them seems like an extraordinarily bad idea.

As John Cole put it, "I can't be the only one who could see a potential problem with teabagging Palinites randomly stopping people with Obama stickers and taunting them. Certainly nothing could go wrong with this plan."

That Palin would even recommend such a thing after the bizarre incident in Tennessee is insane, even for the odd former half-term governor.

Steve Benen 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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POST-HEALTH CARE PLOTTING.... It's nearly April. There are about seven months until the midterms, and for now, Congress's approval rating is pretty abysmal. Policymakers, after a lengthy dry-spell, recently completed two major policy breakthroughs, delivering on critically important campaign promises, but now have to decide what to do next.

Jonathan Allen reports that even among Democrats, opinions vary. The White House wants to build on last week's success to move forward on other ambitious initiatives. There's some "resistance," however, on the Hill.

Democrats on Capitol Hill differ as to whether -- but mostly to what degree -- putting health care reform on the scoreboard has given Obama more juice in Congress.

They uniformly say that swatting Wall Street is a political no-brainer that unifies their party and splits Republicans, and many of them are eager to pass anything that can be labeled a "jobs" bill to show voters that they are focused on reversing economic misfortune. Both offer the opportunity to cater to populist sentiment before the election -- and to force the GOP to go along or risk public backlash. [...]

As Democrats approach what is expected to be a tough mid-term election, two cross-cutting dynamics are taking hold: Lawmakers who must battle to win re-election are even less inclined to cast tough votes, while some Democratic strategists believe the best bet for party leaders is to use big congressional majorities to enact their agenda before anticipated November losses set them back.

I can appreciate why some hand-wringing incumbents might be content to avoid additional fights, especially in an election year, but members of Congress are rarely punished for too much success. It's pretty unusual to hear a voter say, "My rep got a lot done. I hate that."

And there's still the matter of getting Democrats' rank-and-file motivated for cycle. The "enthusiasm gap" seems to be shrinking, but all evidence suggests Republicans will be turning out in force on Election Day. The more Dems can maintain some enthusiasm among its voters, the better they'll fare in November. That means getting the job done on Wall Street reform, repealing DADT, tackling an energy/climate bill, and getting to work on immigration.

These need not be considered "tough votes" -- polls show pretty strong support for Democratic proposals on all of these issues.

"There's still an opportunity to get a bunch of really big things done," said one senior House Democratic aide.

Dems have to decide to keep their foot on the gas.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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STEELE'S SLIPPING SUPPORT.... Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele can probably take some comfort in the fact that Congress is in recess this week. If lawmakers were on the Hill, reporters would likely be asking them for their opinions on Steele's latest foibles, and the responses would no doubt be less than kind.

That said, the RNC chair's difficulties have not gone unnoticed by party leaders.

Republican leaders in Congress have moved to distance themselves from GOP national chairman Michael Steele, but that job will become more difficult as the spotlight on the midterm election intensifies.

A GOP lawmaker who requested anonymity said the Republican National Committee chairman's relationship with House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is "not good at all."

The legislator added, "Steele lacks a base of support. The donors, the activists will all drop him if they sense he might squander the electoral opportunity of the decade."

As a rule, as a party is gearing up for a key election cycle, it's less than ideal for the party's elected leaders to "distance themselves" from the ostensible head of their political party.

What's especially interesting is that the tensions between GOP leaders and Steele were bad before. An "insiders" poll conducted by National Journal asked prominent Republican players, "Is your national party chairman an asset or a liability?" More than seven in 10 Republicans considered Steele a liability -- and the question was asked two weeks ago, before this week's bondage-related unpleasantness.

Indeed, Boehner was asked a few weeks ago if the RNC chairman would play a role in shaping a new policy document like the Contract with America. Boehner replied, "No."

I don't want to overstate this. Boehner and McConnell can effectively ignore Steele for the rest of the year and nevertheless see GOP candidates do well in the midterms. Howard Dean didn't always get along with Democratic leaders during his tenure, and the party excelled anyway.

The difference is, Steele is becoming an awkward distraction for the party, which is undermining fundraising efforts. What's more, Steele doesn't seem to be able to actually manage the RNC effectively, which can affect party performance whether the congressional leadership can work around him or not.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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IN EXCHANGE FOR WHAT?.... That the Obama administration would agree to open offshore areas to oil drilling is not exactly shocking. President Obama expressed a willingness to incorporate this into a larger energy policy during the campaign, and he alluded to "opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development" during the State of the Union. It's not like this policy is a shift or coming out of nowhere.

I am interested, though, in what the administration may get in the way of concessions after agreeing to such a move.

The Obama administration is proposing to open vast expanses of water along the Atlantic coastline, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the north coast of Alaska to oil and natural gas drilling, much of it for the first time, officials said Tuesday.

The proposal -- a compromise that will please oil companies and domestic drilling advocates but anger some residents of affected states and many environmental organizations -- would end a longstanding moratorium on oil exploration along the East Coast from the northern tip of Delaware to the central coast of Florida, covering 167 million acres of ocean.

Under the plan, the coastline from New Jersey northward would remain closed to all oil and gas activity. So would the Pacific Coast, from Mexico to the Canadian border.

The environmentally sensitive Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska would be protected and no drilling would be allowed under the plan, officials said. But large tracts in the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska -- nearly 130 million acres -- would be eligible for exploration and drilling after extensive studies.

Under any scenario, actual drilling is still years away, and it's unclear how many East coast states, if any, will raise objections.

But I'm especially interested in the larger political dynamic. As I understand it, the plan the White House has supported for months includes a give and take on energy -- Republicans would get the drilling and nuclear advances, while Democrats would get cap-and-trade. There are plenty of related details, but in general, this would serve as the basis for a grand, comprehensive bargain on energy.

My confusion, then, is over the administration's negotiating tactics. In February, the president cleared the way for the first new U.S. nuclear power plants in more than 30 years. Today, the president will reportedly open up new opportunities for coastal drilling.

In other words, Obama has already effectively given Republicans what they wanted on energy. What is he getting in return?

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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March 30, 2010

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

* Obama administration takes a new approach to aid to Haiti.

* Nissan unveils an electric-car model that will sell for about $25,000 including federal tax credits, "making it roughly comparable to conventional autos and posing a significant test of consumers' allegiance to gasoline-powered vehicles."

* More details on the RNC's Voyeur West Hollywood scandal, including the name of the fired staffer and the effort to clear Erik Brown. Sarabeth has some related questions.

* Volcker: "White House advisor Paul Volcker sounded hopeful Tuesday about the possibility of meaningful financial regulatory reform passing this year.... But at the same time, he voiced skepticism about efforts by banking lobbyists to carve out exemptions from regulation that would force transparency on certain types of derivative trading."

* As disappointing as its editorial board can be, the Washington Post has hired some really terrific journalists lately, Thiessen notwithstanding.

* Gen. Jack Sheehan's (Ret.) apology was both necessary and overdue.

* NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) wants the administration to do more to address gun violence.

* It seems likely American taxpayers will make money off the Citibank bailout, to the tune of about $8 billion.

* It was extremely amusing to see Fox News break away from President Obama's speech today to watch a plane land without incident.

* Remember when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) pretended to be an expert on Iraq and the U.S. military presence there? It's still hard to believe anyone actually fell for that one.

* A physics breakthrough: "After 16 years and $10 billion -- and a long morning of electrical groaning and sweating -- there was joy in the meadows and tunnels of the Swiss-French countryside Tuesday: the world's biggest physics machine, the Large Hadron Collider, finally began to collide subatomic particles."

* Sarah Palin, college fundraiser?

* A fine column from Eugene Robinson on political threats and violence: "It is dishonest for right-wing commentators to insist on an equivalence that does not exist. The danger of political violence in this country comes overwhelmingly from one direction -- the right, not the left. The vitriolic, anti-government hate speech that is spewed on talk radio every day -- and, quite regularly, at Tea Party rallies -- is calibrated not to inform but to incite."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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REAPING WHAT ONE SOWS ON THE CENSUS.... Prominent right-wing voices decided last year that the U.S. census was not to be trusted. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said the process could lead to "internment camps." Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) called the census "invasive." Fox News' Glenn Beck's suggested Americans may not be comfortable with "ACORN members" collecting information. Radio host Neal Boortz said some census information is "designed to help the government steal from you in order to pass off your property to the moochers."

No one should be surprised, then, that the spread of right-wing paranoia over the census is having an effect. (via Daily Kos)

Contrary to historical trends, some of the toughest challenges facing the agency responsible for measuring the nation's population are not from counting the traditionally undercounted groups such as African-Americans and Latinos. Instead, a new and growing threat to an accurate national head count is coming from anti-government conservatives who may not fill out their forms to protest against "Big Brother" in Washington.

The Houston Chronicle's report looks specifically at Texas, which is counting on the census to gain additional House seats, electoral votes, and federal funding relating to transportation, agriculture, health, education, and housing

But some anti-government types are shooting themselves in the foot.

The national average on the return rate for census forms is 34%. In much of Texas, the more Republican the area, the lower the return rate. In Briscoe County in the Panhandle, McCain/Palin won nearly 75% of the vote -- and 8% of locals are sending in their census materials. In King County, near Lubbock, McCain/Palin won nearly 93% of the vote -- and only 5% of locals are answering the census.

They apparently have no idea that they're acting against their own interests.

Last July, some very conservative Republican House members urged Bachmann, in particular, to back off the anti-census crusade, calling the efforts "illogical."

It seems at least some parts of the Republican base haven't gotten the message.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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CLUB FOR GROWTH DEMANDS FEALTY.... Mark Kirk, say hello to the repeal trap.

GOP Rep Mark Kirk, who's running for Obama's Illinois Senate seat, was one of the earliest to vow to roll back reform. Today, however, he repeatedly refused to say whether he's still on board with repeal, claiming only that he opposes certain aspects of the bill.

Now the Club for Growth, the powerful, well-funded conservative group, is ripping into Kirk for his sudden indecision, and making it clear that they expect him to live up to his promise.

"He said that he's going to do this," Club for Growth spokesman Mike Connolly just said by phone. "We expect him to live up to his pledge."

Kirk no doubt realizes he's in a bind. This year, in Illinois and every other state in the Union, the Affordable Care Act will extend tax credits to about 4 million small businesses, protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions, restrictions on rescissions, eliminations on lifetime limits or restrictive annual limits, free preventive care, and a new benefit that allows young adults to able to stay on their parents' policies until they're 26 years old.

These benefits are likely to be especially popular in Illinois -- President Obama's home state.

The right is demanding that every Republican candidate promise voters that he/she will vote to get rid of all of these new benefits -- no exceptions. In Kirk's case, he actually signed a pledge to that effect, thinking it would boost his fundraising and his primary prospects.

And now he doesn't want to talk about it anymore.

As we've been talking about, the goal is to put Republican candidates in a box. Democrats are going to ask candidates like Kirk, "Are you really going to fight to repeal protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions? Are you really going to take coverage away from 32 million middle-class Americans? Are you really going to take away breaks for small businesses?" If he says "no," he alienates the GOP activists who will settle for nothing but a full repeal. If he says "yes," he alienates the mainstream electorate.

Dems have set a repeal trap. Kirk's leg is already caught in it.

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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LATEST MILITIA THREAT COMING INTO FOCUS.... Following weekend raids in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio, federal officials now have nine suspected members of a Michigan-based Christian militia in custody. All have been indicted on sedition and weapons charges.

Barbara McQuade, the U.S. attorney leading the prosecution against the accused, explained to reporters today that the terrorist plot represented an imminent threat, prompting federal officials to take action. McQuade said the plot would have begun with a false 911 call, leading to the murder of the responding law enforcement officials. From there, the radicals intended to set off a bomb at the funeral, which they hoped would set off an "uprising."

To clarify a point from yesterday, eight of the nine suspects were initially taken into custody on Sunday, and the ninth surrendered to authorities today.

And as long as we're on the subject, 15 years ago, Paul Glastris, the Washington Monthly's editor-in-chief, spent some time with members of the Michigan militia and wrote a provocative piece for the magazine on his experience.

One June day two years ago, James Douglas Nichols was pushing 70 miles per hour down a country road not far from his Decker, Michigan farm when he was caught in the crosshairs of a sheriff deputy's radar gun. The deputy pulled Nichols over and issued him tickets for speeding and for driving without a valid license.

Soon after, before a courthouse hearing in Sanilac County in eastern Michigan's "thumb," Nichols offered a bizarre defense of his actions. The government, Nichols insisted, does not have the constitutional power to regulate private citizens in their cars. "I have put everyone concerned here on notice of what is going on here," declared Nichols with paranoid melodrama, "to violate my rights to free travel as cited in the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Michigan."

Presiding District Court Judge James A. Marcus patiently explained to Nichols the long-accepted legal distinction between a private citizens' constitutional right to travel freely and the government's legitimate right to regulate the operation of a motor vehicle. But Nichols was not about to buy the judge's fine distinction; he had done plenty of his own research. Nichols continued his losing protests, citing Supreme Court case after Supreme Court case. "He'd lift a sentence or phrase that he thought was applicable, but he'd do so out of context so that the meaning was completely incorrect or nonsensical," recalls Judge Marcus.

The Sanilac County courthouse, a gracious brick edifice with a hideous concrete-block addition stuck on the back, is no stranger to twisted logic. Earlier that year, James's brother Terry Nichols had tried his own hand at finding his salvation in do-it-yourself legal reasoning. He didn't really owe that $31,000 in bank credit card debt, he announced to the court, because the banks had lent him "credit," not "legal tender." He offered to pay with what he called a "certified fractional reserve check" -- a worthless piece of paper. "You can't follow their arguments," explains Judge Marcus, "because they're listening to a different music no one else hears."

Terry Nichols, of course, conspired with Timothy McVeigh to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City -- at the time, the deadliest terrorist attack in American history.

It's fascinating, 15 years later, to see how the militia extremists have changed, and how they haven't.

Steve Benen 3:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... Most of the far-right arguments against health care reform are either wrong, stale, or both. What we really need is some new far-right arguments to help keep things interesting. Oh, here's one now.

On Glenn Beck's radio show this morning, guest-host Doc Thompson explained his belief that he, as a white person, is a victim of racism inherent in the new Affordable Care Act. You read that right.

Alex Seitz-Wald, thankfully, transcribed the relevant portion. "For years I've suggested that racism was in decline and yeah, there are some, you know, incidents that still happen with regards to racism, but most of the claims I've said for years, well, they're not really real," Thompson told listeners. "But I realize now that I was wrong. For I now too feel the pain of racism. Racism has been dropped at my front door and the front door of all lighter-skinned Americans.

"The health care bill the president just signed into law includes a 10 percent tax on all indoor tanning sessions starting July 1st, and I say, who uses tanning? Is it dark-skinned people? I don't think so. I would guess that most tanning sessions are from light-skinned Americans. Why would the President of the United States of America -- a man who says he understands racism, a man who has been confronted with racism -- why would he sign such a racist law? Why would he agree to do that? Well now I feel the pain of racism."

Sure you do, Doc. Sure you do.

Steve Benen 2:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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BACHMANN ACCUSES AFRICAN-AMERICAN LAWMAKERS OF LYING.... Oh, Michele Bachmann, is there anything you won't say out loud?

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) told a crowd at a Duluth, Minn., rally over the weekend that there is no evidence that several black lawmakers were harassed by conservative protesters on Capitol Hill in the days leading up to the health care reform vote.

Black lawmakers, including civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), reported that they had been spat on and slurred by protesters demonstrating against the health reform bill last week.

"Democrats said that they were called the 'N word,' which of course would be wrong and inappropriate. But no one has any record of it. No witness saw it, it's not on camera, it's not on audio," she said. "They said that they were spat upon. No one saw it."

She went on, "There's a $10,000 reward right now for anyone who can produce a video or an audio. Don't you think we would have seen a video or an audio by now if there was something out there?"

I see. So, Michele Bachmann would have us believe that John Lewis is a liar. John Lewis, who has demonstrated more integrity, honesty, and courage in his career than Bachmann's limited intellect can even fathom, is deserving of mistrust, because he heard racial slurs and talked about it. Got it.

Here are a few details for the right-wing Minnesotan to consider.

1. When Bachmann's buddies began hurling bigoted slurs at her Democratic colleagues, there were plenty of witnesses, many of them journalists who reported on them. "No witness saw it"? That' s backwards.

2. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) not only claims to have been spat on, there's a video of the incident. Moreover, the right-wing activist who did the spitting was arrested. "Don't you think we would have seen a video"? Michele, we have seen a video. (I'll take that $10,000 reward now, please.)

3. A wide variety of Democratic lawmakers, many of them African American, including Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) have received faxes with images of nooses on gallows. The faxes have been given to law enforcement officials. If Bachmann wants to see them, I'm sure that can be arranged.

It's easy to expect garden-variety stupidity from Michele Bachmann, but these remarks question the integrity of her colleagues, who've been harassed by Bachmann's unhinged friends. The sooner she apologizes, the better.

Steve Benen 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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NOT EXACTLY A BRIGHT 'DAY'.... Long-time observers may remember the name Bud Day. Six years ago, Day, a decorated Air Force combat veteran, hooked up with the Swiftboat liars to smear John Kerry. Four years later, Day explained his support for John McCain and the war in Iraq by saying, "The Muslims have said either we kneel or they're going to kill us."

This week, Day has begun trying to rally support for Gov. Charlie Crist's (R) Senate campaign in Florida, instead of Marco Rubio (R), who's leading in the polls. Apparently, Day sees the Republican primary through a racial lens. (via Memeorandum)

"You know, we just got through (electing) a politician who can run his mouth at Mach 1, a black one, and now we have a Hispanic who can run his mouth at Mach 1," Day said. "You look at their track records and they're both pretty gritty. Charlie has not got a gritty track record."

Day confirmed he was speaking of Obama and Rubio.

"You've got the black one with the reading thing. He can go as fast as the speed of light and has no idea what he's saying," Day said. "I put Rubio in that same category, except I don't know if he's using one of those readers."

By "readers," Day appears to be referring to teleprompters.

I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that the Crist campaign doesn't promote Day's endorsement too heavily. Any praise that includes references to the president as "the black one" probably isn't the kind of support a politician will want to advertise.

Or is it? In a press release, Crist said he "could not be more grateful" for Day's support, though the statement did not refer specifically to Day's apparent racial perspective on the primary contest.

I can only hope Crist will distance himself from Day's comments, and not try to win Republican support by characterizing Rubio as "a Hispanic" that belongs "in that same category" as "the black one."

Steve Benen 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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ONE SIGNATURE, TWO HISTORIC REFORMS.... It wasn't quite as historic a bill signing as last week, but it was in the ballpark.

With the stroke of a pen this morning, President Obama accomplished two of his administration's major goals. First, he put the finishing touches on health care reform -- stripping the law he signed last week of some of its most controversial elements, while strengthening several others. Second, he enacted one of the major goals he set forth during the presidential campaign: student loan reform.

"This week we can rightly say, the foundation on which America's future will be built is stronger than it was one year ago," Obama said moments ago before a crowd at Northern Virginia Community College.

On health care, the budget fixes are key. While much of the attention has been focused on the elimination of special side deals (i.e., the "Cornhusker Kickback"), the reconciliation package signed into law today also improves subsidy rates for the middle class, delays implementation (and alters eligibility) of the excise tax, closes the Medicare "donut hole," and requires insurers to allow young adults to remain on their parents' insurance policies until they're 26.

But let's also not overlook the importance of overhaul federal student loan programs. In a normal year, success on this front would itself be a major legislative victory, but it's been largely overshadowed of late because it was included in the health care package.

Nevertheless, the student loan provisions signed into law today are huge. A $40 billion boost in Pell Grants, a streamlined loan process, saving taxpayers billions, caps on what students will have to pay after graduation, loan forgiveness for veterans after 10 years -- this breakthrough legislation will make a dramatic impact in the lives of millions.

Democrats have wanted to pass this for decades, but it was always just out of reach. There was a real possibility that lobbyists would intervene again this year and kill the proposal once more. Thanks to the reconciliation process, success came together just a few weeks ago.

The president described both achievements as "two major victories in one week that will improve lives of our people for generations to come." It's a bold claim that happens to be true.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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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.

* Former Rep. Nathan Deal (R) resigned from Congress last week, ostensibly so he can focus on his gubernatorial campaign. As he departs, the House Ethics Committee wrapped up its report on allegations surrounding Deal, and concluded yesterday that he appeared to have acted improperly.

* Chuck DeVore (R), running for the Senate in California, has "severed all ties" with Erik Brown. Brown is the consultant best known for getting reimbursed for "meals" at a Los Angeles bondage nightclub.

* In Missouri, the latest survey from Public Policy Polling shows Rep. Roy Blunt (R) edging ahead of Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D) in this year's open Senate race, 45% to 41%.

* In Ohio's Democratic Senate primary, Quinnipiac shows Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher leading Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, 33% to 26%. A plurality of Democratic voters remains undecided.

* The latest Research 2000 poll in Wisconsin shows incumbent Sen. Russ Feingold (D) with comfortable leads over his announced GOP challengers. If former Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) runs, Feingold's lead is just four points, 48% to 44%.

* Republicans are struggling to find a credible opponent for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) in New York, but a new Marist poll shows former Gov. George Pataki (R) leading the appointed incumbent by two in a hypothetical match-up.

* In Arkansas' Democratic Senate primary, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter's new commercial goes after Sen. Blanche Lincoln for having supported TARP in 2008.

* And putting rumors to an end, House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.) officially filed for re-election yesterday.

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

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FOR THE LOVE OF POLLS.... Josh Green posted an interesting item last night about Republican reactions to the success of health care reform, one week later. I've never fully been able to appreciate what it is about the Affordable Care Act the GOP hates so intensely, but Green noted Republican attitudes have begun to focus on one simple point.

I just returned from Capitol Hill, where the new health care law is still the preoccupying issue, and the Republican talking point du jour, which seems to have been issued with stage directions instructing that it be delivered in a tone of gravest concern, is that Democrats and President Obama have perpetrated a breathtaking assault on the body politic by passing a law that did not have widespread public support.

I agree that Democrats have taken a political risk, though most polls I've seen show people about equally divided on the issue. What lent such a surreal quality to my morning is that several of these folks have held an abiding interest in the intersection of governing and public opinion -- only they used to hold the opposite view.

Right. As Green explained several years ago, when he worked here at the Monthly, Republicans of the Bush era went to great lengths to reject the notion of governing based on polls. The very idea was mocked and dismissed as unworthy of true leaders. When policymakers choose to confront a great challenge, they can't just take the public's temperature and base their judgment on shifting whims and attitudes. Green noted, "Announcing that one ignores polls, then, is an easy way of conveying an impression of leadership, judgment, and substance."

Bush himself boasted repeatedly that was a president who governed "based upon principle, and not polls and focus groups."

Now, the point of Green's piece was that Bush wasn't telling the truth, and that his White House relied on survey data just like every other modern administration. The rhetoric was about creating a facade and cultivating an image, not reflecting reality. But the larger observation is still relevant -- Republicans rejected the notion that polls should dictate policy decisions. Such an approach is fundamentally weak and unprincipled.

Except now, that is, when Republicans have concluded that polls are all that matters, and to approve legislation that polls poorly is some kind of un-American act, betraying the consent of the governed.

By recent GOP standards, wouldn't President Obama deserve credit for standing tall and delivering on his campaign promises, even in the face of discouraging polling data? Isn't it more important to do what's right than what's popular?

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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BACK-HANDED PRAISE.... Neoconservative icon Norman Podhoretz, apparently still willing to take himself seriously, published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this week, praising former half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. The neocon crowd has generally been skeptical about the bizarre former VP candidate, and it's possible that Podhoretz would like to improve her standing in advance of 2012. (via Ed Kilgore)

Podhoretz and his cohorts tend to look for far-right leaders whose strengths are built around national security, foreign policy, and military affairs. Sarah Palin, meanwhile, was governor of a small state for two years, thought Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11, has no idea why there are two Koreas, and sincerely told a national television audience that she understands international affairs because Vladimir Putin has flown over her head.

Podhoretz's task, in other words, is rather challenging.

Indeed, he concedes early on in his op-ed, "True, [Palin] seems to know very little about international affairs, but expertise in this area is no guarantee of wise leadership."

Of all the anti-intellectual arguments, this is among the most entertaining. To hear Podhoretz tell it, Palin's ignorance is a good thing, because experts have often made poor decisions. So, let's gamble with global stability and security -- maybe Palin will just guess the right answer!

Podhoretz adds that many conservative leaders are underwhelmed by the half-term governor, but it's only because they're snobs.

Much as I would like to believe that the answer lies in some elevated consideration, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the same species of class bias that Mrs. Palin provokes in her enemies and her admirers is at work among the conservative intellectuals who are so embarrassed by her. When William F. Buckley Jr., then the editor of National Review, famously quipped that he would rather be ruled by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the combined faculties of Harvard and MIT, most conservative intellectuals responded with a gleeful amen. But put to the test by the advent of Sarah Palin, along with the populist upsurge represented by the Tea Party movement, they have demonstrated that they never really meant it.

Buckley's thought experiment was always pseudo-populist nonsense, but it's worth appreciating the fact that in this scenario, Podhoretz sees Palin as one of those random names from the phone book, rather than a scholar or an expert.

It's this back-handed praise for Palin that always surprises me. In Podhoretz's vision, Palin deserves support, not because she's extraordinary, but because she isn't. Conservatives should give her a chance, not because she has unique talents, but because she doesn't. She could be a credible national leader, not because she can draw upon her intellect and think creatively, but because she can't.

It's this conservative celebration of mediocrity and ignorance that I'll never be able to relate to. Since when should the United States, when choosing leaders, deliberately aim low and expect less from those we know to be incapable?

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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SARKOZY ON HEALTH CARE DEBATE: 'IT'S DIFFICULT TO BELIEVE'.... French President Nicolas Sarkozy, once a European darling to American conservatives, has been keeping an eye on the U.S. debate over health care. Speaking at Columbia University yesterday, the French leader expressed some astonishment at what he saw. (via Kevin Drum)

"Welcome to the club of states who don't turn their back on the sick and the poor," Sarkozy said, referring to the U.S. health care overhaul signed by President Barack Obama last week.

From the European perspective, he said, "when we look at the American debate on reforming health care, it's difficult to believe."

"The very fact that there should have been such a violent debate simply on the fact that the poorest of Americans should not be left out in the streets without a cent to look after them ... is something astonishing to us."

I imagine it's all the more astonishing when we have unemployed cancer patients expressing their opposition to improvements in the health care system because they fear government programs and benefits.

European astonishment is understandable. I've followed the debate as closely as just about anyone, and I've found it hard to believe, too.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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STEELE'S JOB SECURITY.... MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, a former conservative Republican congressman, argued yesterday that RNC Chairman Michael Steele "should resign or be fired." The sentiment didn't seem far-fetched, and Scarborough wasn't the only one expressing it.

Under different circumstances, Steele's ouster would be a no-brainer. He is, by most measures, the single worst party chair in recent memory, and has been a near-constant embarrassment to himself and his party since inexplicably winning this job 14 months ago. Steele has failed in pretty much every professional endeavor of his adult life, and this is no different.

That said, Steele probably isn't going anywhere. It's an unpredictable dynamic -- no one ever knows what Steele might do next -- but Chris Cillizza notes that the RNC chair seems to enjoy reasonable job security.

Although RNC officials were quick to point out that Steele was not in attendance at the gathering and had no knowledge of it, it makes little difference in terms of his questionable reputation among the GOP chattering class. Steele is the chairman, period. That means that anything that happens at the RNC -- good or bad -- accrues to either his credit or his detriment.

For all those wondering whether this story will be the one that forces Steele out at the RNC, remember that two-thirds of the committee men and women would have to vote him out and there is no one -- not even Steele's most bitter enemies -- who think [sic] that is a possibility. Simply put: Unless Steele resigns (not likely) or some other major revelation that links him directly to this night club incident comes out, he will be the chairman through 2010.

Any chance Steele might just quit and save himself the aggravation of infuriating his allies? I doubt it. Let's remember, it wasn't too long ago when Steele was conceding that he's "been in a little bit of trouble but I don't care." He said his Republican critics need to "shut up" and "get a life," adding, "I am in this chair. If they want it, take it from me. Until then, shut up, step back and get in the game and help us win.... Get with the program. I'm the chairman. Deal with it."

Doesn't sound like the kind of guy inclined to walk away.

As for the prospect of RNC members simply throwing him overboard, this, too, seems unlikely. Not only is a two-thirds vote a high threshold, but it's unlikely Republicans would make such a move just seven months before the midterms.

For what it's worth, I talked to one DNC official yesterday who was genuinely worried that Steele may be forced out ove this latest controversy. Dems, at this point, want Steele to remain just where he is.

They'll likely get their wish.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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INSURERS AND SICK KIDS.... The new Affordable Care Act includes provisions that prohibits private insurers from denying coverage to children with pre-existing conditions. As of a few days ago, insurance companies thought they'd found a loophole.

The new law, insurers said, would require coverage of pre-existing conditions for children covered by their family policy. But, the industry said, to get around the requirement, insurers could just stop writing insurance for sick kids altogether. That's not how policymakers interpret the new law, but industry lawyers were apparently fond of this reading.

Yesterday, Democratic officials were livid. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wrote to insurance lobbyist and AHIP president Karen Ignagni, insisting, "Now is not the time to search for non-existent loopholes that preserve a broken system." Sebelius added, "I urge you to share this information with your members and to help ensure they cease any attempt to deny coverage to some of the youngest and most vulnerable Americans."

At the same time, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also pressed the industry: "The intent of Congress to end discrimination against children was crystal clear, and as the House chairs said last week, the fact that insurance companies would even try to deny children coverage exemplifies why the health reform legislation was so vital."

Perhaps realizing that this would be an unhelpful fight -- do insurers really want to fight to deny coverage to sick children? -- the industry backed down overnight.

In a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the industry's top lobbyist said insurers will accept new regulations to dispel uncertainty over a much-publicized guarantee that children with medical problems can get coverage starting this year.

Quick resolution of the doubts was a win for Obama -- and a sign that the industry has no stomach for another war of words with a president who deftly used double-digit rate hikes by the companies to revive his sweeping health care legislation from near collapse in Congress.

"Health plans recognize the significant hardship that a family faces when they are unable to obtain coverage for a child with a pre-existing condition," Karen Ignagni, president of America's Health Insurance Plans, said in a letter to Sebelius. Ignagni said that the industry will "fully comply" with the regulations, expected within weeks.

I don't know if the resolution was the result of stern administration warnings or fear of a p.r. nightmare, but either way, it's the answer families and Democrats were hoping for.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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GETTING TO THE BOTTOM OF THE RNC'S RISQUE SPENDING.... By yesterday afternoon, the controversy surrounding the Republican National Committee's latest expense report was coming into focus, but there were some unanswered questions.

The most scandalous expenditure was, of course, the nearly $2,000 spent on "meals" at a nightclub called Voyeur West Hollywood, an establishment where "impromptu bondage and S&M 'scenes'" are "played out on an elevated platform by scantily clad performers throughout the night." The RNC insisted that Chairman Michael Steele was not directly responsible for the charge, but conceded that the party had reimbursed Erik Brown, a California-based political consultant, for the expenses.

So, why did Brown seek reimbursement from the RNC? Apparently because his evening at the risque nightclub was part of an effort to impress Republican donors.

An RNC investigation of the incident found that the Voyeur party was attended by a group of young Republicans who had been at an official party "Young Eagles" event at the Beverly Hills Hotel the same night, according to an internal memo obtained by The Washington Post. The Young Eagles is an RNC program to cultivate 30-to-40-year-olds as major future donors.

The request for reimbursement was then submitted on behalf of Brown by an unidentified RNC staffer who "was aware that this activity was not eligible for reimbursement and had been previously counseled on this very subject," according to the memo, which was written by the committee chief of staff, Ken McKay.

By late yesterday, the RNC staffer who joined Brown and the donors at the bondage nightclub had been fired. The party has also asked Brown to give the money back.

We do not yet know, however, who at the RNC signed off on the reimbursement and why.

Regardless, to put it mildly, Republican insiders are not happy. Mike DeMoss, a longtime RNC donor who served as a liaison to the evangelical community for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, told Politico, "The RNC cannot attack Democrats for how the government spends taxpayer money when it is spending Republican donor money recklessly. Recent RNC spending stories suggest a tone-deafness at best and a misappropriation of funds at worst.... Ultimately, the RNC can spend however it wishes -- it just may have less to spend the next time around."

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

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March 29, 2010

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

* Deadly attack in Russia: "Female suicide bombers set off huge explosions in two subway stations in central Moscow during the Monday morning rush hour, Russian officials said, killing more than three dozen people and raising fears that the Muslim insurgency in southern Russia was once again being brought to the country's heart." As of this afternoon, 37 deaths were confirmed, along with more than 100 who were injured.

* Afghanistan's Western-educated minister of finance reflected on his interactions yesterday with President Obama: "He asked very, very informed questions." This is the latest in the "he isn't Bush" chronicles.

* U.S. Marshals in Michigan have released mugshots of eight Hutaree militia members who were allegedly plotting an upcoming terrorist attack.

* The Obama administration's efforts to find a permanent head of the Transportation Security Administration hit another stumbling block over the weekend when Maj. Gen. Robert A. Harding, a retired Army intelligence officer, withdrew from consideration.

* Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, not only endorsed the new nuclear arms treaty with Russia, but also called for its swift ratification.

* More Democratic lawmakers face death threats, while right-wing activists target Democratic offices in Michigan and Alaska with vandalism.

* Looks like Aetna CEO Ron Williams may have a problem with the truth.

* "Race to the Top" winners were announced today, with Delaware and Tennessee winning lucrative awards.

* Good editorial on Goodwin Liu, an Obama judicial nominee to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

* Fake-census forms distributed by the Republican National Committee are now illegal.

* I'm beginning to think Gen. James T. Conway, the commandant of the Marine Corps, hates gay people.

* Paul Krugman suggests it's time to scratch Douglas Holtz-Eakin off the "shrinking list of reasonable, reasonably honest conservatives."

* Fact checking the Sunday shows.

* Is job retraining worth it?

* In the wake of several new, disgraceful sex scandals, only Fox News would ask: "Is the Media Out to Get the Pope?"

* Dear Oklahoma state Senate, watch those typos.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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THE REPUBLICAN IDEA THAT REPUBLICANS HATE.... If recent rhetoric is a reliable guide, the part of the Affordable Care Act that Republicans loathe the most is the individual mandate. For right-wing activists, it represents an unprecedented assault on liberty. For right-wing grandstanders, it represents the basis for litigation.

But as the complaints continue, it's worth keeping in mind that the mandate has long been a Republican idea. Sam Stein has this report today:

Though Republican lawmakers now vilify the individual mandate for health insurance coverage as unconstitutional, the provision has long roots in conservative health care philosophy and has been supported by such GOP presidents as Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush.

Republican administrations were among the first to embrace the concept of forcing individuals to buy coverage. Nixon -- hoping to stave off the single-payer ethos of many congressional Democrats -- explored the idea in the 1970s, though Republicans now dismiss those discussions as the byproduct of a moderate president searching for a domestic policy victory.

Less than two decades later, in what remains an unexplored chapter of health care history, a surprising supporter of the individual mandate was George H.W. Bush. According to contemporaneous reporting, Bush used "the tax system to 'encourage and empower' individuals to buy health insurance and would enact insurance market reforms that make it possible for everyone -- even if they have pre-existing health problems -- to get insurance." In short: individuals would be mandated to buy catastrophic health insurance. The cost of that coverage would be tied to income, meaning that the poorer you were, the less expensive your policy would be.

In Nixon's case, Dems thought they'd hold out for a better deal after Nixon's presidency collapsed. In Bush's case, the proposal wasn't seriously pursued. But in both instances, among conservative thinkers of the day, the notion of an individual mandate was "in vogue," including having been endorsed by the Heritage Foundation.

To clarify further, this isn't an idea Republicans were willing to tolerate in years past as part of negotiations with Dems, but rather, this was a Republican idea. They're the ones who came up with it.

Indeed, I'm thinking about creating a roster of prominent Republicans who've either endorsed the individual mandate, voted for a plan with an individual mandate, co-sponsored legislation with an individual mandate, or all of the above. The list isn't short: George H.W. Bush, Richard Nixon, John McCain, Bob Dole, Mitt Romney, Scott Brown, Orrin Hatch, Chuck Grassley, Bob Bennett, Tommy Thompson, Lamar Alexander, Lindsey Graham, and Judd Gregg, among others.

All of them have supported an individual mandate -- a provision that Republicans now believe to be an unconstitutional freedom-killer that must be eliminated for the sake of American liberty.

They couldn't have picked an idea to rally around that would have made the GOP look less silly?

Steve Benen 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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DEFINE 'SELF-INDULGENT'.... Now I remember why I stopped reading Robert Samuelson's columns.

In his latest piece, the conservative columnist argues that the money the Obama administration and congressional Democrats intend to use to pay for health care should actually be used to reduce the deficits left by Bush/Cheney, rather than extending health care coverage to 32 million Americans. As Samuelson sees it, President Obama prioritizing the needs of those 32 million people is "self- centered" and his policy initiative "self-indulgent."

Got that? If the president thinks of the needs of those who are struggling, he's necessarily thinking of himself. This is how Robert Samuelson perceives recent events.

Jon Chait is unimpressed with the argument.

"Self-indulgent" -- what an interesting phrase. Let's consider both words, starting with the end. It contains the assumption that some basic health insurance is an "indulgence," rather than a necessity. I defy anybody to make a careful study of the actual conditions of people who lack health insurance -- such as can be found in Jonathan Cohn's book "Sick" -- and come to this conclusion.

Next, there's the word "self." Self-indulgent is when you spend money to indulge yourself. The Bush tax cuts, which massively enriched George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, could be described as self-indulgent. Samuelson supported those, incidentally. President Obama and the Democrats who enacted health care reform all have insurance. Even if you consider providing basic medical care to people who lack it an "indulgence," they are not indulging themselves. They are "indulging" others.

Ezra added, "And before you think this is all about Samuelson, consider that Charles Krauthammer calls coverage 'candy.' There's an absence of empathy here that borders on a clinical disorder."

Steve Benen 3:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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STEELE'S SUSPECT SPENDING.... It seems the political story of the day is the latest headache for RNC Chairman Michael Steele. New revelations, published this morning, point to a variety of hard-to-explain spending with donor money, including nearly $2,000 at an establishment called "Voyeur West Hollywood," which is apparently "a bondage-themed nightclub featuring topless women dancers imitating lesbian sex."

The Republican National Committee is pushing back very hard today, demanding that the media understand that the initial reporting was misleading -- sure, nearly $2,000 in RNC money paid for "meals" at Voyeur West Hollywood in February, but it wasn't Steele who made the charges at the racy nightclub.

To be sure, the Republican National Committee is not known for being truth-oriented, but I'm inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt on this one. If RNC officials say Steele wasn't the one racking up big charges at the nightclub, I'll believe them until evidence suggests otherwise.

But I might offer the RNC a small tip: whether Steele was spending freely at Voyeur West Hollywood or not, these revelations are more than a little humiliating. The party can push back all it wants about the one detail it finds most damaging, but by effectively conceding that the rest of the story is entirely accurate, the RNC is nevertheless left with more questions to answer.

For example, all of this is apparently uncontested and true.

The Republican National Committee spent tens of thousands of dollars last month on luxury jets, posh hotels and other high-flying expenses, according to new Federal Election Commission filings, including nearly $2,000 for "meals" at Voyeur West Hollywood, a lesbian-themed nightclub that features topless dancers in bondage outfits.

The RNC spent more than $17,000 on private jet travel in February as well as nearly $13,000 for limousines, according to the documents. The GOP's main political committee also ran up tabs at numerous posh hotels, including the Beverly Hills Hotel ($9,000); the Beverly Wilshire Four Seasons ($6,600) and the W Hotel in Washington ($15,000), and spent more than $43,000 on its controversial midwinter meeting in Hawaii, not including airfare.

For donors who may be thinking about making contributions to the Republican National Committee, do you suppose this helps or hurts? And do you suppose it makes much difference whether the chairman was personally at Voyeur West Hollywood, or merely oversaw an office that signed off on the expenditure forms that allowed Voyeur West Hollywood to get nearly two grand in RNC donor money?

For his part, Tucker Carlson, which runs The Daily Caller site that broke this story, asks, "Why did the committee spend more than $17,000 on private jets in the month of February? How and why was RNC business conducted in a bondage-themed nightclub, and how and why were the nearly $2,000 in charges that resulted approved by RNC staff?"

Repeating the line that Steele never attended the nightclub in question doesn't make the questions go away.

Update: We now know who made the charges at the establishment in question: Erik Brown, a California-based political consultant. We don't yet know who he was with, why he sought reimbursement from the RNC, or why the RNC agreed to spend the money.

Steve Benen 3:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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THE EFFECTS OF AN EXTRAORDINARY CON.... The NYT had an interesting report yesterday about the kinds of folks who are becoming Tea Party activists, in part because of the difficult economic conditions. The piece noted that during the Great Depression, middle-class families mobilized in the hopes of getting additional support from the government and a stronger safety net.

Now, of course, we're seeing some middle-class people mobilizing for the exact opposite -- they're drowning, but they've been convinced that if the life-preserver comes from the government, they don't want it.

Reader D.D. sent me this article from the Dallas Morning News about how the Affordable Care Act would affect a variety of local families, all of whom have had difficulties with either their health care, their economic conditions, or both. One family, in particular, stood out.

Amy Townsend, 38, of Hurst was preparing last week for yet another round of treatments in her battle against breast cancer.

In addition to steeling herself for possible side effects, she and husband Jesse, 43, were preparing for the possibility that they might have to pay hundreds of dollars, up front, before radiation treatment can begin.

With both Amy and Jesse unemployed, the family buys health insurance through COBRA with a $5,500 yearly maximum for out-of-pocket expenses -- a threshold the family has not yet met. COBRA coverage generally lasts up to 18 months.

"We've got to come up with some money for next week," she said.

Though she still faces medical bills, Amy said she was against the health care act, fearing so-called death panels and government inefficiency. [emphasis added]

To be clear, I'm not picking on the Townsend family here. Amy Townsend is fighting a terrible disease, and she and her family are facing awful circumstances that I can scarcely imagine. The Townsends and people like them are one of the reasons the American Cancer Society endorsed the Democratic health care reform proposal so enthusiastically -- it stands to help folks like this who really need it.

But that's what makes the response all the more fascinating. Amy Townsend appears to have heard the right-wing propaganda, and seems inclined to believe it. "Every government program," she told the paper, "none of them work very well."

The Townsend family is, however, currently getting by on unemployment benefits (a government program), and is holding onto some coverage through COBRA (another government program), which they can afford thanks to federal subsidies (through another government program).

The point isn't to mock the Townsends or to question their judgment. The point is to appreciate the power of conservative political rhetoric in 2010. Many of those who stand to benefit from a stronger safety net have been led to believe they want a weaker one. Many of those who'll finally be able to get better care under a health care system that's been screwing them over have been convinced that they won't, or can't, benefit from reform.

And as a political matter, this poses an incredible challenge for Democrats. Here's a party that identified a problem burdening millions of families, and worked diligently to approve a solution, only to find some of those they're helping declare their opposition to the life-preserver.

The Democratic challenge is straightforward: convince folks like Amy Townsend that they just successfully fought like hell to give her a hand when she and her family need it.

Steve Benen 2:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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CANTOR RECEIVES AN ACTUAL THREAT.... Last week, I gave House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) quite a bit of grief after he talked about an instance in which he was "directly threatened." The threat, we later learned, didn't exist, and Cantor's office struggled to come up with a compelling explanation.

It's only fair, then, that I note that some sick man really did threaten Cantor and his family, though it was entirely unrelated to the incident the GOP leader had talked about.

A 33-year-old Philadelphia man was charged today with threatening to kill Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) in a profanity-strewn Youtube video that has since been pulled down.

In the video, Norman Leboon says Cantor will "receive my bullets in your office, remember they will be placed in your heads. You and your children are Lucifer's abominations."

The San Francisco office of the FBI received a copy of the video on March 26, according to the affidavit in the case.... The affidavit paints a picture of Leboon as a deeply disturbed person. When he was visited by federal agents on Saturday, he "stated that he is the 'son of the god of Enoch' and that his father speaks through him. Leboon stated that Eric Cantor is 'pure evil'; will be dead; and that Cantor's family is suffering because of his father's wrath."

He also told agents that "he had made over 2,000 videos in which he made threats."

The threatening YouTube video was reportedly posted last Wednesday, the day before Cantor's mistaken remarks about gunfire at his campaign office, before being taken down. [Update: Cantor was notified about the Leboon threat over the weekend, days after his infamous press conference remarks.]

It's unclear whether Leboon had any intention of acting on his threats, but it's nevertheless encouraging that law enforcement has him in custody.

Steve Benen 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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SUSPECTED TERRORISTS CHARGED AFTER MIDWEST RAIDS.... The details are still coming together, but based on early reports it appears that federal officials took eight members of a Michigan-based Christian militia group into custody over the weekend. According to reporting today by the NYT's Charlie Savage, these eight, and a ninth who is still at large, have been indicted on sedition and weapons charges.

Based on court filings, it is believed that the nine radicals intended to kill an unidentified law enforcement officer, and attack the funeral procession with explosives similar to those used against U.S. troops in Iraq. The goal, according to the indictment, was to create some kind of "uprising against the government."

Eight of the nine were taken into custody over the weekend in raids in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana. The extremists were identified as members of a militia group called Hutaree, which considers the U.S. government its "enemy," and which reportedly was moving forward with its plans for the attack next month.

These accounts suggest that federal officials intervened at a key moment, and prevented a devastating tragedy from taking place. Responses to terrorist attacks are important, but so are successful efforts like these to prevent the terrorist attacks from happening in the first place.

Given the recent political debates, Tim F. raises a good point.

Rightwing antiterror doctrine clearly states that we must strip these "terrorists" (no such thing as alleged in the war on terror) naked and hang them in cold cages by the wrists with their arms tied behind their backs so that the tendons tear and the shoulder joint dislocates. We should waterboard them until they confess and give up their co-conspirators (the Inquisition found waterboarding almost 100% effective! ). Without question these people should be held without any trial or access to habeas corpus petitions until the "war" against violent fundamentalist groups is over. At the very least we should shunt these guys into military tribunals where the rules have been rigged to ensure a conviction.

Of course Jonah Goldberg and Glenn Reynolds and Crittenden and Erickson and any other credentialed rightblogger will agree with what I just said. They have to.

That sounds about right. In fact, I'm genuinely curious what the reaction will be to this from some conservatives.

It appears that the Obama administration identified a group of religious radicals who consider the United States their enemy, and who have been plotting a deadly terrorist attack on American soil. Based on what's publicly available, the accused are very dangerous.

Will the Cheneys demand that they not be tried in civilian courts? Will Rudy Giuliani insist that it's too dangerous to detain the suspects on American soil? With a ninth member of the radical group still at large, will various Fox News personalities call on the president to torture the other eight for information before he/she can do something dangerous?

This may sound snarky, but it's really not intended to be. It appears that the Obama administration has captured eight suspected terrorists, and prevented a deadly attack. Putting aside whether the right would give the administration credit for stopping terrorism before it happens, will we have to endure the same inane questions from the usual suspects, or do those rules not apply when the accused are white Christians?

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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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.

* Charlie Crist is still losing to Marco Rubio in Florida's Republican Senate primary, but the latest Mason-Dixon poll puts Rubio's lead at "only" 11 points, 48% to 37%.

* Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) needed a running mate, and the state party has chosen Sheila Simon, an attorney and former city council member. Simon is perhaps best known as the daughter of former Senator Paul Simon (D).

* The primary is not until August. But Democrats in Minnesota's 6th congressional district formally endorsed state Sen. Tarryl Clark (D) over the weekend, hoping Clark can topple right-wing Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) in November.

* Many New York Republicans were delighted to recruit Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, a former Dem, to run for governor on the GOP ticket, but rank-and-file Republicans in the Empire State aren't impressed. In the latest Maris poll, Levy trails former Rep. Rick Lazio in the Republican gubernatorial primary by 36 points.

* At this point, former Sen. Lincoln Chafee (I) continues to look like the frontrunner in Rhode Island's gubernatorial race.

* Shelby County District Attorney Bill Gibbons is dropping out of Tennessee's Republican gubernatorial primary, making it a three-way contest between Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, Rep. Zach Wamp, and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.

* And speaking of dropping out, I'd completely forgotten that he was still running, but former New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith (R) was apparently trying to run for the Senate this year in Florida. Late last week, however, Smith quit, citing poor fundraising.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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THE RNC: RISQUE NATIONAL COMMITTEE.... Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, has been questioned more than once about his judgment and priorities when it comes to spending his party's money. We learned a month ago, for example, about the RNC chief spending excessively on private planes, limousines, catering, and flowers.

It didn't help when the party, hoping to have every penny it can get its hands on for the midterms, also hired Wolfgang Puck's D.C. crew to cater the RNC's Christmas party at a trendy hotspot, and moved its winter meeting from Washington to Hawaii.

But this new report from The Daily Caller has to be the most humiliating yet.

According to two knowledgeable sources, Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele once raised the possibility of using party money to buy a private jet for his travel. [...]

While Steele has not purchased a plane, he continues to charter them. According to federal disclosure records, the RNC spent $17,514 on private aircraft in the month of February alone (as well as $12,691 on limousines during the same period). There are no readily identifiable private plane expenses for Democratic National Committee chairman Tim Kaine in the DNC's last three months of filings. [...]

Once on the ground, FEC filings suggest, Steele travels in style. A February RNC trip to California, for example, included a $9,099 stop at the Beverly Hills Hotel, $6,596 dropped at the nearby Four Seasons, and $1,620.71 spent [update: the amount is actually $1,946.25] at Voyeur West Hollywood, a bondage-themed nightclub featuring topless women dancers imitating lesbian sex. [emphasis added]

Wait, what?

Yes, it appears that Michael Steele spent RNC money at "a bondage-themed nightclub featuring topless women dancers imitating lesbian sex." The party of "family values," indeed.

I wonder what the reaction would be -- from the media, from the political establishment, from the RNC -- if Tim Kaine had spent nearly $2,000 in donor money at "a bondage-themed nightclub featuring topless women dancers imitating lesbian sex."

There have already been reports in recent months about Republican donors moving away from the RNC, and towards campaign committees and preferred candidates, in part because they don't trust the party's strange chairman. This was made worse when we learned that Steele has been using his position to line his own pockets, most notably through his outside paid speeches and a book written in secret.

But these latest revelations will weaken Steele even further. Indeed, if Republicans fall short of their own sky-high expectations in the midterm elections, expect Michael Steele to receive the bulk of the blame.

Update: The RNC now claims that a "non-committee staffer," not Steele, spent the money at Voyeur West Hollywood. The RNC chairman, the party insists, was "never at the location in question."

The party has not yet disputed the other expenditures.

Steve Benen 11:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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THE MOST PROLIFIC AUTHOR OF OUR TIME.... Will Bunch, a braver man than I, attended a Glenn Beck-hosted event in Orlando over the weekend, and has a fascinating report on the deranged media personality's latest message to his followers. Of particular interest, though, was news of yet another book:

Frequently accused of relying on apocalyptic fear-mongering to build ratings and get attention, Beck provided details of the fictional political thriller that he's planning to publish in June -- called The Overton Window, according to online catalogue listings -- that will do little to dispel those complaints, as the tome will portray America sliding into a civil war.

"It's a story of America at time much like today where the people are confused and they're being lied to and they're not sure what's right-side-up and upside-down," Beck said. "And there's one part...there's a group of people that plays a role called the Founders Keepers...This leads to a battle and a civil war, and life is upside down planet-wide. There's a group of people that just won't give up."

Dave Weigel said the book "sounds like 'Atlas Shrugged' with a bit more violence, and with 9-12 Tea Partiers taking the place of underground intellectuals."

I'm also struck, though, by Beck's remarkable ability to churn out books for his minions to buy.

It started in late 2007, with "An Inconvenient Book." A year later, Beck released a Christmas book. He released his next book in June 2009, and then another in September 2009. He released an audio book in May 2009, and another audio book in February 2010. Late last year, Beck even released a photo-companion book to his Christmas book.

His novel will be out in May, followed by yet another book in August, this one on public policy.

For those keeping score, from May 2009 to August 2010 is 15 months. And over those 15 months, Glenn Beck will have published four print books, a photo book, and two audio books.

For a guy who seems to read at a third-grade level -- remember, he thinks the word "OLIGARH" is missing a "y" -- Beck may very well be America's most prolific author.

By some estimates, Beck takes in about $18 million a year. Does he really need to exploit his followers so shamelessly?

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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ODD VOICES FACING THE NATION.... CBS's Sunday morning show, "Face the Nation," offered viewers quite a line-up yesterday. The week Americans saw Democrats deliver on some historic breakthrough victories, the lead guest was Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina, arguably the Senate's most right-wing member, who had no role whatsoever in shaping any of the policies at hand.

After his interview, DeMint was followed by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) of Minnesota, arguably the House's most right-wing member, who had no role whatsoever in shaping any of the policies at hand.

The final guest was DNC Chairman Tim Kaine. When Sunday shows look for "balance," this is generally how it works.

Bachmann, who is by most measures stark raving mad, didn't disappoint. Given the national spotlight, again, the Republican extremist made a variety of ridiculous claims. To its credit, "Face the Nation" published a sort-of fact-check piece online after the program.

"[N]ow we have the federal government taking over ownership or control of 51 percent of the American economy. This is stunning. Prior to September of 2008, 100 percent of the private economy was private."

Ms. Bachmann offered no facts to back up her assertion that the government owns or controls 51 percent of the U.S. economy.

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis data since 1929, the highest percentage of government spending as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product was during World War II when government spending was 47.9 percent (in 1944). The lowest level of government spending as a percent of GDP was 9 percent in 1929 at the outset of the Great Depression.

At no time during this period was the United States' GDP 100 percent private.

Bachmann proceeded to pretend that the stimulus and the financial-industry bailout were effectively the same thing, and claimed that the New England Journal of Medicine published a survey that found American physicians planning to leave their profession in the wake of health care reform. Bachmann was wildly wrong on both counts, and the online piece made note of reality.

And as much as I give the show credit for noting the facts in a follow-up piece online, I have two related questions. First, why on earth couldn't the show's host, Bob Schieffer, know enough about the subject matter to alert viewers to reality during the interview? Bachmann's absurdities are not new; she's been repeating them constantly of late. A little pre-show research would have made it obvious what she was going to say on the air. Aren't hosts paid to prep before the interviews, and don't they have a responsibility to pushback against obvious lies?

Second, for crying out loud, why invite Michele Bachmann onto "Face the Nation" in the first place? It's not like she's proven herself to be an insightful, thoughtful, and effective federal policymaker. More accurately, she's an embarrassment to herself and the institution. Sunday shows are not supposed to be circus acts, giving microphones to the nuttiest clowns the producers can find available.

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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'STABLE CONDITION'.... As the debate over health care reform dragged on, many on the right believed the process and the underlying policy would wreak havoc on the Democratic Party's public standing. If Dems actually passed the controversial package, some conservatives claimed, the majority party would likely face a massive public backlash.

It's early, and much of the public may still be shaping its perceptions about last week's breakthroughs, but so far there is no such backlash. The Washington Post noted its new poll results today, emphasizing the fact that the reform process has left Democrats "in stable condition." The governing party hasn't seen a big boost, but it hasn't seen its fortunes decline, either.

After steering the landmark health-care reform bill through Congress, the Democratic Party's leaders have emerged mostly unscathed, according to a new Washington Post poll, but they have not received a notable boost in approval ratings.

Shifts among core constituencies suggest that President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) may have reaped some benefit from the legislation's passage, but the public's take on the Democratic Party has not budged, and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) appears to be losing popularity.

President Obama's approval rating is up a few points, to 53%, and his numbers got a boost on questions pertaining to his handling of health care reform and bringing needed change to Washington.

Looking through the internals (pdf), Democrats still enjoy an edge over Republicans on which party voters trust to do a better job on the economy, health care, immigration, Afghanistan, the budget deficit, taxes, and energy policy. Republicans, meanwhile, have an edge on handling counter-terrorism.

In nearly every category in which the Democrats are ahead, the party's margin over the GOP has slipped since last year, but if Dems are right, and the worst is behind them, they've weathered the storm fairly well.

Indeed, on the generic congressional ballot, Republicans led Democrats among registered voters in February, 48% to 45%. Now those numbers are nearly reversed in Dems' favor, 48% to 44%.

Of particular interest, the enthusiasm gap between the parties' rank-and-file voters appears to be quite small at this point. Among Dems, 74% consider themselves enthusiastic about voting this year, while 25% are no. For Republicans, 76% are enthusiastic, and 23% are not.

To be sure, these are not exactly impressive numbers for Dems, but given where they feared they'd be at the end of the reform process, many in the party are likely satisfied with results like these.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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A RECESS APPOINTMENT CASE STUDY.... Listening to the Sunday shows, it seems Senate Republicans are pretty angry that President Obama announced 15 recess appointments over the weekend. I tend to think their complaints are, at best, disingenuous, but I'd nevertheless like to hear GOP leaders defend the way Alan Bersin's nomination was handled.

Bersin was appointed to serve as the new commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, after the Senate failed to act on his nomination. James Fallows took a closer look at Bersin's background:

Bersin was an all-Ivy star football player at Harvard. Then he went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. Then he went to Yale Law School. Then he was a U.S. Attorney in California. Then he was head of a Justice Department unit overseeing US-Mexico border affairs. Then the head of the San Diego school system. Then the Secretary of Education for California, under Arnold Schwarzenegger. Recently he has been an Assistant Secretary at DHS. Last month the past three commissioners of CBP, including two from the GW Bush administration, wrote to Republican Senators asking them, please, to get Bersin into the job rather than leaving this very important agency leaderless.

Instead the Republicans placed various holds on Bersin and the others and would not bring him to a vote. Thus, good for Obama in saying, Enough.

Bersin was nominated for the post seven months ago. In the midst of Senate delays, three former Customs and Border Protection commissioners said the failure to confirm a new agency chief is a "national security concern."

And yet, an up-or-down vote on Bersin's nomination was nowhere in sight. It's hardly surprising that the president got tired of waiting.

Matt Yglesias noted that this example "is a sign of an opposition political party gone mad." Agreed. But I'm nevertheless curious to hear some of the same GOP voices whining about how "outrageous" the recess appointments are explain why the president shouldn't have installed Bersin to the job. We're talking about an overwhelmingly qualified nominee, who enjoyed bipartisan support, and whose nomination had been pending for more than seven months.

What would Republicans have Obama do? If GOP obstructionism has undermined the Senate's ability to function, why should the country's interests suffer when a legal, frequently-used alternative is available to the president?

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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March 28, 2010

OBAMA'S UNEXPECTED TRIP TO AFGHANISTAN.... The White House announced Friday afternoon that President Obama and his family would enjoy a quiet weekend at Camp David, following a busy and historic week in Washington.

That wasn't quite true.

President Obama made a surprise trip to Afghanistan on Sunday, his first visit as commander in chief to the site of the war he inherited and has stamped as his own.

Air Force One landed at nighttime at Bagram Air Base after a 13-hour nonstop flight for a visit shrouded in secrecy for security reasons; Mr. Obama quickly boarded a helicopter for the trip to Kabul, landing at the presidential palace for talks with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan.

Gen. James L. Jones, the National Security adviser, told reporters aboard the flight to Bagram that Mr. Obama would try to make Mr. Karzai "understand that in his second term, there are certain things that have not been paid attention to, almost since day one." Gen. Jones said those things included "a merit-based system for appointment of key government officials, battling corruption, taking the fight to the narco-traffickers," which, "provides a lot of the economic engine for the insurgents."

Based on early reports, this visit, kept classified until Obama's plane touched down, was hardly a photo-op. Newsweek noted, "[T]here appears to be little fanfare during the trip. The welcoming ceremony between Karzai and Obama lasted no more than 10 minutes and the meetings that will follow between the two men and their national security teams seem to be strictly business.... For Obama, there are few better ways to show you're serious than showing up at someone's door."

This is the president's second trip to Afghanistan, but his first since his election.

Though Obama's schedule is not available, he will also reportedly visit with U.S. troops before returning.

The surprise visit caps a week that's almost hard to believe. Over the last seven days, health care reform passed, a major overhaul of federal student loan programs passed, the terms of a breakthrough nuclear arms treaty with Russia were reached, and the president stopped by Afghanistan for a stern chat with Hamid Karzai.

Weeks like this don't come along often.

Steve Benen 2:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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RNC RAISES MONEY FOR HANNITY.... Former Bush speechwriter David Frum, recently fired from AEI for telling Republicans what they didn't want to hear, noted the other day, "Republicans originally thought that Fox [News] worked for us, and now we are discovering we work for Fox."

I thought of this quote when I saw the latest email sent to Republicans this morning by the Republican National Committee. This is the body of the message in its entirety. (thanks to reader C.R.)

Dear XXXX,

I wanted to let you know that I just finished reading Sean Hannity's new book, Conservative Victory: Defeating Obama's Radical Agenda. As they so often do, Sean's words left me energized for November and even more committed to making the gains necessary to bring the Obama agenda to a halt.

In the book, Sean does more than just tell us why we need to defeat the Obama Agenda. He also gives us a blueprint for getting it done. I cannot recommend it enough -- and I'm confident that, like me, you will be ready for the upcoming elections with a renewed commitment.


Michael Steele
Chairman, Republican National Committee

Just to be clear, this wasn't a personal endorsement from Steele. The email was sent to Republican donors, through the RNC, as part of an official RNC message. The email notes that it was "paid for by the Republican National Committee."

Isn't this a little odd? The RNC is using its list to urge Republicans to buy a book from an independent media personality?

I've seen appeals that tell donors if they pony up a few bucks, they can get a book as a premium, but that's not what this is. Indeed, Steele's message doesn't even ask for a donation for the party. Rather, the RNC simply wants Republicans to go buy a Fox News host's book.

When it comes to the network and the party, it appears one is an adjunct of the other, though the roles are less than clear.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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RECESS APPOINTMENTS AND THE ECONOMY.... Much of the attention surrounding President Obama's recess appointments focuses on the National Labor Relations Board, in large part because Republicans don't want labor-friendly representatives on the panel.

But Matt Yglesias highlights five of the 15 nominees who received appointments yesterday, in the hopes of emphasizing just "how absurd the level of GOP obstructionism has become."

* Jeffrey Goldstein will be Undersecretary of Treasury for Domestic Finance.

* Michael Mundaca will be Assistant Secretary of Treasury for Tax Policy.

* Eric Hirschorn will be Undersecretary of Commerce for Export Administration.

* Michael Punke will be Deputy US Trade Representative and head up the office in Geneva.

* Islam A. Siddiqui will be Chief Agricultural Negotiator, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

It's worth appreciating the fact that all five of these nominees have jobs directly related to the economy, and most of them were blocked from receiving votes in the Senate because Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) hasn't been satisfied with -- get this -- enforcement of prohibitions on internet gambling. Kyl wanted enforcement in January, the administration said June, so Kyl effectively responded, "No Treasury Department officials for you."

And so, in the midst of a global economic crisis, the United States government has endured vacancies in important offices because one right-wing senator was pouting over a six-month delay in implementing regulations on internet gambling.

There's simply no way to defend this. As former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker recently put it, "How can we run a government in the middle of a financial crisis without doing the ordinary, garden-variety administrative work of filling the relevant agencies?"

Fortunately, President Obama got tired of asking that question yesterday.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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UNAWARE OF THE CONTRADICTION.... There's an old joke that goes something like this: my neighbor went to public schools before joining the military. He went to college on the G.I. Bill, bought his first home through the FHA, and received his health care through the V.A. and Medicare. He now receives Social Security.

He's a conservative because he wants to get the government off his back.

I mention the joke because a surprising number of right-wing activists don't seem to appreciate the humor. We talked the other day, for example, about a radical libertarian activist who encourages his allies to throw bricks through the windows of Democratic offices to protest the Affordable Care Act. He hates government involvement in the lives of citizens -- but his main income is taxpayer-financed disability checks sent to him every month by the federal government.

This is not uncommon. The NYT reports today on some of the well-intention folks who've been caught up in the Tea Party nonsense. Take Tom Grimes, for example.

In the last year, he has organized a local group and a statewide coalition, and even started a "bus czar" Web site to marshal protesters to Washington on short notice. This month, he mobilized 200 other Tea Party activists to go to the local office of the same congressman to protest what he sees as the government's takeover of health care. [...]

"If you quit giving people that stuff, they would figure out how to do it on their own," Mr. Grimes said.

When Grimes lost his job 15 months ago, one of his first steps was contacting his congressman about available programs that might give him access to government health care. He receives Social Security, and is considering a job opening at the Census Bureau. But in the meantime, Grimes has filled the back seat of his Mercury Grand Marquis with literature decrying government aid to struggling Americans.

The same article noted the efforts of Diana Reimer, considered a "star" right-wing activist in her efforts against government programs, a campaign she describes as her "mission." Reimer, of course, currently enjoys Social Security and the socialized medicine that comes with Medicare.

The cognitive dissonance is rather remarkable. They perceive the government as the source of their economic distress -- which itself doesn't make sense -- and then rely on the government to give them a hand, all the while demanding that the government do less to give people a hand. Their reflexive hatred for public programs is so irrational, they don't even see the contradiction.

"After a year of angry debate," the Times article noted, "emotion outweighs fact."

That's no doubt true. But that doesn't change the fact that we're talking about a reasonably large group of people who are deeply, tragically misguided.

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? How can policymakers actually address substantive challenges while following the advice of angry mobs who reject reason and evidence?

The bottom line seem inescapable: too many Tea Party activists have no idea what they're talking about. Their sincerity notwithstanding, this is a confused group of misled people.

Steve Benen 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (95)

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CROCODILE TEARS.... A few days ago, Senate Republicans started expressing their concerns about possible recess appointments. Sure, they said, President Obama easily won his election. And sure, they noted, he had sent qualified nominees to fill key government posts. And sure, they conceded, if the Senate actually voted on these nominees, they'd be confirmed.

But, these Senate Republicans said, if the president interfered with their blind, reflexive obstructionism by making recess appointments, they were going to complain a whole lot.

And complain they did.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) pronounced himself "very disappointed" with the move, charging that it showed "once again" that the Obama administration has "little respect for the time honored constitutional roles and procedures of Congress." The president's team had "forced their will on the American people," McCain fumed in a written statement. [...]

Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell also joined in the protests of Obama's recess appointments on Saturday, calling them "stunning" and "yet another episode of choosing a partisan path despite bipartisan opposition."

The whining is cheap as it is hypocritical. It's not the president who's shown "little respect for the time honored constitutional roles and procedures of Congress" -- that's actually backwards. Obama has been reluctant to use recess appointments specifically because he wants to see the Senate do its job. But it's reactionary Republicans like McCain who prefer to ignore "time honored constitutional roles and procedures" -- such as the notion of giving qualified nominees up-or-down votes.

Also note the selective outrage. McCain was only too pleased to support George W. Bush's recess appointments, even for outrageous nominees like John Bolton. Indeed, during Bush's presidency, McCain implored the then-president to use this tactic more often. There were no bitter press releases about "time honored constitutional roles and procedures."

McConnell is hardly any better. On Fox News five years ago, McConnell not only defended recess appointments, he noted, "[T]ypically senators who are not of the party of the president don't like recess appointments."

You don't say.

In the interest of fairness and intellectual consistency, I should note that I'm still not a big fan of recess appointments. I just don't think Obama had much of a choice here.

Article II, Sec. 2, of the Constitution says, "The President shall have power to fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session." Note that it says, "the recess," not "a recess."

In the early days of the country, framers saw recesses that could last months and wanted presidents to be able to fill key positions temporarily in emergency situations without the Senate's "advice and consent." There's a lengthy break following the final adjournment for the legislative session. This is "the recess." The provision was not about giving presidents the authority to circumvent Congress when the White House felt like it.

In the modern understanding, though, any recess is an opportunity for a president to start filling vacancies with appointed officials.

If I had to guess, I'd say the president, who knows a little something about constitutional law, isn't crazy about this option, which is probably why he hasn't taken advantage of it until now

But Senate Republicans are simply out of control, and are deliberately undercutting the political process in ways that threaten to permanently undermine the institution. If they oppose the president's nominees for various posts, they're welcome to vote against them. But the GOP has taken obstructionism to comical depths -- going so far as to filibuster nominees they end up voting for anyway.

There's no reason for the White House to tolerate this. Indeed, Obama would be setting an unwelcome precedent if he did tolerate this.

If we're being honest about this, do I think using the recess power for routine, non-emergencies constitutes abuse of the option? Yes, it probably is. But the far more offensive abuse is Senate Republicans not letting the chamber vote on these nominees in the first place.

With Senate Republicans unwilling to let the chamber vote on key, qualified nominees, the White House had a straightforward choice: allow important posts to remain vacant indefinitely in the face of unprecedented obstructionism, or start embracing recess appointments. The president, I believe, chose wisely, and Republicans' crocodile tears are best left ignored.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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OBAMA'S RESPONSE TO SCANDALOUS OBSTRUCTIONISM.... It's not like Senate Republicans gave President Obama much of a choice.

The White House has sent dozens of qualified nominees to the Senate for key government posts. If given up-or-down votes, the nominees would be confirmed, so Republicans have blocked votes at a rate unseen in American history. Consider: at this point in Bush's presidency, there were five nominees pending on the Senate floor. For Obama, the number is 77.

The president had to decide whether to tolerate GOP obstructionism undermining the government's ability to function. Obama made his perspective quite clear yesterday afternoon.

President Obama, making a muscular show of his executive authority just one day after Congress left for spring recess, said Saturday that he would bypass the Senate and install 15 appointees, including a union lawyer whose nomination to the National Labor Relations Board was blocked last month with the help of two Democrats.

Coming on the heels of Mr. Obama's big victory on health care legislation, Saturday's move suggests a newly emboldened president who is unafraid to provoke a confrontation with the minority party.

Just two days ago, all 41 Senate Republicans sent Mr. Obama a letter urging him not to appoint the union lawyer, Craig Becker, during the recess. Mr. Obama's action, in defiance of the Republicans, was hailed by union leaders, but it also seemed certain to intensify the partisan rancor that has enveloped Washington.

"The United States Senate has the responsibility to approve or disprove of my nominees," Mr. Obama said in a statement. "But if, in the interest of scoring political points, Republicans in the Senate refuse to exercise that responsibility, I must act in the interest of the American people and exercise my authority to fill these positions on an interim basis."

The full list of nominees to receive recess appointments is online here. On average, the 15 nominees have waited seven months for an up-or-down vote, but Republicans have blocked them all, knowing that the will of the Senate would lead to their confirmation. This was the first time Obama has made use of this power

The president said in a statement, "I simply cannot allow partisan politics to stand in the way of the basic functioning of government."

It's worth fully appreciating the extent to which the president's move reflects deep animosity. Kevin Drum explained the context of the National Labor Relations Board move, in particular.

Years ago, after Republicans filibustered a Carter nominee to the NLRB, the two parties made a deal: the board would have three appointees from the president's party and two from the other party. So after he took office Obama nominated two Democrats and one Republican to fill the NLRB's three vacant seats and got support from a couple of Republicans on the HELP committee for the entire slate. But when it got to the Senate floor John McCain put a hold on Becker, and his nomination -- along with the others -- died.

Fast forward to today and Obama finally decides to fill the board using recess appointments. But what does he do? He only appoints the two Democrats. This is not what you do if you're trying to make nice. It's what you do if you're playing hardball and you want to send a pointed message to the GOP caucus. You won't act on my nominees? Fine. I'll appoint my guys and then leave it up to you to round up 50 votes in the Senate for yours. Have fun.

Again, the patient president seemed reluctant to go down this road, but petty Republicans just kept pushing. Yesterday, Obama pushed back.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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March 27, 2010

THE ARMS DEAL THAT ALMOST DIDN'T HAPPEN.... The Obama administration was delighted to announce the framework of a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia yesterday, but Peter Baker has a fascinating account detailing how the deal almost didn't happen.

President Obama was angry. He was on the phone with President Dmitri A. Medvedev last month to finalize a new arms control treaty with Russia, only to be confronted with new demands for concessions on missile defense. A deal that was supposed to be done was unraveling.

"Dmitri, we agreed," Mr. Obama told Mr. Medvedev with a tone of exasperation, according to advisers. "We can't do this. If it means we're going to walk away from this treaty and not get it done, so be it. But we're not going to go down this path."

Mr. Obama hung up and vented frustration. Some of his advisers had never seen him so mad. A picture taken by a White House photographer captured his grim face in that moment of uncertainty. For a year he had been trying to forge a new relationship with Russia, starting with a treaty to slash nuclear arsenals. And for a year Russia had been testing him, suspecting he was weak and certain it could roll over him.

If Mr. Obama overestimated his powers of persuasion in reaching quick agreement with the Russians, they misjudged how far they could get him to bend.

That seems to be one of the key takeaways from the long-sought treaty -- Russia wanted to test Obama, and hoped he'd buckle. Indeed, the Russians seemed to think it was likely, given the U.S. president's domestic challenges, and Obama's desire to complete the deal and move on.

"When President Obama's domestic positions were weakened in recent months and he was completely consumed in his crusade for health care reform, making all other issues irrelevant, it is surprising how much attention he kept on Start," said Sergei M. Rogov, director of the Institute for U.S. and Canada Studies in Moscow, referring to the treaty. "Even being 24-hours-a-day busy on health reform, he had a 25th hour for Start."

What Russia didn't expect is what they got -- a U.S. president who took hard lines, didn't yield, and was willing to be patient. That was true even when missile defense provisions threatened to scuttle the entire deal.

Dmitri V. Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said that the Kremlin thought Mr. Obama would back down out of eagerness to finish the treaty before coming international nuclear summit meetings.

"They believed Obama could be put under pressure and concessions could be extracted from him," Mr. Trenin said. "He needed the treaty more than the Russians in the short term."

"If you're going to continue to persist on this missile defense language, we're going to have to walk away," Obama said to his Russian counterpart, according to senior officials.

The Russians kept up the hard-line posture in private as well, and after President Obama threatened to walk away from the negotiating table if Russians continued to insist on including missile defense in the treat, White House officials say they didn't know what would happen.

Eventually Russians dropped the issue.

"At the end of the day it was a pivotal moment," the official said, suggesting that the Russians saw President Obama as someone who wasn't going to "cave."

Despite the Russians' apparent leverage, Obama didn't back down. The Russians did.

Periodically over the last few years, Obama has joked that "just because I'm skinny doesn't mean I'm not tough." I think everyone is starting to get a better sense that the boast is accurate.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is the escalating sex scandal involving the pope and the Vatican, which seems to grow increasingly more serious with each passing day.

The future Pope Benedict XVI was kept more closely apprised of a sexual abuse case in Germany than previous church statements have suggested, raising fresh questions about his handling of a scandal unfolding under his direct supervision before he rose to the top of the church's hierarchy.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope and archbishop in Munich at the time, was copied on a memo that informed him that a priest, whom he had approved sending to therapy in 1980 to overcome pedophilia, would be returned to pastoral work within days of beginning psychiatric treatment. The priest was later convicted of molesting boys in another parish.

An initial statement on the matter issued earlier this month by the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising placed full responsibility for the decision to allow the priest to resume his duties on Cardinal Ratzinger's deputy, the Rev. Gerhard Gruber. But the memo, whose existence was confirmed by two church officials, shows that the future pope not only led a meeting on Jan. 15, 1980, approving the transfer of the priest, but was also kept informed about the priest's reassignment.

These revelations coincide with new details about another Vatican sex scandal.

Top Vatican officials -- including the future Pope Benedict XVI -- did not defrock a priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys, even though several American bishops repeatedly warned them that failure to act on the matter could embarrass the church, according to church files newly unearthed as part of a lawsuit.

The internal correspondence from bishops in Wisconsin directly to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope, shows that while church officials tussled over whether the priest should be dismissed, their highest priority was protecting the church from scandal.

This is likely to get worse for the pope and the Vatican before it gets better -- if it ever gets better.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* In Gainesville, Fla., a local mayoral candidate is gay, prompting a church called the Dove World Outreach Center to erect a sign on its property reading, "No Homo Mayor." In addition to rather clumsy bigotry, tax law prohibits tax-exempt houses of worship from announcing their support or opposition to candidates for public office. Americans United for Separation of Church and State has brought the matter to the attention of the IRS.

* Stephen Colbert recently had Mary Matalin on, and Colbert pressed the Republican operative on why she wears a cross. "You know Jesus preached social justice," Colbert noted. "Makes you look like a commie." Matalin replied that Jesus "also preached, 'Teach 'em how to fish.' Not give 'em a fish, right? You don't work you don't eat." It prompted Colbert to explain, "He said 'I will make you fishers of men.' I don't think Jesus said 'if you don't work you don't eat.' I think that was Cool Hand Luke."

* Democratic House members walked out of a bipartisan prayer breakfast Thursday morning, after Republicans invited Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) to speak. Given that Neugebauer had just shouted "baby killer" during the House debate on health care, Dems were disgusted. In a letter to Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO), Dem representatives wrote, "Your last minute invitation to Rep. Randy Neugebauer to address our group at this morning's breakfast was not only irresponsible, but politically tone-deaf."

* And a right-wing political magazine, Newsmax, is apparently getting a little impatient about the second coming. It's latest cover story features a picture of Jesus with a headline that reads: "The Jesus Question: Will He Ever Return?"

Steve Benen 11:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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A 'CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER'.... It was tough to keep up with all of the over-the-top Republican rhetoric this week, but Rachel Slajda does a nice job highlighting some of the "most incendiary" remarks of the past several days. In particular, she flagged a written statement from Rep. Todd Akin (R) of Missouri, which I hadn't seen:

"Today Americans are reacquainted with the danger of an arrogant all powerful government, a deadly enemy within, a clear and present danger in Washington.

"In spite of nationwide opposition socialized medicine is being forced down our throats. That medicine is toxic to freedom. But freedom dies hard in America.

"I do not believe that the majority of Americans will submit passively to the gold chains of socialism."

Now, regular readers may recall that Akin is known for occasionally making deranged remarks in public. But if anyone's wondering why some right-wing extremists might feel compelled to consider violence, it may have something to do with the extraordinarily stupid and irresponsible rhetoric coming from the likes of Todd Akin.

He did, after all, put in writing his belief that leaders of the United States government can be characterized as an "enemy."

I'm especially interested in that "clear and present danger" phrase. Lawyers and/or historians are welcome to weigh in here, but as I recall, that's a legal standard used to allow the government to restrict Americans' speech.

Does Todd Akin believe those he disagrees with should be silenced?

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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THE PROSPECT OF RECESS APPOINTMENTS.... Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), just as an institutional matter, has generally frowned upon recess appointments. Reid wants to see the Senate do its job and give nominees up-or-down votes, rather than have the White House circumvent the Senate altogether.

But in the face of scandalous Republican obstructionism, Reid has decided some recess appointments are necessary. The Majority Leader "has decided that enough is enough and would support such a move," spokesman Jim Manley said late Friday. In particular, Reid has told White House officials that he would endorse President Obama appointing Craig Becker and Mark Pearce to fill two longstanding vacancies on the National Labor Relations Board.

"Harry doesn't like it, but he'll tolerate it for the NLRB guys," a senior Democrat said.

Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin want the president to go even further, using recess appointments to advance dozens of pending nominees.

The right has a different perspective.

Despite the inability to move on those nominations, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl said the GOP would react "very strongly" if Obama bypasses the upper chamber and installs appointees without its blessing.

"They've already broken a lot of rules and traditions around here to try to ram health care through with the sort of arrogance of power," Kyl told POLITICO. "If they were to do that, it would make it very difficult to have bipartisan cooperation."

Reminded of George W. Bush's recess appointments, Kyl said, "It has to be done very sparingly" and should not be done on controversial nominees such as Becker.

Kyl is one of the Senate's dimmest bulbs, and his threat of withholding "bipartisan cooperation" if the president uses his recess-appointment power is almost comically silly.

Nevertheless, here are a few relevant details Kyl may want to consider:

1. Health care reform passed through an entirely legitimate process. No rules were broken, no traditions were ignored. In short, Kyl doesn't have the foggiest idea what he's talking about. The only tradition that's been ignored of late is the one that allows the Senate to vote on legislation, and it's Kyl's party that is ignoring the way the Senate used to, and was designed to, operate.

2. Recess appointments aren't exactly new, at least not in recent years. Clinton made 139 during his two terms, and Bush made 179. Obama's total thus far? Zero. Two recess appointments, in this context, hardly constitutes "arrogance of power."

3. A majority of the Senate supports both Becker and Pearce. Kyl and his GOP cohorts want the president to ignore the will of the Senate -- while demanding that Obama honor "the will of the Senate."

4. Kyl considered Becker "controversial," and thus ineligible for a recess appointment. But Bush used recess appointments on extremists like Charles Pickering and John Bolton, and did so with Kyl's blessing.

I don't doubt that Kyl & Co. will whine incessantly if President Obama uses his authority on this, but the truth is, they're going to whine incessantly anyway.

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

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RNC SLAPS AWAY 'CIVILITY' OUTREACH.... After a week featuring some overheated rhetoric and actual right-wing violence, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine decided to reach out to Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele about issuing a joint statement condemning all politically-motivated threats directed at officials.

The draft text of the statement says that while Steele and Kaine disagree on the health care bill, they would "together call on elected officials of both parties to set an example of the civility we want to see in our citizenry" and ask "all Americans to respect differences of opinion, to refrain from inappropriate forms of intimidation, to reject violence and vandalism, and to scale back rhetoric that might reasonably be misinterpreted by those prone to such behavior."

DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse told reporters that Kaine sent the letter to Steele [Friday] and then phoned him asking the chairman to release a joint bipartisan statement "condemning the threats and acts of vandalism over the past week, calling for an end to such tactics and urging a more civil tone in our politics."

The outreach was not limited to the chairmen. The DNC's executive director and communications director also reached out to their RNC counterparts about the value of a joint statement that might help send a signal about the civil discourse.

Republicans refused. RNC Communications Director Doug Heye said Steele rejected the draft statement because "we don't need to do anything on their schedule or on their timetable."

What a surprise.

We are, after all, talking about an RNC that recently put together a fundraising presentation filled with donor insults, offensive caricatures, and an admission that the party will rely on little more than "fear" to win. In the wake of the health care breakthrough, the RNC is desperate to make right-wing activists as angry and agitated as possible -- which is why Michael Steele is describing the Affordable Care Act as "Armageddon" and demanding to see Speaker Pelosi on "the firing line."

What possible value would the RNC see in a joint statement intended to lower the temperature?

To be sure, I'm not convinced a joint statement of civility would make much of a difference. For nutjobs inclined to spit at members of Congress, cut gas lines, make death threats, hurl bricks through windows, and send faxes with nooses, party leaders urging a respectful tone in American politics would likely be ignored.

But prominent figures can set an example and establish a tone. Steele no doubt understands this, which is why he didn't hesitate to ignore the DNC's request.

Steve Benen 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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CODA ON CANTOR.... We seem to have come to an end on the story of House Minority Whip Eric Cantor's (R-Va.) magic bullet, with the GOP leader's office acknowledging yesterday that Cantor's claim, repeated to a national audience, wasn't true.

The Minority Whip's remarks didn't leave a lot of wiggle room: "Just recently I have been directly threatened: A bullet was shot through the window of my campaign office in Richmond this week."

Despite some unusually stupid "journalism" in the wake of the claim, practically every angle of Cantor's story was wrong. There was no threat; the bullet was fired randomly; and it wasn't even Cantor's campaign office.

So, Cantor was either shamelessly, blatantly lying, or he was popping off about a harmless incident without getting his facts straight. Yesterday, his aides went with Door #2.

[Cantor spokesperson Brad Dayspring] says Cantor didn't know at the time of the presser what the police subsequently revealed. He says that before the presser, Cantor aides called the police to learn what was known.

"We didn't want to catch them by surprise, we wanted an update on the investigation, and we wanted to be 100 percent accurate," Dayspring says, adding that the trajectory of the bullet was not discussed: "What was known at the time was that a bullet had been fired through the window and that the investigation was ongoing."

Police put out their press statement later in the afternoon, under intense media pressure.

For what it's worth, I'm inclined to believe most of this. Cantor isn't very bright, but even I find it hard to believe he would know the relevant details and then deliberately, brazenly lie on national television about something like this.

But the defense doesn't exactly make Cantor look good, either. The Minority Whip was so anxious to make it seem like violent threats are a problem for "both sides" that he, ahem, jumped the gun. He didn't really know what he was talking about, but he nevertheless told reporters and Americans about a "threat" that didn't exist. Many media outlets even bought into Cantor's claim at face value, assuming he wouldn't say something like this if it weren't true. For that matter, for a media desperate to characterize every ugly phenomenon as "bipartisan," Cantor gave journalists what they wanted.

But it wasn't true. Given the larger atmosphere, and the actual violence that's already occurred, people in Cantor's position have a responsibility not to be reckless with the truth. It's a responsibility Cantor clearly and conveniently forgot at an important moment.

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

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HEATING UP.... As ridiculous as it sounds, cold weather and snowfall during the winter has apparently made it less likely the Senate will vote on a new energy/climate bill. Mind-numbing though it may be, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) recently said snowfall in D.C. has had an effect on policymakers' attitudes: "It makes it more challenging for folks not taking time to review the scientific arguments."

But in Grown-Up Land, the data is worth acknowledging.

It will probably come as a surprise to most Americans, but the winter just finished was the fifth-warmest on record, worldwide.

Sure, nearly two-thirds of the country can dispute that from personal experience of a colder-than-normal season.

But while much of the United States was colder than usual, December-February -- climatological winter -- continued the long string of unusual warmth on a global basis.

And parts of the United States did join in, with warmer-than-normal readings for the season in New England and the Pacific Northwest. Indeed, Maine had its third-warmest winter on record, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports.

Of course, a few too many Republican policymakers believe all scientific data is part of an elaborate conspiracy/plot, and deserves to be rejected. Told that this winter was one of the warmest eve recorded, James Inhofe and Fox News personalities will very likely respond, "Don't be foolish; didn't you see the snow?"

There are still some hopes that Congress may act before the end of the year on something related to climate change, but those hopes are fading. What's more, if the GOP makes meaningful gains in the midterm elections, it may be many years before Congress even tries to limit emissions and combat global warming, even as the threat of the crisis grows more intense.

The environmental consequences are likely to be severe and unforgiving.

Steve Benen 8:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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March 26, 2010

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

* Election results in Iraq: "The former interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite once derided as an American puppet, galvanized the votes of Sunnis who sat out Iraq's first national elections and clawed his way back from political obscurity. But his wafer-thin edge of 91 to 89 over his nearest rival, the incumbent prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, falls far short of the majority of 163 of the 325 seats in parliament that he needs to form a government."

* Uh oh: "A South Korean naval ship sank early Saturday after an explosion tore a hole in its bottom near a disputed sea border with North Korea. The cause of the explosion was not clear, and the Seoul government did not blame North Korea for the incident."

* Campaign-finance ruling: "A federal appeals court on Friday handed another victory to conservative opponents of campaign-finance restrictions, striking down limits on individual contributions to independent groups who want to use the money for or against candidates in federal elections."

* Welcome changes to the Home Affordable Modification Program and the Federal Housing Administration program: "The Obama administration announced new ways Friday to tackle the foreclosure crisis, in part by requiring lenders to temporarily slash or eliminate monthly mortgage payments for many borrowers who are unemployed."

* Senate Republicans did what they do best: they blocked an extension of unemployment benefits.

* House Minority Whip Eric Cantor's (R-Va.) spokesperson tries to explain why the GOP leader got the story of the magic bullet so very, very wrong this week.

* The closer one looks at the right's health care claims, the more one realizes conservatives are practically allergic to honest debate.

* In Tennessee, a man named Harry Weisiger apparently saw a stranger with an Obama-Biden bumper sticker, and proceeded to lose his mind.

* Fact-checking Joe Scarborough's claim that the Affordable Care Act represents "largest tax increase in history." (Hint: he's lying.)

* Despite foolish rumors to the contrary, members of Congress and their staffs must enroll in the new insurance exchanges created by the ACA. They did not "exempt" themselves, no matter what your emails from your crazy uncle say.

* On a related note, no, the IRS will not be auditing people to see if they have health insurance.

* Ever get the feeling that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) just isn't well?

* Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) is coming on strong as one of Congress' nuttier members.

* How much student debt is too much?

* When we reported about the need for a beefed up rail corridor to ease truck traffic on 1-81, we were ahead of the curve.

* And on his Fox News show, Glenn Beck decried "using the politics of fear." Seriously.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... Going into this week, most of the Obama administration's key accomplishments seemed to come from the first half of the first year. It's not that the president hadn't scored some big wins -- the stimulus, the budget, counter-terrorism successes, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a credit card holders' bill of rights, new regulations of the tobacco industry, a national service bill, a Supreme Court nominee, the largest land conservation law in nearly two decades, defense procurement reform -- it's that there hadn't been any breakthroughs in quite a while.

With this in mind, this week has a the capacity to be a game-changer.

After signing healthcare reform into law, agreeing to a new nuclear arms reduction treaty and moving forward with financial reform, President Barack Obama will spend the weekend at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md.

And top White House aides say, "He knows he has" earned it.

"Best week we've had in a long damn time," one senior administration official told The Hill. [emphasis added]

When you pass health care reform after 100 years of trying, complete the most significant nuclear arms treaty in decades, and complete a major overhaul of federal student loan programs, folks in the West Wing can walk with a bit of a spring in their step.

It's worth keeping in mind that a breakthrough week like this doesn't necessary create a new political landscape, at least not right away. Patrick Ruffini predicted earlier this week that the tracking polls would show President Obama's approval ratings around 58% or 59% by today.

That hasn't happened. Using Gallup data as a guide, over the last two weeks, there's been a swing in the president's direction, but it's been modest. Approval is up a few points over the last two weeks, and disapproval is down a few points, but the shift has been gradual. The victories we've seen this week are historic, but the "bounce" isn't dramatic. (The polls don't include news on the new arms treaty, but I'd be surprised if a foreign policy succes like this changed the domestic political equation much.)

But as a political matter, a week like this one changes the trajectory, and its victories are the kinds of breakthroughs that can pay electoral dividends far into the future.

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

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GIVING VOTERS A REASON.... The notion of an "enthusiasm gap" between Democratic and Republican voters has been apparent for several months, but I think it came into sharper focus last November. A Research 2000 poll conducted for Daily Kos added a question to its usual mix for the first time: "In the 2010 Congressional elections will you definitely vote, probably vote, not likely vote, or definitely will not vote?"

Markos Moulitsas described the results as "shocking," and they were. At the time, 81% of self-identified Republican voters were either "definitely" or "probably" voting in the midterm elections, while only 14% were not inclined to participate. Among self-identified Democratic voters, 56% were either "definitely" or "probably" voting, while 40% were unlikely to go to the polls.

That, of course, is a recipe for Democratic disaster. While generic-ballot tests tend to show the parties at near parity, it's just as important to consider which party's voters actually intend to show up at the ballot box. If Dems are feeling depressed and disappointed, while Republican voters are feeling motivated and excited, the Democratic majority will disappear.

It's interesting, then, to see the gap narrow this week. Markos had this report today, taking a look at the new data:

Three weeks ago, 40 percent of Democrats were likely or definitely going to vote, compared to 51 percent of Republicans -- an 11 point "intensity gap". Two weeks ago, as the battle for health care reform heated up, and GOP obstructionism came in full view, the numbers were 45 percent for Democrats, 56 percent for Republicans -- both sides equally riled up.

This week, the numbers are 55 percent for Democrats, 62 percent for Republicans. While both sides saw big spikes in their numbers, Democrats were particularly energized, with that intensity gap narrowing from 11 points to a far more manageable seven.

We said it all along -- give us a reason to get excited and fight, and Democrats will get excited and itch for a fight.

Notice, Republican numbers bumped up, too. There's little doubt that the rank-and-file GOP is feeling motivated. Of course, we already knew that.

The key, though, is that Democrats, as they see their leaders starting to succeed, are deciding to start getting back in the game.

The more Dems can maintain some enthusiasm among its voters, the better they'll fare in November. That means getting the job done on Wall Street reform, repealing DADT, tackling an energy/climate bill, and getting to work on immigration.

Five months ago, it looked like Democratic policymakers were going to crush the hopes of its supporters, and ruin their re-election chances in the process. It's still an uphill climb, but success begets success.

Steve Benen 3:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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ENSIGN FEELS SORRY FOR HIMSELF.... Republican Sen. John Ensign's (Nev.) humiliating sex scandal doesn't get a lot of media attention, but it's becoming a very big deal, including an ongoing FBI investigation that produced subpoenas for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

But as far as the disgraced, hypocritical, right-wing senator is concerned, he's gotten a bad rap. In fact, Ensign believes he's been the victim of "gotcha" journalism.

The Nevada Republican made the charge as he was being asked whether he's been subpoenaed in a grand jury probe into the aftermath of his affair. Instead of answering that question, he descended into an extended rebuke of the press -- including POLITICO -- for the way it has covered the scandal surrounding him.

"Seeking of the truth should be not only part of the Justice Department and part of our judicial system, but also should be ... a goal of reporters today," Ensign said. "Unfortunately, too much of our press is ... (1) biased or (2) just about 'gotcha.'" [...]

Ensign has insisted that he complied with the law and with Senate ethics rules, and he suggested Wednesday that the press is out to get him.

"Whether it's Republican or Democrat, it's about nailing somebody," Ensign said.

And if there's one senator who knows all about nailing somebody, it's John Ensign.

Look, for the senator to claim to be a victim is ridiculous. If anything, the media has gone unbelievably easy on this guy. Despite recent revelations and subpoenas, the Washington Post, for example, hasn't run an article about Ensign's scandal in months. News outlets that couldn't get enough of Eric Massa (and John Edwardse, and Eliot Spitzer) haven't even mentioned Ensign's sordid affair.

If you're just joining us, Ensign's humiliation came to public attention last June, when we learned the conservative, "family-values" senator carried on a lengthy extra-marital relationship with one of his aides, who happened to be married to another one of his aides. Ensign's parents tried to pay off the mistress' family.

The scandal grew far worse in October, when we learned that the Republican senator pushed his political and corporate allies to give lobbying contracts to his mistress's husband. When Douglas and Cynthia Hampton left Ensign's employ -- because, you know, the senator was sleeping with Cynthia -- Ensign allegedly took steps to help them make up the lost income, leaning on corporate associates to hire Douglas as a lobbyist. Emails surfaced this month that bolstered the allegations.

The controversy features the immediate affair, plus alleged ethics violations, hush money, and official corruption. An ongoing FBI investigation appears to be heating up, and by some accounts, expanding.

And yet, no media frenzy. No reporters staked out in front of Ensign's home. No op-eds speculating about the need for Ensign to resign in disgrace.

"Gotcha" journalism? Please. If Ensign were a Democrat, he would have been forced from office months ago.

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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I JUST DON'T GET SCOTT BROWN.... The poor guy is on TV all the time, but he just seems in over his head. (via Gerry Canavan)

Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., said today it's time to "collectively fix this [health care] bill" and that he's prepared to lead the charge to do just that.

"We're all in favor of the catastrophic care coverage and coverage for children," Brown told "Good Morning America." "But what about the backroom deals? What about all the bad things?"

What a garbled mess. "All" Republicans are "in favor" of some key provisions in the bill? That's very nice, except those same provisions would be scrapped if Republicans repeal the Affordable Care Act, as Brown's party is currently promising to do. Besides, if there was unanimous GOP support for those provisions, Brown's party kept this little detail carefully under wraps during the policy debate itself.

As for the "backroom deals," this weak tea is getting weaker all the time. For one thing, deal-making has been part of every major piece of legislation in American history. For another, the Senate approved a reconciliation package yesterday that removed the more notorious "backroom deals" from the package -- and Brown voted to leave the deals in.

"What about all the bad things?" That's profound, to be sure, but like everything else involving Scott Brown, it's noticeably short on substance and meaning.

He took at shot at President Obama's reaction to Republican plans to try to repeal the the health care reform bill.

"If they want to have that fight, I welcome that fight…My attitude? Go for it," the president told a rally on Thursday.

"I believe the president's rhetoric is inappropriate," Brown told "GMA."

Hmm. Prominent members of Brown's own party are using truly insane rhetoric about the ACA, telling all kinds of lies and whipping an agitated right-wing base into a sometimes-violent frenzy, but Scott Brown finds "go for it" to be "inappropriate."

Republicans sure do pick strange people as heroes.

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

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SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT ON TERROR PROSECUTIONS.... Whenever Republicans or their allies get hysterical about federal officials trying accused terrorists in the U.S. justice system, the Obama administration has a compelling retort: we're just doing what Bush/Cheney did.

Indeed, several weeks ago, administration officials began using a specific number: more than 300 suspected terrorists have already gone through the civilian court system -- with nary a complaint from Republicans.

Incredulous, far-right lawmakers and personalities have concluded that the number must be the result of Obama administration deception. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the Judiciary Committee's top Republican, called the number "unsubstantiated" and questioned its validity. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) called the number "disingenuous." National Review called the figure "bogus." Dana Perino concluded, "The 300 number is as false as false gets."

Both sides can't be right. Either Bush/Cheney did this or it didn't. Either Obama's detractors are right or wrong. Care to guess which side of the dispute is telling the truth?

An extensive new chart compiled by the Obama Justice Department, drawing on Bush administration records, shows hundreds of terror suspects have been convicted in civilian courts -- directly contradicting claims by Bush/Cheney officials to the contrary. [...]

[I]n its most comprehensive pushback to date, the Justice Department has produced a detailed accounting of hundreds of such prosecutions in chart form. It was sent over by a source and can be viewed right here.

I'm trying to think of the last time the right came up with criticism of Obama related to national security that proved to be accurate. I can't think of anything.

Between lies and errors of fact and judgment, this is a crowd that has an uninterrupted track record of failure. Dems, in general, still seem hesitant about engaging on national security, even if that means hanging the White House out to dry, but the truth is, this is one of the Republicans' weakest issues.

That the conventional wisdom suggests otherwise is a result of media laziness and Democratic reluctance.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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ONE INCIDENT IS REAL, ONE IS NOT.... Arguably this week's most dangerous instance of Tea Party extremism involves Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.). Right-wing activists posted what they thought was the congressman's home address, but it turned out to be the address of his brother's house. That detail didn't stop someone from going to the home and, according to the FBI, deliberately severing a gas line.

Today, however, the Washington Post editorial page drew a parallel between the Perriello incident and "the bullet fired through a window of Mr. Cantor's campaign office."

And this is why the Washington Post editorial board makes me sad.

To be sure, I can understand why the Post might be confused. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House Minority Whip, told reporters in a nationally televised news conference yesterday:

"I've received threats since I assumed elected office -- not only because of my position, but also because I'm Jewish. I've never blamed anyone in this body for that.

"Just recently I have been directly threatened: A bullet was shot through the window of my campaign office in Richmond this week."

The remarks generated some strikingly irresponsible "journalism." Fox News told viewers about the incident in which a "gunman shoots up" the office of the Republican House leader.

At this point, here's what we know about Cantor's tall tale (details that were available yesterday, and which the WaPo editorial board should have considered before publishing):

1. Cantor was never threatened. In fact, local police believe the bullet had been fired in the air, and ended up hitting a window at random.

2. It wasn't Cantor's campaign office.

3. The office was not "shot up." According to a statement from the Richmond Police Department, "The round struck with enough force to break the windowpane but did not penetrate the window blinds. There was no other damage to the room."

Taken together, what Cantor told reporters -- and the entire country -- was clearly false. When he said he was "directly threatened," Cantor was either shamelessly, blatantly lying, or he was popping off about a harmless incident without getting his facts straight.

It's a credibility-killing moment for the Minority Whip, or at least it would be if major media outlets were willing to consider the veracity of his claim. At this point, Cantor has a responsibility to apologize and/or retract his bogus claim.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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

* With Massachusetts' increasingly strange Sen. Scott Brown (R) refusing to retract or apologize for his bizarre remarks about Rachel Maddow possibly running against him, the MSNBC host took out a full-page ad in the Boston Globe today.

* In Arkansas, a new Research 2000 poll shows incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln leading Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in a Democratic primary, 44% to 31%. But in general election match-ups, Lincoln currently trails all five GOP candidates, and Halter looks stronger.

* In related news, Lincoln continues to distance herself from labor unions, but "documents show Lincoln aggressively sought the support of these 'Washington D.C. unions' several months ago --undercutting her derision for them."

* In the state of Washington, a Research 2000 poll shows incumbent Sen. Patty Murray (D) with surprisingly strong, double-digit leads over her three most credible Republican challengers, Dino Rossi, Dave Reichert, and Don Benton.

* In an interesting twist in Kentucky's Democratic Senate primary, state AG Jack Conway is hitting Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo for opposing health care reform.

* With Rep. Dennis Moore (D-Kan.) retiring this year, Kansas Democrats have been searching for a top-tier candidate. They found one: Dennis Moore's wife, Stephene.

* In South Florida, congressional candidate Corey Poitier, an African-American Republican running in a heavily Democratic district, referred to President Obama this week as "Buckwheat."

* And believe it or not, Rick Santorum continues to pursue a presidential campaign.

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

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U.S., RUSSIA AGREE TO NEW NUCLEAR ARMS TREATY.... Breakthroughs like these do not come often.

Shortly after concluding a phone call with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, President Obama made a surprise visit to the White House briefing room to hail the new arms control agreement with Russia, replacing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) treaty that expired on December 5th.

"I'm pleased to announce that after a year of intense negotiations, the United States and Russia have agreed to the most comprehensive arms control agreement in nearly two decades," the president said from the press podium.

Negotiations on the new START treaty with Russia have been worked on intensely for the past year. Mr. Obama said today it had been one of his highest priorities since taking office.

"It cuts -- by about a third -- the nuclear weapons that the United States and Russia will deploy," Obama said describing the agreement. "It significantly reduces missiles and launchers. It puts in place a strong and effective verification regime. And it maintains the flexibility that we need to protect and advance our national security, and to guarantee our unwavering commitment to the security of our Allies."

The treaty will still have to be ratified by the Senate, where it will need 67 votes. Administration officials emphasized this morning that they've been in frequent communication with lawmakers from both parties during the talks with Russia, and they're confident of "strong, bipartisan" support for the agreement.

As for Medvedev needing approval from the Duma, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered to send Rahm Emanuel to Moscow to help whip up some votes. She was kidding. I think.

President Obama will reportedly sign the treaty in two weeks at an event in Prague.

As for the larger context of the Obama presidency, can you believe this week? A historic success on health care, a successful overhaul of federal student loan programs, and a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia -- all in the span of four days?

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that we won't hear any more talk about the president "lacking accomplishments" for quite a while.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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THE LIMITS OF AN EXTREME IDEOLOGY.... The Washington Post ran a profile of Mike Vanderboegh, a 57-year-old former militiaman from Alabama, who disapproves of the new Affordable Care Act. Vanderboegh, who describes himself as a "Christian libertarian" and has been part of various clandestine militia groups, has been encouraging those who agree with him to throw bricks through the windows of Democratic offices nationwide.

It's about what you'd expect from someone like this, and Vanderboegh is unapologetic about his extremism. In his interview with the Post, he makes multiple references to people who "are armed and are capable of making such resistance possible and perhaps even initiating a civil war."

Given the threat of domestic terrorism, all of this is disconcerting, to be sure. But Josh Marshall flags the punch-line from the profile:

Vanderboegh said he once worked as a warehouse manager but now lives on government disability checks. He said he receives $1,300 a month because of his congestive heart failure, diabetes and hypertension.

I see. So, Vanderboegh has a physical ailment, so instead of working, he's turned to the government to supply him with a modest income. Whether Vanderboegh appreciates the irony of a radical libertarian, who demands that a small government leave people alone, getting taxpayer-financed checks from the government not to work, is unclear.

But reading this, I'm reminded of the recent scene in Ohio, in which Tea Party activists berated a man with Parkinson's. A conservative told the ailing man, "You're looking for a hand-out, you're in the wrong end of town. Nothing for free over here, you have to work for everything you get." Another conservative, after mocking the man with wadded bills, shouted, "No more hand-outs!"

To be clear, I don't doubt that Vanderboegh is entitled to government benefits. To my mind, there's nothing at all wrong with federal programs that provide assistance to those who can't work for medical reasons. I support such efforts enthusiastically.

But Vanderboegh and his compatriots seem to think my approach represents radical "big government," which necessarily needs to be curtailed to promote and defend "liberty." Indeed, for those right-wing activists in Ohio, government disability checks are, by definition, "hand-outs."

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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AN INTERNATIONAL BOOST.... Laura Rozen and Ben Smith had a great piece the other day reflecting on what President Obama's victory on health care reform may mean for his global standing. Reuters has a related piece today, which agrees that the Leader of the Free World likely got an international boost from his domestic success.

President Barack Obama's domestic success on healthcare reform may pay dividends abroad as the strengthened U.S. leader taps his momentum to take on international issues with allies and adversaries.

More than a dozen foreign leaders have congratulated Obama on the new healthcare law in letters and phone calls, a sign of how much attention the fight for his top domestic policy priority received in capitals around the world. [...]

[T]he perception of increased clout, after a rocky first year that produced few major domestic or foreign policy victories, could generate momentum for Obama's agenda at home and in his talks on a host of issues abroad.

It's best not to overstate this, of course. It's not as if foreign policy challenges will suddenly start producing resolutions, just because the U.S. president delivered on his top domestic policy priority.

But on the international stage, stature matters. Even the Bush/Cheney national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, agreed that the legislative breakthrough can make a difference: "It shows political strength, and that counts when dealing with foreign leaders."

Obama's deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes added, "It sends a very important message about President Obama as a leader... The criticism has been: (He) sets big goals but doesn't close the deal. So, there's no more affirmative answer to that criticism than closing the biggest deal you have going."

Today, for example, the United States and Russia are poised to announce an agreement on a new nuclear arms treaty, creating a successor to START. Reuters noted that Russia has been "watching Obama's domestic successes and failures throughout the process."

"I think there were some in the Kremlin saying, 'how strong is he? If he can't get some of these things through, does that give us more leverage to push him on arms control?'" said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

As we talked about the other day, global players base their U.S. interactions, at least in part, on their perceptions of presidential standing. If the American head of state is perceived as weak -- faltering domestic support, stalled legislative agenda -- friend and foe alike will take those cues seriously. If the chief executive is perceived as strong, that matters, too.

And at this point, President Obama's stature is on the rise.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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WHEN EVEN A HACK MANAGES TO EMBARRASS HIMSELF.... Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah has been nearly as shameless as anyone in making ridiculous and demonstrably false claims about health care policy. But last night, he may have reached a new low. I knew he was a partisan hack, but this one managed to surprise me.

After hearing Hatch complain about the individual mandate, CNN's Campbell Brown noted that he endorsed the identical idea in 1993. "Well," Hatch replied, "in 1993, we were trying to kill Hillary-care, and I didn't pay any attention to that, because that was part of a bill that I just hadn't centered on."

In other words, Hatch endorsed a policy he didn't understand, simply to kill a piece of legislation he also didn't understand. The senator, who's been on the Hill for more than a generation, admitted, on national television, that he promoted an idea that he didn't "pay any attention to," simply as part of a larger ploy.

Mark Halperin, who isn't exactly known for taking a hard line against Republicans, characterized Hatch's on-air remarks as "breathtaking cynicism." It is, indeed.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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THE OTHER REFORM BREAKTHROUGH.... Under normal circumstances, a major overhaul of federal student loan programs would be a historic victory in its own right. The idea, decades in the making, was, after all, the centerpiece of President Obama's education agenda, and appeared stalled in the Senate.

But two weeks ago, Democratic lawmakers agreed to include the student-loan overhaul in the health care reconciliation package. And with that, we're getting two historic reform victories at the same time.

Ending one of the fiercest lobbying fights in Washington, Congress voted Thursday to force commercial banks out of the federal student loan market, cutting off billions of dollars in profits in a sweeping restructuring of financial-aid programs and redirecting most of the money to new education initiatives. [...]

Since the bank-based loan program began in 1965, commercial banks like Sallie Mae and Nelnet have received guaranteed federal subsidies to lend money to students, with the government assuming nearly all the risk. Democrats have long denounced the program, saying it fattened the bottom line for banks at the expense of students and taxpayers.

"Why are we paying people to lend the government's money and then the government guarantees the loan and the government takes back the loan?" said Representative George Miller, Democrat of California and chairman of the Education and Labor Committee.

What a good question. I'm glad we won't have to ask it anymore.

Republicans, of course, were outraged about passage of the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA), largely because bank lobbyists told them to be. The same GOP lawmakers who demand cost savings, improved efficiency, and streamlined government programs, nevertheless fought like hell to kill a common-sense idea that achieves those very goals.

They lost. The result is a new law that provides "a huge infusion of money to the Pell grant program and ... new help to lower-income graduates in getting out from under crushing student debt." The savings to taxpayers are expected to total about $61 billion over 10 years.

Kevin Drum added, "This is, to coin a phrase, sort of a big effin deal. The student loan program has been a disgrace for a long time, essentially insuring a fat stream of profits to banks by allowing them to make risk-free loans thanks to guarantees from Uncle Sam. It was a pretty nice racket while it lasted."

Update: An alert reader reminds me that CNN recently polled on student-loan reform, and found that 64% expressed support for the Democratic proposal. Even a slight majority of Republicans favored the idea.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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THE FINISHING TOUCH.... After a painfully long, arduous process, Congress completed its work on health care reform last night. I know, I find it hard to believe , too.

Several hours after the Senate voted 56 to 43 to approve a reconciliation package, the House voted 220 to 207 to pass an identical measure. The combined total of Republican votes in support of reform in both chambers: zero.

The bill now goes to President Obama, who will likely sign it into law today -- though probably with far less fanfare than Tuesday's historic bill-signing ceremony.

By any reasonable measure, this package of amendments -- often called the "sidecar" -- makes a good bill better. The reconciliation fix improves subsidy rates for the middle class, delays implementation (and alters eligibility) of the excise tax, closes the Medicare "donut hole," and requires insurers to allow young adults to remain on their parents' insurance policies until they're 26.

And with that, the most ambitious and most important domestic policy initiative in nearly a half-century -- after a few too many obituaries -- is complete. Back in December, Jon Chait described the Affordable Care Act as "the greatest social achievement of our time" and "the most significant American legislative triumph in at least four decades." I agree wholeheartedly.

And now we have one last phrase to use to describe health care reform: law of the land.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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March 25, 2010

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

* Final health care vote looks set for 9:30 p.m. (ET) in the House.

* The right continues to be out of control: "An envelope filled with white powder was sent to the district office of Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) today, the congressman said in a statement."

* Better news on new unemployment claims, which beat expectations, but they're still too high.

* Looks like France and Germany have come to an agreement on aid to Greece.

* Pulling a Bunning, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) blocks an extension of unemployment benefits.

* When you hear media reports that White House and congressional staffers are "exempt from health care bill," know that those reports are wrong.

* Republican senators are likely to block Goodwin Liu's nomination to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in part because he supports health care reform.

* Senate Republicans demand that President Obama refrain from making recess appointments. Or what?

* The policy consequences of health care repeal would be severe.

* Gingrich, naturally, thinks recent political violence is Democrats' fault.

* James Joyner agrees that it's time for conservative leaders to calm the base.

* Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), another target of right-wing political violence, found House Minority Leader John Boehner's (R-Ohio) admonition far too weak.

* Ann Coulter will not be going to Canada, where her brand of hate is frowned upon.

* Good piece from Josh Marshall on recent right-wing tactics:"It's time for a truth moment for the national Republican party. Incitement matters. They have to take responsibility for what they've done: which is nothing less than a campaign of incitement for which they're now unwilling to take any responsibility."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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TAKING THE 'THINK' OUT OF THINK TANK.... David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter and a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, has been urging the Republican Party to be tactically smarter. He's also publicly lamented the fact that the party seems to be taking dictation from Fox News, rather than the other way around.

Today, the American Enterprise Institute, a major think tank on the right, parted ways with Frum, after seven years. He emphatically denies that his departure was the result of his criticism of the GOP, and I have no evidence to the contrary. But Bruce Bartlett has a piece worth reading this afternoon:

Since, [Frum] is no longer affiliated with AEI, I feel free to say publicly something he told me in private a few months ago. He asked if I had noticed any comments by AEI "scholars" on the subject of health care reform. I said no and he said that was because they had been ordered not to speak to the media because they agreed with too much of what Obama was trying to do.

It saddened me to hear this. I have always hoped that my experience was unique. But now I see that I was just the first to suffer from a closing of the conservative mind. Rigid conformity is being enforced, no dissent is allowed, and the conservative brain will slowly shrivel into dementia if it hasn't already.

Sadly, there is no place for David and me to go.

Consider the larger pattern here. A few years ago, John Hulsman was a senior foreign policy analyst at the right's largest think tank, the Heritage Foundation. Hulsman was a conservative in good standing -- appearing regularly on Fox News and on the Washington Times' op-ed page, blasting Democrats -- right up until he expressed his disapproval of the neoconservatives' approach to foreign policy. Heritage showed him the door. The Cato Institute's Chris Preble said at the time, "At Heritage, anything that smacks of criticism of Bush will not be tolerated."

About a year before that, Bartlett was fired from the conservative National Center for Policy Analysis. His transgression? Bartlett criticized Bush's incoherent economic policies.

And now Frum is gone from AEI. Intellectually, modern conservatism is facing a painfully sad state of affairs.

Steve Benen 4:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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CANTOR'S CREATIVE DEFINITION OF 'THREAT'.... This week, we've seen an unacceptable number of incidents involving right-wing activists. To protest their rage about what they think the new health care law is, they're engaging in acts of political vandalism, assault, and harassment.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) seemed rather desperate today to characterize this as a bipartisan problem. During a bizarre press conference this morning, Cantor told reporters:

"I've received threats since I assumed elected office -- not only because of my position, but also because I'm Jewish. I've never blamed anyone in this body for that.

"Just recently I have been directly threatened: A bullet was shot through the window of my campaign office in Richmond this week."

Well, that sounds pretty serious. We've heard about plenty of vandalism at district congressional offices this week -- all of the cases involve Democrats as targets -- but this would be the first reported shooting.

The problem is, what Cantor told reporters wasn't true. When he said he was "directly threatened," Cantor was either shamelessly, blatantly lying, or he was popping off to the press about politically-motivated violence without getting his facts straight.

Here's what happened: early Tuesday morning, someone in the Richmond area fired a bullet into the air. It eventually came down and hit a building -- named, of course, the Reagan Building -- on the first floor. According to a report from the Richmond Police Department statement, "The round struck with enough force to break the windowpane but did not penetrate the window blinds. There was no other damage to the room, which is used occasionally for meetings by the congressman."

Was Eric Cantor "directly threatened" this week? Not if those words still have any meaning at all.

Steve Benen 4:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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OBAMA TELLS REPEALERS: 'GO FOR IT'.... With success comes confidence.

President Obama appeared in Iowa today, hosting his first public event since signing the Affordable Care Act into law, and acknowledged that opponents of reform are now talking about taking office and turning back the clock. He didn't sound especially intimidated by the GOP palaver about "repeal." Indeed, like most Dems, he seems to hope Republicans pursue it.

"Now that we passed it, they're already promising to repeal it," the president noted. "They're actually going to run on a platform of repeal in November.... And my attitude is, 'Go for it.'

"If these congressman in Washington want to come here to Iowa and tell small business owners they plan to take away their tax credits, and essentially raise their taxes, be my guest. If they want to look Lauren Gallagher in the eye and tell her they plan to take away her father's health insurance, that's their right. They want to make Darlyne Neff pay more money for her check-ups, her mammograms, they can run on that platform. This young man out here thinks this is a bad bill, he can run to repeal it.

"If they want to have that fight, we can have it. Because I don't believe the American people are going to put the insurance industry back in the driver's seat. We've already been there, we're not going back. This country's moving forward."

Expect to hear similar remarks as the midterm elections draw closer -- the choice for voters is to decide between "moving forward" or "going backwards."

At the same event, President Obama also continued to have fun with Republicans' more reckless hyperbole.

"There's been plenty of fear-mongering, plenty of over-heated rhetoric. If you turn on the news, you see the same folks are still shouting about how there's going to be the 'end of the world' because this bill passed. I'm not exaggerating -- leaders of the Republican Party, they called the passage of this bill, 'Armageddon!' 'End of freedom as we know it!'

"So, after I signed the bill, I looked around to see if there were any asteroids falling or some cracks opening up in the earth. Turned out, it was a nice day."

Obama added, "From this day forward, all of the cynics, all the naysayers, they're going to have to confront the reality of what this reform is -- and what it isn't. They'll have to finally acknowledge, this isn't a government takeover of the health care system."

Due respect, Mr. President, they'll do nothing of the sort. These guys make their own reality. Reason, evidence, and facts are inconvenient details to be mocked, manipulated, and ignored.

It's up to voters whether or not to fall for the con.

Steve Benen 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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SENATE APPROVES RECONCILIATION PACKAGE, HOUSE UP NEXT.... Right on schedule for a change, the Senate completed its work on health care reform this afternoon, voting 56 to 43 to approve the pending reconciliation package.

I'll post the roll call once it's up, but three Democrats -- Nebraska's Ben Nelson, Arkansas' Blanche Lincoln, and Arkansas' Mark Pryor -- voted with Republicans in the up-or-down vote. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) is in the hospital and did not vote. (Remember, the GOP couldn't filibuster the reconciliation measure, so 60 votes were not needed.)

As they did in December, senators voted one at a time, from their desks, as is often the case on historic pieces of legislation.

Before the vote, the Senate held a moment of silence to honor Ted Kennedy.

The measure now heads to the House for one final vote.

More soon.

Update: I guess those concerns that the Senate would screw over the House were unfounded after all.

Second Update: White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters earlier that officials are "quite confident" that the reconciliation package "will be approved rather quickly by the House."

Third Update: The outcome in the House does not appear to be in doubt. "This is quite benign in terms of any change that could be made to the legislation," Speaker Pelosi told reporters this morning. "Of all the things that they could send back, this is probably the most benign."

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said House approval will likely come this evening.

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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CANTOR AND 'FANNING THE FLAMES'.... In the face of right-wing activists engaging in acts of political vandalism, assault, and harassment, most reasonable people should agree that the Republicans who helped generate this rage have a responsibility to help lower the temperature.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has a slightly different take. As he sees it, it's Democrats who need to stop "fanning the flames."


"Legitimate threats should be treated as security issues, and they should be dealt with by the appropriate law enforcement officials," Cantor said. "It is reckless to use these incidents as media vehicles for political gain. That is why I have deep concerns that -- some [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] chairman Chris Van Hollen and [Democratic National Committee] chairman Tim Kaine, in particular -- are dangerously fanning the flames, by suggesting that these incidents be used as a political weapon."

Let me get this straight. As the dim-witted Minority Whip sees it, Democrats are facing vandalism, assault, and harassment, and Democratic leaders want it to stop. But by urging responsible officials to denounce (and hopefully, discourage) misconduct, Dems are, Cantor believes, "dangerously fanning the flames."

Does Eric Cantor hear the words coming out of his mouth as he says them? Does he not realize how ridiculous he sounds? His message seemed to be: "If Dems just stayed quiet in the face of violence and intimidation, everything would be fine."

A few hours after accusing Democrats of "fanning the flames," Cantor was the featured guest on a conference call held by the "S.T.O.P. Obama Tyranny National Coalition."

By all appearances, Cantor isn't quite bright enough to appreciate the irony.

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A FRIVOLOUS LAWSUIT.... When it comes to health care reform, it makes sense that Republican opponents of the Affordable Care Act would vote against it. It also makes sense that they'd complain about it now that it's law. If you think voters are gullible rubes, it might even make sense for Republicans to pledge a "full repeal" of the law.

But filing a lawsuit to challenge the law and invite judicial activism, basically just to make Tea Party extremists happy, is a colossal waste.

I saw a report the other day that 13 state attorneys general who are challenging the law, questioning the constitutionality of the individual mandate, failed to include "any specific case citations to buttress the underlying claim that it is unconstitutional."* A.L. took a look at the lawsuit and concluded, "It is beyond frivolous. I can't believe actual lawyers are willing to sign it."

In Georgia, the state AG said he wouldn't waste taxpayer money on such a weak case, but the far-right governor intervened anyway.

Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker, a Democrat, has refused to file an anti-health care mandate lawsuit, and called other AGs' decisions to do so "political gamesmanship." Undaunted -- and, of course, very concerned about the rule of law -- Gov. Sonny Perdue (R-Ga.) is appointing a "special attorney general" to sue the federal government anyway.

It'd be funny if it weren't so sad.

It's worth remembering that many of the AGs involved with this ridiculous exercise are running for governor in their respective states, and likely are wasting time and money on this case to impress in-state Republican voters (and donors). This dynamic has not gone unnoticed.

In Michigan, for example, the Detroit Free Press blasted state AG Mike Cox: "As a candidate for his party's gubernatorial nomination, Cox has every right to pander to the Tea Party adherents many believe will play a decisive role in August's Republican primary. As Michigan's top law enforcement officer, he should know better than to pursue his specious claim that Congress has exceeded its constitutional authority."

In Pennsylvania, Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett, in an apparent bid to help his own gubernatorial campaign, is also part of the pointless litigation. Some state lawmakers are so annoyed by the waste of taxpayer resources that they're threatening to cut funding for Corbett's office.

If there were any justice, these attorneys general would face a voter backlash for participating in such a wasteful stunt.

* Update: I've talked to several readers today who have far more expertise on this point than I do, and they agree that Ambinder's observation is not quite what it seems, and that the lack of specific case citations in the filing is not especially noteworthy. Fair enough. The larger point, however, about the weakness of this lawsuit, the waste of public resources, and the petty partisan motivations behind the litigation, stand.

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WHAT IS LINDSEY GRAHAM WHINING ABOUT?.... It's nearing its completion, but the health care reform process has obviously been difficult to watch for much of the year. Whether one was pleased or not with the outcome, those who take the integrity of political discourse and the policymaking process should be able to agree that congressional Republicans did not put their best foot forward.

It's largely indisputable. GOP lawmakers decided early on, by their own admission, that they would not cooperate with the Democratic majority. As the process dragged on, Republicans ignored attempts at Democratic outreach, forced needless delays, refused to negotiate in good faith, and lied with reckless abandon. Now that the Affordable Care Act is law, we see these same GOP officials playing petty games and even making excuses for their supporters' criminal misconduct.

And now Republicans intend to punish the majority and shut down Congress' lawmaking functions -- because they don't like the way Democrats behaved during the health care debate.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of the Democrats' most likely potential allies on a range of legislation, said in an interview he would no longer work with the majority party on an immigration overhaul. He said because of the Democrats' tactics in passing the package, the "well has been poisoned."

Mr. Graham also has been working with Democrats on climate change, and that cooperation, too, appears in doubt. "Climate and energy are another heavy lift. We'll see," Mr. Graham said. "The consequences of health care being done this way are enormous to the body." Mr. Graham's initiatives would probably not have received significant Congressional attention this year in any case, but his posture signals one potential route for the party.

Look, if a far-right lawmaker doesn't support immigration reform or a new energy bill, fine. That's to be expected. But Graham is saying these initiatives are more likely to fail, with his help, because Republicans are in a vengeful and spiteful mood.

This is just insane. Democrats tried to work with Republicans on health care. Dems incorporated Republican ideas and amendments into the legislation, and even patterned the legislation after a moderate GOP proposal from the last reform fight. Substantively, Republicans described the public option and a Medicare buy-in as beyond the pale, and Dems scrapped both ideas. Procedurally, Republicans blasted the self-executing rule as inexcusable, and Dems scrapped that, too.

All the while, the majority practically begged Republicans to play a constructive role, negotiate in good faith, and make some concessions to meet Dems in the middle. They refused.

And now Graham (and McCain, and others) feel justified in throwing a tantrum, and intend to kill every other policy initiative, because they think Democrats were somehow big meanies during the health care debate?


Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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

* In Pennsylvania, the latest Franklin and Marshall College survey shows a very close Senate race. Far-right former Rep. Pat Toomey (R) leads Sen. Arlen Specter (D) by four, 33% to 29%, but another third of poll respondents described themselves as undecided.

* Speaking of close Senate races, Public Policy Polling shows former Bush Budget Director Rob Portman (R) holding onto modest leads over his top Democratic challengers, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher and Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner.

* A new poll from the Public Policy Institute of California shows Carly Fiorina with the narrowest of leads over Tom Campbell in their Senate primary, though other recent polls have shown Campbell ahead.

* The attack ads are getting a little more intense in Florida between Senate hopefuls Marco Rubio and Gov. Charlie Crist, as part of their Republican primary.

* In a bit of a surprise, Dan Senor, the former spokesperson for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, announced yesterday he will not take on Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) this year. Senor had already taken some preliminary steps towards launching a campaign.

* As expected, former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) will seek a rematch against incumbent Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) this year. Republicans didn't really have anyone else interested in running.

* Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.) dodged one primary opponent this week, but picked up another. Yesterday, Dr. Kevin Weiland said he would take on the incumbent, motivated in part by her opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

* And once again, Gen. David Petraeus isn't going to be a candidate for public office.

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

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DEAR MITT, QUIT WHILE YOU'RE BEHIND.... Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) believes his presidential prospects will improve if he positions himself as the nation's leading critic of the Democrats' Affordable Care Act. It's hard to believe a man seeking national office could be so foolish.

On its face, Romney's strategy is burdened by his record. His health care reform law at the state level looks awfully similar to what Democrats have now done at the national level. A few years ago, Romney could base his presidential platform, at least in part, on his accomplishment. But now that the Republican Party has moved drastically to the right, and President Obama has signed a Romney-like plan into law, the former governor is in an impossible position.

But that's really just scratching the surface. Romney also wants Republicans to know he thinks the new law is unconstitutional, presumably because of the individual mandate. That's problematic, too. For one thing, his own plan featured a mandate. For another, there's now a video showing Romney endorsing a similar mandate at the national level.

Greg Sargent flags this clip, released this morning by the DNC, featuring footage from a 2008 debate between Republican presidential candidates. In the clip, Romney notes his approval for mandates. When ABC's Charlie Gibson notes, "You seem to have backed away from mandates on a national basis," Romney replies, "No, no, I like mandates. The mandates work."

Indeed, time and again, Romney has characterized mandates as a conservative idea.

Perhaps no one in modern political life has flip-flopped on more issues than Mitt Romney. The man simply bears no resemblance to his previous personas. But this reversal is just laughable -- the same man who embraced health care mandates in his own proposal now believes health care mandates are an unconstitutional abuse.

It's tempting to think Romney should try to change the subject to an issue where he's stronger, but the truth is, I don't know what that might be.

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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THE AFFORDABLE CARE ACT.... Legislative milestones need good names. We all know what Social Security is. We all know what Medicare is. But the new health care reform law will generally be known as ... well, that's less than clear.

It has a name, of course. Formally, President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law this week. But Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act doesn't exactly roll off the tongue the way Social Security and Medicare do. For that matter, PPACA isn't helpful, either. The right prefers "ObamaCare," but needless to say, that's not likely to stick.

I noticed Matt Yglesias had this item this morning:

Tuesday, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) seemed prepared to concede the point that conservative politicians were not, in fact, likely to repeal the Affordable Care Act's ban on insurers discriminating against applicants with pre-existing medical conditions. This, of course, implies accepting the basic structure of the whole shebang -- to make it work, you need the mandate and to make the mandate work you need the subsidies... [A]s Ramesh Ponnuru argued in his initial pushback from the right on Cornyn you simply can't keep the pre-existing conditions bit without accept the entire basic structure of ACA. [emphasis added]

I hadn't really noticed until this morning, but it looks like Matt has been using "Affordable Care Act" all week.

This works for me just fine. "Affordable Care Act" is accurate and descriptive, and it comes from the actual legislative name. ACA is a perfectly memorable abbreviation, too.

So, should we run with this forevermore? Or does someone have a better idea for a name?

Steve Benen 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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THE INTERIM STEP ON DADT.... About a month ago, when Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee that it's time for DADT to go, Gates hinted at an interim step, preceding a full repeal. Gates told senators that the Pentagon can enforce the status quo "in a fairer manner" until the repeal is complete, suggesting that the Pentagon will likely be disinclined to discharge servicemen and women who are "outed" by third parties or jilted partners.

In other words, if a serviceman or woman really doesn't "tell," then there's no reason for him or her to be stripped of their uniform.

Today, the Pentagon chief will make the interim step official.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates will announce measures on Thursday to make it more difficult for the military to expel openly gay service members, an interim plan while the Pentagon examines repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, officials said.

Officials said the new steps would include a requirement that only a general or admiral could initiate action in cases where service members were suspected of violating the prohibition against openly gay service in the armed forces.

The guidelines would also raise the standard required for evidence to be presented in such cases, an effort to prevent "malicious outing" by a third party or jilted partner, officials said.

The Defense Department, the Washington Post added, is "moving ahead on the assumption that Congress will overturn the ban on gays serving openly, but whether that will happen remains uncertain."

Marc Ambinder added, "Internally, the move sends a message to the general officer corps, within which there are notable doubters of the move to repeal it: don't bother trying to stop this thing once it starts."

To be sure, Gates' announcement is not an adequate substitute for scrapping DADT altogether. But it's not intended to be the final step; it's supposed to be the first step. And between the new enforcement guidelines and the (eventual) repeal, a policy like this one will, as Ambinder noted, "help change the culture, which is one reason why Gates is proceeding."

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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CALLING OUT SENATOR HOTHEAD.... If there's one thing Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) doesn't like, it's failing to get booked on a Sunday show being called out publicly for his irresponsible behavior. The conservative Republican, dubbed "Senator Hothead" by some of his colleagues (in both parties), must have been particularly incensed yesterday.

McCain announced on Monday that, going forward, he would refuse to cooperate in the Senate's legislative process. To punish Democrats for voting to approve legislation they support, McCain said, "There will be no cooperation for the rest of the year."

The declaration came up during yesterday's White House press briefing with Robert Gibbs.

Helen Thomas: McCain said he's going to oppose everything.

Gibbs: Well, yes, I find it curious that not getting your way on one thing means you've decided to take your toys and go home. I don't think -- it doesn't work well for my six-year-old; I doubt it works well in the United States Senate, because we have issues that are important for his constituents and for all of America.

Look, again, when it comes to financial reform people are going to have an opportunity to weigh in on behalf of the banks or on behalf of consumers. And I'll let their vote on that dictate which side of that ledger they feel most comfortable on.

Chip Reed: Are you comparing McCain to a six-year-old?

Gibbs: I'm saying that I think the notion that if you don't get what you want you're not going to cooperate on anything else is not a whole lot different than I might hear from a six-year-old.

If the taunt fits....

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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THE RESULTS OF REPUBLICAN RAGE.... It started with racist and anti-gay slurs on Capitol Hill. It led to a Democratic congressman being spat on. Before long, opponents of health care reform were vandalizing lawmakers' offices. Then a gas line was cut at a lawmaker's brother's house. Yesterday, nooses were faxed to Democratic lawmakers. One Democrat received an anonymous voicemail message that said, "You're dead. We know where you live. We'll get you."

If the goal of the Republican base was to send a terrorist-like signal to Congress, officials have heard it.

The pitched battle over health care has unleashed a rash of vandalism and attacks directed at politicians, with at least 10 House Democrats reporting death threats or incidents of harassment or vandalism at their district offices over the past week.

More than 100 House Democrats met behind closed doors Wednesday afternoon with representatives of the FBI and the U.S. Capitol Police. The lawmakers voiced what one senior aide who was present described as "serious concern" about their security in Washington and in their home districts when they return this weekend for the spring recess.

Usually only the congressional leadership has regular personal protection from the Capitol Police. But at least 10 lawmakers have been offered increased protection by law enforcement agencies, said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).

Asked whether members are endangered, Hoyer said: "Yes. [There are] very serious incidents that have occurred."

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) appeared on Fox News yesterday and briefly addressed the developments. He initially expressed sympathy for the enraged -- saying "Americans are angry" because "Washington Democrats just aren't listening" -- but added, "[V]iolence and threats are unacceptable. That's not the American way. We need to take that anger and channel it into positive change. Call your congressman, go out and register people to vote, go volunteer on a political campaign, make your voice heard -- but let's do it the right way."

The sentiment was welcome, but arguably too weak and too late. Republican leaders, including Boehner, have whipped up the GOP base into a frenzy, pumping so many lies into right-wing activists that incidents like these aren't even that surprising.

What do Republicans expect to happen? They've told confused, misguided activists that health care reform is a "totalitarian" scheme that attacks our "freedom" and represents the "end of America as we know it." The policy breakthrough is, as several GOP leaders have put it, "Armageddon."

It's quite likely that most Republican lawmakers know that their over-the-top rhetoric is just a political gambit, and that their more insane attacks on the new law have no foundation in reality. But therein lies the point: their base doesn't know that Republican officials are lying. When enraged activists are told by leaders they trust that health care reform will destroy America, these activists actually believe the nonsense.

When Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele demands that Pelosi get "ready for the firing line," the GOP base gets the message. When Sarah Palin's Facebook page shows 20 gun sights over Democratic lawmakers, some of whom are colored in red, the GOP base gets the message.

And now we're seeing the results of Republicans' irresponsibility.

The most farcical angle to this? The lunatics committing these crimes don't even know what they're so upset about. The things they think they hate about health care reform aren't real. They're lashing out violently to protest a law they don't understand. Ironically, many of these same people and their families stand to benefit as a result of reform.

Republicans have quite deliberately exploited the ignorance and hatred of their own supporters to create a toxic political environment, which in turn leads to the violence we've seen over the last several days. Responsible GOP leaders, if any still exist, must do far more to lower the temperature before conditions take a more tragic turn.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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ONCE MORE, WITH FEELING.... Earlier this week, Senate Republicans effectively conceded they had no realistic shot at derailing the health care reconciliation package. Their goal would be to (1) push politically inconvenient amendments that could be used in attack ads, and (2) "put a few holes" in the package, so the House would have to vote on health care reform one more time.

Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.) conceded the other day that edit-free approval was still the goal, but "one or two" minor changes might be unavoidable.

Well, guess what.

With the Senate working through an all-night session on a package of changes to the Democrats' sweeping health care legislation, Republicans early Thursday morning identified parliamentary problems with at least two provisions that will require the measure to be sent back to the House for yet another vote, once the Senate adopts it.

Senate Democrats had been hoping to defeat all of the amendments proposed by Republicans and to prevail on parliamentary challenges so that they could approve the measure and send it to President Obama for his signature. But the bill must comply with complex budget reconciliation rules, and Republicans identified some flaws.

As expected, the provisions in question are small and technical, and their removal does not affect the larger reform package in any meaningful way.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) told reporters overnight, "We see no impact on the score and very insignificant impact on any policy. This is not going to be a problem."

Dems hoped to pass the reconciliation measure as-is, so it could be sent directly to the White House for the president's signature, but after Senate passage, the House will have to make one final vote. Party leaders knew this was a possibility -- House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) signaled to House members earlier this week that they should plan to stick around, just in case. This morning, Hoyer said House passage of the ever-so-slightly different package wouldn't be a problem.

As for the Senate, the chamber wrapped up for the night about 2:45 a.m. (ET), and is scheduled to get back to work about two hours from now. Leaders believe the Senate may complete all of its work on the reconciliation measure by mid-day today.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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March 24, 2010

WEDNESDAY'S EXTRA-EARLY MINI-REPORT.... I have a medical appointment this afternoon that I've been pushing off until after the health care vote, so I'm afraid I have to wrap up early. Hoping that nothing extraordinary happens between now and 5:30, here's today's early edition of quick hits:

* Done deal? "President Obama and his Russian counterpart, President Dmitri A. Medvedev, have broken through a logjam in their arms control negotiations and expect to sign a new treaty in Prague next month that would slash American and Russian nuclear arsenals, officials from both nations said Wednesday."

* U.S. housing market still struggling.

* Not helpful: "With strains still high between Israel and the United States over the issue of Jewish settlements, construction of a contentious Jewish housing project in a predominantly Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem could start at any time, Israeli officials and experts said Wednesday."

* Improved prospects for financial industry reform?

* As promised, President Obama signed that executive order today on abortion funding.

* Today's must-read: "For all the political and economic uncertainties about health reform, at least one thing seems clear: The bill that President Obama signed on Tuesday is the federal government's biggest attack on economic inequality since inequality began rising more than three decades ago."

* Funny, I didn't realize Republicans would be able to parse "full repeal."

* What's in the new health care law? The White House puts together a compelling list.

* Brian Beutler puts together a wild list of the 10 most ridiculous GOP-proposed health care amendments.

* Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) should probably offer taxpayers a hint as to how much of their money he'll waste challenging health care reform.

* The Wall Street Journal makes very odd editorial decisions.

* Winners in the fight over student loan reform.

* Dear Michael Steele, avoid the phrase "firing line."

* And Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wants everyone to know, "I am pleased to report that, contrary to Sen. Bunning's prediction, I am alive and in good health."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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LINES THAT MUST NOT BE CROSSED.... Rep. Tom Perriello (D) represents a fairly conservative district in Virginia, but that didn't stop him from voting in favor of health care reform on Sunday. In response, local Tea Party activists posted the lawmaker's home address online, and encouraged constituents to go to Perriello's house to share their thoughts on the new law.

The right-wing activists, however, made a mistake: they posted the address to the congressman's brother's house.

Nevertheless, a day later, there was an incident.

Federal and local authorities are investigating a severed gas line at the home of U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello's brother, discovered the day after Tea Party activists posted the address online so opponents could "drop by" and "express their thanks" for Perriello's vote in favor of health care reform.

The gas line connected a propane tank to a gas grill on the home's screened-in porch, according to sources in Tom Perriello's office.

The incident is being viewed as an attempted threat to a member of congress, sources said... The local FBI field office and the Albemarle County fire marshal are investigating the incident. Police have stepped up patrols in the area as well.

A local Tea Party leader, Nigel Coleman, was apparently one of two activists who posted Bo Perriello's address online Monday. When told that it wasn't actually the lawmaker's address, he wrote, "Oh well, collateral damage." (Coleman later removed that comment, and said today that he "condemns" the incident at Bo Perriello's home.)

Coleman's Danville Tea Party previously made headlines in November for organizing a rally where Perriello and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were to be burned in effigy, though the event was later cancelled.

And now a congressman's brother's gas line has been cut, perhaps as the latest form of Tea Party "protest."

Look, I realize that right-wing activists are outraged by health care reform. I'm not altogether sure why, but their anger is obvious.

But once we get to the point where gas lines are severed at private residences -- following outrageous vandalism and weekend protests in which a member of Congress was spat on -- it's not unreasonable to wonder if the far-right base has gotten dangerously out of control.*

* edited

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ENTERING THE 'TAKING-CREDIT' PHASE.... Despite incessant whining about the successful economic recovery package, congressional Republicans quietly started taking credit for some of the very efforts they fought so hard against. I suppose it stands to reason, then, that we'll start seeing something similar on health care reform.

Take Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa, for example. Few, if any, policymakers played as absurd a role in the reform process than Grassley. From advancing demonstrably ridiculous claims to forcing needless to delays to brazen hypocrisy and contradictions, the Iowa Republican has been an obnoxious and regressive force. Given that he was the Senate Republicans' point-man on health care, this was a problem.

With this context in mind, I have to admit, I didn't see this one coming.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) has long been a vocal critic of the Democrat's health reform efforts, but behind the scenes he's started taking credit for some provisions of the bill, and talking up his own role in crafting the legislation.

In a release sent out by his staff to reporters today, Grassley says the bill will "hold tax-exempt hospitals accountable for the federal tax benefits they receive" thanks to his work. [...]

"The health care legislation signed into law yesterday includes provisions Grassley co-authored to impose standards for the tax exemption of charitable hospitals for the first time," his staff writes in the memo.

The same memo emphasizes, "In 2009, [Grassley] drafted legislative reforms and succeeded in persuading the Democratic majority to include several of the reforms in the new health care law."

Remember, Chuck Grassley repeatedly tried to kill the proposal, fought to prevent the Senate from even voting on it, and repeatedly concluded that the law itself is unconstitutional.

But just in case any Americans end up liking what's in the new law, Grassley also wants folks to know some of the good stuff was his idea (even though he voted against it).

Shameless. Just shameless.

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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PETTINESS EVEN TRUMPS NATIONAL SECURITY.... We talked earlier about the latest Republican tactic: refusing to allow the Senate to hold any hearings, on any issue, after 2 p.m. The point is to spite Democrats for passing health care reform. The GOP tantrum continues today in ways that are breathtakingly stupid.

The Senate Armed Services Committee, for example, has scheduled some pretty important hearings this afternoon. Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) appeared on the Senate floor earlier, imploring his colleagues to let his hearings continue.

"We've had, we have three [U.S. military] commanders scheduled to testify this afternoon. They've been scheduled for a long time. They've come a long, long distance. One of them has come from Korea; one of them has come from Hawaii. And I would, therefore, ask unanimous consent that the previously scheduled and currently scheduled hearing of the Committee on Armed Services be allowed to proceed."

Levin added that the committee's ranking member, John McCain, also wants the hearing to proceed, and the hearing would not conflict with any scheduled floor votes. Among those scheduled to testify are Adm. Robert Willard, Navy Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command; Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton, Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command; and Gen. Walter Sharpe, Army Commander of U.S. forces in Korea.

All Levin needed was for the Senate to let the hearing occur, as would be normal on any other day. But that requires unanimous consent, and Sen. Richard Burr (R) of North Carolina rose to explain that there's "an objection on our side of the aisle."

So there will be no hearing, because the increasingly pathetic Republican caucus is miffed that the Senate majority voted for a bill the GOP didn't like.

Scheduled hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee have also been suspended, because they were slated to begin after 2, and the GOP refuses to allow the hearings to happen.

I've seen more maturity from second graders than from the Republican caucus of the United States Senate.

In terms of messaging, though, I think Ezra has the right idea:

I could imagine a lot of smart ways to begin obstructing the chamber and making life miserable for Democrats. But declaring that you won't work after 2 p.m? Do Republicans really think the average American is going to rally to that battle cry?

If Senate Dems want to see Republicans scramble, they'd run with this one. Have the leadership hold a press conference and announce, "We're stunned that Republicans won't let the Senate function after 2 p.m. American workers don't the option to just stop working at 2 because he or she feels like it, and there's no reason their Republican senators should just call it a day after lunch. Republicans have gone from the party that only says "no" to the party that's too lazy to say anything at all."

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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THEY'RE REALLY LOSING IT.... I've enjoyed much of the hyperbole coming from the right since health care reform passed, but for pure hysterics, it' hard to top this National Review piece from conservative media figure and former Gingrich spokesperson Tony Blankley. (thanks to reader A.W. for the tip)

What House Minority Leader John A. Boehner has called the Battle of Capitol Hill is over. I expect that the Battle of the Electorate is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of a nonsocialist America. Upon it depends our own American way of life and the long continuity of our institutions and our history. The whole fury and might of the media and the Democratic party must very soon be trained on the electorate.

If they can stand up to the coming propaganda, America may be free, and the life of the wider free world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.

But if the voters succumb to those seven months of blandishments and deceptions, then free America -- including all that we have known and cared for -- will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

I wonder what the reaction would have been if the public option had passed, too.

Reading Blankley's panic-stricken screed, I was immediately reminded of Ronald Reagan's 1961 attacks on JFK's Medicare proposal. At the time, Reagan said the plan would lead federal officials to dictate where physicians could practice medicine, and open the door to government control over where Americans were allowed to live. In fact, Reagan warned that if Medicare became law, there was a real possibility that the federal government would control where Americans go and what they do for a living.

Reagan added, "[I]f you don't [stop Medicare] and I don't do it, one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it once was like in America when men were free."

With the benefit of hindsight, we now know these crazy warnings were pretty silly. But the truth is, whenever far-right voices get hysterical about social progress, the crazy warnings always look pretty silly in hindsight.

It's probably why it's best to simply be patient at moments like these, and wait for those throwing conservative tantrums to tire themselves out.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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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.

* In the wake of health care reform passing, the Democratic National Committee raised $2 million in two days -- without actually making a formal fundraising appeal.

* In Ohio's closely watched gubernatorial campaign, Public Policy Polling now shows former congressman and Fox News personality John Kasich (R) leading incumbent Gov. Ted Strickland (D), 42% to 37%.

* Hoping to shake up the Republican primary in Kentucky's Senate race, Dick Cheney has announced his support for Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson. Most recent polls show Grayson trailing right-wing ophthalmologist Rand Paul.

* As Utah Republicans gather for local caucuses, Sen. Bob Bennett's (R) future may be in jeopardy.

* In Vermont's open gubernatorial race, Rasmussen shows Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie (R) leading all of his would-be Democratic challengers in hypothetical match-ups. There are currently five top-tier Democrats vying for the party's nomination, and Vermont Secretary of State Deb Markowitz (D) is the most competitive against Dubie according to the poll.

* Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) ended up voting for health care reform over the weekend, but his primary challenger, former Charlevoix County Commissioner Connie Saltonstall, intends to continue with her campaign.

* Rep. Brad Ellsworth's (D) Senate campaign in Indiana will get a boost of $1 million from retiring Sen. Evan Bayh's (D) coffers.

* And in Georgia, Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) announced that the special election to replace Rep. Nathan Deal (R), who resigned to run for Perdue's job, will be April 27. Republicans are widely expected to keep the seat in GOP hands.

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

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OPPOSING THE IDEAS THEY SUPPORT -- MANDATE EDITION.... When conservative opponents of health care reform characterize the new law as undermining "freedom," they're generally talking about the individual mandate. If Americans are required to have health insurance, our "liberty" will deteriorate. Or something.

Indeed, when conservatives decided they'd rely on judicial activism as a last resort in killing health care reform, they targeted the mandate as the most outrageous provision. It's worth reminding them, then, that it was conservative Republicans who came up with the mandate idea in the first place.

"The truth is this is a Republican idea," said Linda Quick, president of the South Florida Hospital and Healthcare Association. She said she first heard the concept of the "individual mandate" in a Miami speech in the early 1990s by Sen. John McCain, a conservative Republican from Arizona, to counter the "Hillarycare" the Clintons were proposing.

McCain did not embrace the concept during his 2008 election campaign, but other leading Republicans did, including Tommy Thompson, secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush.

Seeking to deradicalize the idea during a symposium in Orlando in September 2008, Thompson said, "Just like people are required to have car insurance, they could be required to have health insurance."

Among the other Republicans who had embraced the idea was Mitt Romney, who as governor of Massachusetts crafted a huge reform by requiring almost all citizens to have coverage.

"Some of my libertarian friends balk at what looks like an individual mandate," Romney wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 2006. "But remember, someone has to pay for the health care that must, by law, be provided: Either the individual pays or the taxpayers pay. A free ride on government is not libertarian."

Romney was referring to the federal law that requires everyone to be treated in emergency rooms, regardless of their ability to pay.

The reversals have occasionally been hard to believe. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) told Fox News last summer, "I believe that there is a bipartisan consensus to have individual mandates.... There isn't anything wrong with it." He later said he would oppose the Democratic proposal because individual mandates are, as he put it, "non-constitutional."

Also note, 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. And then all of them voted for a measure to declare the individual mandate unconstitutional.

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 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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WORST. SMEAR. EVER..... A few weeks ago, some on the right thought they'd found a big new scandal. President Obama nominated Scott Matheson -- law school dean, former Harvard professor, Rhodes scholar, respected attorney, and accomplished federal prosecutor -- to serve on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. For conservatives, the nomination was an attempted bribe of sorts -- Scott Matheson's brother, Jim, is a Utah congressman who was weighing whether to vote for health care reform. The right, as it's prone to do, saw a conspiracy.

Except there wasn't one, as even Republican officials quickly conceded. The whole story was nonsense, and most of the right moved on.

Some didn't get the memo. (thanks to reader G.S.)

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., claimed on Fox News [yesterday] morning that Rep. Jim Matheson switched his position to support health care after the congressman's brother was named to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

"In Utah, a member from Utah that voted on the bill, he was against it and then he was for it. What a coincidence that his brother just got named to be a federal judge," Barrasso told Fox's Greta Van Susteren.

First, for a senator to allege a conspiracy of this sort on national television with no proof is truly ridiculous.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, Jim Matheson voted against the health care reform bill. Barrasso, hoping to paint a picture of corruption, said the Democrat "was against it and then he was for it." But if Barrasso had bothered to check before attacking a lawmaker's integrity in front of a national audience, he would have seen that the Democrats voted against reform in November and in March.

A Barrasso spokesperson said late yesterday that the senator "misspoke." If "misspoke" means "falsely accused a member of Congress of accepting a bribe," then sure, Barrasso "misspoke."

Granted, the far-right senator isn't the only one who keeps pushing this unusually stupid conspiracy theory, but Fox News personalities and sitting U.S. senators are held to different standards.

The need for the Republican caucus to clean up its act is becoming overwhelming.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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BROWNOUT.... Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) apparently has a viable plan to stay a Republican superstar: be as ridiculous as possible.

Is Rachel Maddow gunning for Scott Brown's Senate seat? The Massachusetts Republican thinks she is. In a fundraising email sent out Tuesday afternoon, he says the state's Democratic Party is trying to get the MSNBC host to challenge him for his newly acquired Senate seat.

"It's only been a couple of months since I've been in office, and before I've even settled into my new job, the political machine in Massachusetts is looking for someone to run against me," Brown writes. "And you're not going to believe who they are supposedly trying to recruit -- liberal MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow."

Said Brown in a fundraising email: "I'm sure [Maddow's] a nice person -- I just don't think America can afford her liberal politics."

Now, I realize that politicians and various political entities take certain, shall we say, liberties when writing fundraising letters. But making up imaginary rivals is usually the work of desperate fringe groups, not sitting United States senators.

For her part, Rachel addressed the subject in a very amusing segment last night.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

If you can't watch clips from your work computer, here's the bottom line: Rachel said, "I have the best job in the world. I'm not running for office. I never said I would run for office. Nobody's asked me to run for office."

On a related note, the conservative Boston Herald has a report today, suggesting the Brown fad is quickly coming to an end. Bill Whalen, a former Republican operative and research fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, compared the GOP senator to Arnold Schwarzenegger, calling both a "political novelty."

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

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A MUDDLED REPEAL MESSAGE.... While Republican lawmakers tend to struggle in some areas (substance, honesty, integrity, seriousness of purpose, decency), they are not without strengths. As a rule, their most impressive quality is message discipline.

The GOP Powers That Be will decide what party officials and their allies are supposed to say, and Republicans tend to follow the marching orders extremely well. The GOP shapes much of the discourse simply by getting its members to all say the exact same thing, over and over again.

At the same time, however, when Republicans are struggling, it's obvious -- they start muddling their message. Take the health care "repeal" push, for example.

"We will work in every way to repeal this legislation and start over," said House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence, of Indiana.

Moments later, however, Pence said the House GOP was in favor of "repealing and replacing Obamacare with an approach that gives Americans more choices instead of more government."

"There are small elements of the legislation that's moving forward that Republicans have always supported," he said.

Got that? The whole package has to go -- except for those good parts. Which provisions of the new law do Republicans like and plan to keep? They'll have to get back to us on that.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) wants to repeal the whole thing, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is only interested in repealing the "egregious parts." Reps. Michelle Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Steve King (R-Iowa) demand a full repeal, while National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (R-Tex.) wants to leave the "non-controversial stuff" alone.

Mitt Romney wants to scrap the whole package, while Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.) declared, "We always said there are things that we can all agree on in the bill."

Rep. Phil Gringrey (R-Ga.) "does not want" to repeal the whole thing, and Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) see partial repeal as more realistic than the full repeal some of their GOP colleagues are pushing.

Republicans, in other words, are already finding themselves stuck in the repeal trap we've been talking about for months. Party leaders continue to characterize the new law as "Armageddon," but are grudgingly coming to believe some parts of Armageddon may not be that bad after all.

Democrats are not only thrilled, they're seizing on Republicans' discomfort. The DSCC has even set up a "new feature designed to make it easier to track who's called for repeal and who hasn't."

It took a while, but the trap has been set. Republicans can either infuriate their base (which has been misled about health care from the start), or they can alienate the mainstream electorate.

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

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CASHING IN ON CLASSLESSNESS.... On Sunday, during a surprisingly rousing speech, Rep. Bart Stupak, the pro-life Michigan Democrat, was interrupted by a Republican lawmaker who shouted, "Baby killer!" We learned the next day that Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R) of Texas was responsible for the ugly outburst.

When he fessed up, Neugebauer tried to sound contrite, expressing "deep regret," and apologizing to Stupak. "The timing and tone of my comment last night was inappropriate," the far-right Republican said in a statement.

That was Monday. By Tuesday, Neugebauer decided his misconduct might be lucrative.

One day after admitting he yelled "baby-killer" during Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak's speech before Sunday evening's health care vote, Texas Republican Randy Neugebauer has posted a fundraising video on his campaign web site citing the incident.

"Not only did we see the government take over of your health care, but we saw the lives of unborn children used as a bargaining chip to somehow get the needed votes to pass this legislation," the three-term congressman says in the video, where he's joined by his wife, Dana. Neugebauer also sent a note about the incident, which is posted along with the video on the conservative Red State blog.

So much for "deep regret" and "inappropriate."

I suppose this was predictable. When Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) heckled the president during a speech to a joint session of Congress lasst year, he was initially contrite, too. But his remorse quickly disappeared when Wilson realized he could parlay the controversy into becoming a right-wing cause celebre. It wasn't long before unhinged donors were throwing money at the South Carolinian.

It no doubt occurred to Neugebauer, "Hey, maybe I can be a right-wing cause celebre, too!"

It creates a bizarre dynamic -- GOP extremists now have an incentive to be as boorish as possible, in order to receive rewards from a radical base. Why be an obscure back-bencher in a small caucus when you can act like an idiot and become a Republican star?

"House Republicans continue to reach new lows as they engage in shameless and dishonest fearmongering," said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Ryan Rudominer. "There is no line they won't cross if they think it will appeal to right wing extremists."

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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A SLOW-MOTION SHUTDOWN.... Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) told the media on Monday about his outrage over the Democratic majority voting to approve legislation they support. He announced that, going forward, he would tell Dems to stay off his lawn refuse to cooperate in the Senate's legislative process. To punish Democrats for fulfilling their campaign promise to the nation, McCain said, "There will be no cooperation for the rest of the year."

We saw the manifestation of this pettiness yesterday, when Republicans used an obscure rule to block any Senate hearings from continuing after 2 p.m. Amanda Terkel reports on the developments that are almost too juvenile to believe.

Today, during a Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee hearing on transparency, Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) announced that he had to stop the proceedings because of Republican blocks. [...]

ThinkProgress spoke to a Homeland Committee staffer who said that the committee's work would be significantly disrupted if Republicans refuse to give unanimous consent throughout the week. The AP also reported today that Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) had a hearing on the bark beetle canceled today "after Republicans angry over the passage of health insurance reform legislation blocked it by using an obscure Senate rule requiring a unanimous consent to hold hearings scheduled after 2 p.m."

Democratic staffers on the Hill told ThinkProgress that they anticipate Republicans will not only continue blocking hearings for the rest of the week, but also delay or block all sorts of minor, routine measures.

The country has not seen a congressional minority this pathetic in a very long time. Republicans are effectively shutting down the Senate because a supermajority of the chamber approved legislation the GOP didn't like.

Kevin added, "To call this behavior childish would be an insult to children everywhere. Are we really expected to take a party like this seriously?"

For its part, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) office noted in a statement, "The bottom line is that as millions of Americans are learning about the immediate benefits of health reform, Republicans are throwing a temper tantrum and grinding important Senate business to a halt."

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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March 23, 2010

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

* Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) believes the Senate can pass the health care reconciliation bill without any changes.

* Right-wing vandalism against the offices of pro-reform lawmakers is a national embarrassment.

* The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a Republican ally, but the USCOC will not support the party's push for repeal of the new health care law.

* Photo of the day.

* Graphic of the day.

* Quote of the day.

* Euphemism of the day.

* Paragraphs of the day, as published last August:

Despite his illness, Senator Kennedy made a forceful appearance at the Democratic convention in Denver, exhorting his party to victory and declaring that the fight for universal health insurance had been "the cause of my life.''

He pursued that cause vigorously, and even as his health declined, he spent days reaching out to colleagues to win support for a sweeping overhaul; when members of Obama's administration questioned the president's decision to spend so much political capital on the seemingly intractable health care issue, Obama reportedly replied, "I promised Teddy.''

* Legislation reforming the way Wall Street operates is headed to the Senate floor.

* A terrific behind-the-scenes look at how the White House approached the health care fight over the last few months.

* A.L. took a look at the state attorneys general's lawsuit against the new health care law: "It is beyond frivolous. I can't believe actual lawyers are willing to sign it."

* Jamie Leigh Jones to get her day in court.

* Worth keeping an eye on: "Attorney General Eric Holder has appointed U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald to lead a probe into whether laws were broken after photos of undercover CIA agents were found in the cell of an alleged 9/11 conspirator at Guantanamo."

* Bob Herbert would like to see Republicans address their "absence of class." It's good advice the party will no doubt ignore.

* Thomas Ricks seems to hold Marc Thiessen in low regard, too.

* Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) is an unusually foolish man.

* The late Jerry Falwell's right-wing university wants to get in on the litigation against health care reform.

* Paul Krugman is right about Christiane Amanpour, Tom Shales is wrong.

* And I'm delighted to note that the Washington Monthly has been nominated for two Utne Independent Press Awards, in the categories of General Excellence and Political Coverage. It's an honor to be nominated.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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THE POWER OF MOCKERY.... On Saturday, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), a man who believes he should be Speaker of the House in January, declared that passage of health care reform would be "Armageddon." He wasn't kidding.

RNC Chairman Michael Steele echoed the sentiment yesterday. Shep Smith, the token sane person at Fox News, asked Steele, "Armageddon? Seriously?" The RNC leader replied, "Yes!"

President Obama is right to find this worthy of mockery. "Now that this legislation is passed, you don't have to take my word for it," he said this afternoon. "You'll be able to see it in your own lives.

"I heard one of the Republican leaders say this was going to be 'Armageddon.' Well, two months from now, six months from now, you can check it out. We'll look around [Obama starts looking up and around] and we'll see. You don't have to take my word for it."

The audience at the Department of the Interior was amused, and with good reason -- Republicans' policy arguments have become literally laughable.

Given the way the party has chosen to conduct itself, the GOP deserves to be openly mocked by the president. More, please.

Steve Benen 5:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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CORNYN SEES REPEAL TRAP, HOPES TO AVOID IT.... Republican lawmakers and congressional candidates are going out of their way to talk about how desperate they are to repeal the new health care law. They're making no distinctions or allowances for popular provisions, either -- the buffoonish Pete Hoekstra of Michigan told right-wing supporters, "On January 3 ... we're not going to repeal a part of the bill, we're going to repeal the whole thing with your help."

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who's responsible for the Senate GOP's election-year strategy, told the Huffington Post he doesn't quite see it that way.

"There is non-controversial stuff here like the preexisting conditions exclusion and those sorts of things," the Texas Republican said. "Now we are not interested in repealing that. And that is frankly a distraction."

Nice try, John, but you're too late.

The base is demanding a complete repeal of the new law, and Republican candidates, at a variety of levels, have already embraced it as their election-year message.

Some GOP candidates are willing to back a partial repeal, but remember, as far as the right-wing base is concerned, partial isn't good enough. Indeed, it's something of a sell-out. As Josh Marshall noted not too long ago, "After all, if it's really the end of the universe, America and Apple Pie, as Republicans have been suggesting, it's hard to say you just want to tinker at the margins."

So, by the GOP's own choosing, it's all or nothing. It's a dynamic Dems are thrilled to see.

Cornyn is no doubt worried, because he sees the repeal trap and wants to avoid it. But he should have thought of that before his entire party committed to getting rid of popular health care provisions and a new law that seems to be generating more public support all the time.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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STARTING THE CLOCK IN THE SENATE.... This afternoon, the Senate voted 56 to 40 on the motion to proceed on the health care reconciliation bill, and with that, the clock will start on this week's debate. Senate Republicans, when they were desperate to psych-out House Democrats, argued repeatedly that they would use this last phase of the process to crush key changes/fixes.

Funny, they're not really talking like that anymore.

Republicans are unlikely to force major changes to the measure making final tweaks to healthcare legislation, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said Monday night.

[He] said the GOP would have a difficult time forcing changes to the healthcare reconciliation bill the Senate is expected to take up this week, despite others in the party professing confidence.

"No," Coburn said during an appearance on CNBC when asked if the GOP would be able to stop many elements of the reconciliation bill. "We'll put a few holes in it, but basically it's going to come through here because they've done a good job crafting it."

Now, those "few holes" might matter, at least as far as procedure is concerned. The Senate intends to pass the reconciliation package as-is, without changing so much as a syllable, so it can be sent on to the White House by week's end. Even the most minor of changes would mean the House would have to vote on this one last time before it's done.

Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.) told reporters this morning that edit-free approval is still the goal, but there may be "one or two" changes, though he characterized them as "minor" and inconsequential. To be sure, Senate Dems don't want to have any changes, but Baucus believes these minor adjustments may be necessary based on procedural rulings.

With that in mind, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has already signaled to House members that they should plan to be around this weekend, just in case.

I'm sure they're thrilled.

As for Senate Republicans' next move, Sen. David Vitter, the scandal-plagued far-right Louisianan , offered the GOP's first two amendments this afternoon. The first is a measure to "repeal the government takeover of health care," and the second is "prohibiting use of funds to fund ACORN."

The latter refers to a group that no longer seems to exist.

It sometimes amazes me who actually gets to serve in the world's most deliberative body.

Update: One more thing. Republicans will be offering several liberal amendments, in the hopes of getting Democrats to vote for them and mess up the bill. Progressives won't be fooled, but it's something else to keep an eye on.

Steve Benen 3:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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SUCCESS BEGETS SUCCESS.... Lately, the basis for Republican opposition to health care reform has been public opinion polls. Americans didn't like the Democratic proposal, the GOP argument goes, so it deserved to be defeated. Public attitudes on the plan have underscored every Republican argument for weeks.

And in response, proponents of health care reform have been repeating the same prediction: it will get more popular after it passes.

Reader M.B. let me know about a new national poll that suggests proponents were on to something.

Americans by 9 percentage points have a favorable view of the health care overhaul that President Obama signed into law Tuesday, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds, a notable turnaround from surveys before the vote that showed a plurality against it.

By 49%-40% those surveyed say it was "a good thing" rather than a bad one that Congress passed the bill. Half describe their reaction in positive terms, as "enthusiastic" or "pleased," while about four in 10 describe it in negative ways, as "disappointed" or "angry."

The largest single group, 48%, calls the bill "a good first step" that should be followed by more action on health care. An additional 4% also have a favorable view, saying the bill makes the most important changes needed in the nation's health care system.

If Republicans were right, these results would be impossible. Democrats are "ramming through" a proposal that the country hates? Americans will be outraged.

But they're not. In fact, most Americans are apparently pretty pleased with the outcome -- and that's after just one day after the House vote. As more of the country learns that GOP scare tactics were baseless, and hears about the new benefits that kick in this year, the polls will likely improve further.

Making matters slightly worse for Republicans, the same poll found that 46% of Americans believe President Obama's handling of the health care issue has been excellent or good. For the congressional GOP, it's 26%.

This is the Republican nightmare coming to fruition -- the country gets a better system, Democrats get a victory, the president looks like a hero, and the country is pleased with the results.

It's not too late for Republicans to reconsider that "repeal" strategy, if only the party's unhinged base would let them.

Steve Benen 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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DOUBLING DOWN ON A BAD BET.... Early on in the health care process, Republican lawmakers took a big risk: rather than work with the White House on a bill, the GOP would reflexively oppose everything, including their own ideas, in the hopes of killing the larger initiative. The gamble didn't pay off, and health care reform is now law.

Less than eight months before the midterms, Republicans are placing another risky bet, this time gambling that repeal will be an electoral winner.

The GOP's candidate for Senate in Ohio, former Congressman Rob Portman, backs repeal of the reform proposal Obama just signed into law moments ago, his spokesperson confirms to me. Asked if he backed repeal, the spokesperson, Jessica Towhey, replied: "Yes." [...]

Most of the other top GOP Senate candidates have come out for repeal, something that leading conservatives have been pushing for. The DSCC has been demanding that GOPers say whether they're for repeal, so not surprisingly, DSCC spokesman Eric Schultz pounced.

"If Rob Portman is going to pledge to repeal health care reform which will have afforded coverage to 1.4 million Ohioans, eliminated the doughnut hole for seniors, offered tax credits to small businesses, lowered the deficit, and ended appalling insurance practices -- then good luck to him," Schultz emailed.

Portman has always struck me as a transparently silly candidate for statewide office. We're talking about a guy who served as George W. Bush's budget director at a time when the budget became something of a laughingstock. He should be running for the hills, not for the Senate.

Nevertheless, Portman's "repeal" push is consistent with the new, standard GOP line. Two of Congress' nuttiest members -- Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) -- have already said, separately, that they'll introduce repeal legislation soon. Dozens of GOP candidates, including presidential aspirants, are rushing to embrace the same line, following the dictates of right-wing activists.

Democrats can hardly believe how lucky they are.

Lee Fang noted this morning that some fairly prominent GOP voices -- former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Rudy Giuliani, for example -- are suggesting that demanding a full repeal is excessive.

But it's apparently too late. "Repeal" is practically the official response of the Republican Party whenever the new health care reform law comes up in any context.

Democrats -- from the White House to the DNC to the DCCC -- are practically taunting Republicans, begging to keep pursuing this. After all, as the president reminded us again this morning, "a host of desperately needed reforms will take effect right away," including tax credits to about 4 million small businesses, protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions, restrictions on rescissions, eliminations on lifetime limits or restrictive annual limits, free preventive care, and a new benefit that allows young adults to able to stay on their parents' policies until they're 26 years old.

Republicans want to base much of their election-year strategy on eliminating all of these? Yeah, good luck with that.

As we've been talking about, the goal is to put Republican candidates in a box. Democrats are going to ask, "Are you really going to fight to repeal protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions? Are you really going to take coverage away from 30 million middle-class Americans? Are you really going to take away breaks for small businesses?" If Republicans say "no," they alienate the GOP activists who will settle for nothing but a full repeal. If Republicans say "yes," they alienate the mainstream electorate.

Dems have set a repeal trap, and Republicans are inexplicably rushing to get caught.

Steve Benen 2:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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BIDEN HAPPENED TO BE RIGHT.... One of the more talked about moments of the White House signing ceremony this morning also happened to be a remark unintended for the public.

Vice President Biden was introducing President Obama, and as he turned to shake the president's hand, he offered a brief message that the microphone picked up: "This is a big f**king deal."

Soon after, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs tweeted, "And yes Mr. Vice President, you're right..."

And you know what? Biden is right. Fox News is trying to make a fuss about the VP's f-bomb, but let's be grown-up about this. Signing health care reform into law is a big f**king deal.

I suppose the pushback will be that the VP's language was somehow inappropriate. Nonsense. When then-Vice President Dick Cheney told Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) on the Senate floor, "Go f**k yourself," that was inappropriate.

Biden, in contrast, is endearing.

Steve Benen 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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OBAMA SIGNS HEALTH CARE BILL, REPUBLICANS SIGN COURT FILINGS.... At a festive, joyous White House ceremony, President Barack Obama did what millions of Americans have been waiting to see for generations: he signed a comprehensive health care reform bill into law.

Before the ink on the page was dry, some Republican state attorneys general put their own signatures on something: litigation.

As President Obama celebrated his health-care victory, Republican leaders in several states vowed Monday to challenge the landmark legislation in court, arguing that the new federal rules are unconstitutional violations of state sovereignty and individual liberty.

Scholars contend the merit of such claims is unproven at best, given constitutional provisions and legal precedents that grant wide latitude to Congress to regulate national affairs. But the declarations foretell a period of court battles and statehouse resistance after months of opposition to the legislation.

It appears that there will be more than one lawsuit. Virginia's right-wing AG, Ken Cuccinelli (R), vowed to be in court today at noon, challenging the legality of the individual mandate. Florida AG Bill McCollum (R), perhaps best known as a leading "manager" in the impeachment crusade against President Bill Clinton, is filing a separate case on the constitutionality of taxes in the new law. McCollum, who is running for governor this year, will apparently be leading a group* of far-right state attorneys general in the endeavor.

Are the suits cause for concern for supporters of the new law? Courts are obviously unpredictable, but serious observers seem to think the litigation is pointless and misguided.

[C]onstitutional scholars suggest that such cases would likely amount to no more than a speed bump for health care legislation.

The reason, they say, is that Congress has framed the mandate as a tax, which it has well-established powers to create. And Congress's sweeping authority to regulate the nation's economy, they add, has been clear since the 1930s.

"The attack on this bill," said Jack M. Balkin, a professor of constitutional law at Yale University, "is not merely an attack on the substance of this particular measure. It's also a challenge to understandings that come with the New Deal."

Dave Weigel also has a good piece on this today, which is worth reading.

If I had to guess, I'd say the Republican AGs filing the suits don't even expect to win. This is about putting on a show for Fox News and the Republican base, and letting ambitious GOP officials score a few points with rabid activists who are desperate for Republicans to do something, whether it makes sense or not.

But in the meantime, an Ezra Klein observation bears repeating: "[L]et me propose a new rule: No conservative who supports these legal challenges can complain about activist judges ever again."

* Update: McCollum's group apparently includes 13 state AGs -- 12 Republican and one Dem, Louisiana's Buddy Caldwell.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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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.

* In the wake of his vote against health care reform, Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) is likely to face a primary challenge from Jack Shea, the president of the Allegheny County Labor Council.

* On a related note, if the wake of his vote against health care reform, Rep. John Adler (D-N.J.) is finding support from his Democratic base quickly evaporating. Facing a tough Republican challenge this year, that's a problem.

* It's unclear if former Wisconsin Gov. and Bush cabinet secretary Tommy Thompson (R) will run for the Senate this year, but if he does, Public Policy Polling shows him trailing Sen. Russ Feingold (D) by three, 47% to 44%.

* Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) is seeking her first full term, but a Rasmussen poll shows her in an effective three-way tie with two primary challengers.

* Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.) looks to be an early underdog in his Senate race, but he still not well known statewide.

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

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HEALTH CARE REFORM BECOMES LAW.... In just a few minutes, President Obama is scheduled to sign the health care reform legislation, passed Sunday night in the House of Representatives, into law.

You can watch the signing ceremony right here:

There will be several special guests on hand, including Vicki Kennedy, Ted Kennedy's widow.

Steve Benen 11:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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NOT ALL POLITICS IS LOCAL.... Most of us probably think about domestic political victories and their impact on domestic political standing. But in our media era, and with international observers keeping a close eye on U.S. political developments, the effects of health care reform may be even broader than they appear at first glance.

Laura Rozen and Ben Smith have a terrific item on a part of the debate that's gone largely overlooked.

When Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu faced off with President Barack Obama over housing in Jerusalem earlier this month, he was facing a distracted American leader whose presidency hung in the balance.

When he goes to the White House on Tuesday night, he'll find Obama at the moment of his administration's greatest success, a shift that may affect Obama's negotiating power in ways both subtle and dramatic.

Obama's health care victory may prove a decisive pivot point in the way he is viewed both domestically and abroad and in how powerful a negotiator he is perceived to be by foreign leaders. And nowhere is that true more than in Israel, a place obsessed with American politics.

"Every time I met with an Arab diplomat or anyone from the Middle East, including Israelis, they would invariably ask me, 'How's health care going?'" said former Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), who retired in December to become president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. "And the first couple [of] times, I didn't really realize what they were actually asking. They were asking, 'How strong is the president of the United States?'"

Global players base their U.S. interactions, at least in part, on their perceptions of presidential standing. If the American head of state is perceived as weak -- faltering domestic support, stalled legislative agenda -- friend and foe alike will take those cues seriously. If the chief executive is perceived as strong, that matters, too.

And in this case, the world really was watching the U.S. debate over health care reform. Mexican President Felipe Calderone and Saudi King Abdullah actually called Obama yesterday to congratulate him on his policy breakthrough. Rozen and Smith added that a European diplomat suggested success on the White House's top domestic policy "would quell global doubts about the young American president."

As this relates to Israel, in particular, Netanyahu's advisers have been saying, "We just need to wait [Obama] out," assuming his presidency was in decline, and would end in three years.

Wexler said that if that was the basis for Netanyahu's thinking, "I think that strategy today is dead."

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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THE CORNHUSKER BACKTRACK.... Perhaps more than any other member of Congress, Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska made the health care reform package a little more controversial than it needed to be. And as it turns out, now that the final fix is headed back to the Senate, Nelson will oppose improving the bill he made worse.

One of the big reasons House Democrats wanted changes to the Senate-passed health care bill was the so-called Cornhusker kickback, which provided extra Medicaid money for Nebraska.

And Senator Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska, whose vote party leaders were courting when they inserted the provision, has disavowed the provision, saying it should be repealed.

But now Mr. Nelson says he will vote against the budget reconciliation measure aimed at repealing the Cornhusker kickback and making other changes to the health care bill.

As with Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) of Arkansas, Nelson's reversal is very likely to be inconsequential -- the reconciliation package can pass with a simple majority, and Dems have at least 51 votes -- and not entirely unexpected.

For the record, Nelson isn't backing away because his "kickback" is being removed, he'll oppose the budget fix because it includes an overhaul of the federal student loan system. Some major lenders are headquartered in Nebraska, and loan reform may undermine their profit margin.

In the bigger picture, losing Nelson's vote is a small price to pay for this additional policy breakthrough. Policymakers and reform advocates have been eyeing a chance to improve federal lending programs for years, and attaching the measure to health care not only made it easier to pass the legislation, it made it possible to deliver two key victories at once.

The CBPP had a good report the other day, touting some of the benefits associated with reforming the student loan system, including saving taxpayers tens of billions of dollars, and making higher education more accessible to millions of students who would otherwise not be able to afford tuition.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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WINDS CAN SHIFT PRETTY QUICKLY.... Greg Sargent summarizes the post-Sunday political landscape nicely:

The conventional wisdom inside the Beltway, which had for so long held that Dems were courting political disaster if they passed reform, has suddenly swung violently in the other direction -- another reminder that when you win, people view you as, well, a winner.

And this is what many proponents of health care reform have been suggesting for months -- give success a chance, and the political winds can turn in the other direction.

Mike Allen, who does as much as anyone in the media to reflect (and help shape) the conventional wisdom, suggests today that a historic victory on health care reform may make Scott Brown's victory in January "look like a speed bump." At least for now, Allen noted, "Rather than dragging down Dems, President Obama's health plan could turn out to be a net positive for the midterms by goosing his base, re-engaging new Obama voters, giving his party something clear to promote, and providing a blunt instrument for whacking [Republicans]. Obama's triumph has put Republicans back on the defensive, and even some of them are wondering if they peaked eight months too soon."

Also today, we're seeing stories about Democratic hopes for the midterms rebounding, and Republicans facing risks as a result of their health care tactics.

These, obviously, are the kind of news stories Democrats were counting on.

It's worth remembering, it's far too soon to understand the political implications of this new milestone. Indeed, the work on health care isn't even completely done quite yet. Predicting public attitudes over the next eight days and/or eight months is challenging, to put it mildly.

But as we've been saying all along, Democrats needed to not only deliver on their top domestic policy priority, but they also needed to give themselves a fighting chance. As the shifting political winds indicate, it's easier to build on a victory than on failure.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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SOMEONE SEND BECK JOHN LEWIS' BIO.... Glenn Beck wasn't exactly pleased with Sunday's developments on health care reform. On his Fox News program yesterday, he seemed especially incensed about images of Speaker Pelosi, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), and other Democratic leaders marching from their caucus meeting to the Hill, arm in arm, en route to passing their long-sought legislation.

Showing viewers the image, Beck said, "They locked arms, because they wanted to compare themselves to the civil rights activists. How dare you! Look at these people [image of civil rights activists at a diner counter]. They refused to get up! ... I don't know how you could be offended by that."

Um, Glenn? John Lewis doesn't have to compare himself to a civil rights activist; he was a civil rights activist. He was a giant of the civil rights movement, and the advances of the era were made possible because of John Lewis' extraordinary courage and heroism. When he locks arms with his allies to go pass health care reform, he understands the symbolism far better than a self-described rodeo clown.

One of these two men knows a little something about refusing to bow to conservative hysteria and scare tactics, and I'll give you a hint, it's not the deranged media personality.

When Beck said, "I don't know how you could be offended by that," he probably misspoke -- there's supposed to be a "not" in there somewhere -- but if he was offended by a photo of Pelosi, Lewis, and others linking arms and walking to the Capitol, he was taking offense at the wrong developments. What Beck should have been offended by were the disgusting racist and anti-gay slurs from right-wing activists on hand to protest health care reform.

In one instance, an African-American lawmaker was spat on.

But Democrats weren't intimidated, they stood tall, and they did the right thing. To borrow a phrase, I don't know how you could be offended by that.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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CLEARING THE FIRST SENATE HURDLE.... The Senate is poised to begin debate on the health care reconciliation package, but before the chamber could get started, there was a key procedural hurdle that had to be cleared. A setback would have made completing the rest of the process significantly more difficult.

Republicans had a plan: argue to the Senate parliamentarian, Alan Frumin, that the provisions of the budget fix related to the excise tax would affect Social Security revenues. It's a long story, but the bottom line of the GOP argument was that the financing mechanism shouldn't be considered under reconciliation, but rather, should be subject to yet another Republican filibuster.

Most objective observers agreed that the argument seemed far-fetched, at best. But a meeting was scheduled between Frumin and leadership aides from both parties. The parliamentarian was expected to hear the arguments and then announce his findings. Dems hoped for a quick resolution.

That didn't happen. Six hours later, Democrats started to get nervous with Frumin's silence. Was he actually taking the Republican argument seriously?

Fortunately, by early evening, the parliamentarian ended the suspense and rejected the GOP challenge.

Frumin heard arguments from Democratic and GOP Senate staff, and he ultimately ruled in favor of the Democrats. The Republicans argued that a provision dealing with the excise tax on "Cadillac" insurance plans impacted Social Security. The Budget Act does not permit reconciliation legislation to affect Social Security.

However, Senate Republicans remain confident that Frumin will rule in their favor on at least one of the many challenges they plan to raise.

"One down, many more to go," a GOP aide said Monday evening.

Carrie Budoff Brown noted that the decision "makes the road for Democratic passage of the bill much smoother."

Indeed. I don't doubt that Republicans have "many more" delaying/obstructionist tactics to go -- they really are fighting to protect parts of the reform package they claim to hate -- but in this case, the first procedural hurdle was also the most threatening.

The Senate is scheduled to convene around 2 p.m. (ET), and will get the final phase of the process started.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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By: Paul Glastris

NO BENEN, NO BILL... How important was Steve Benen's blogging and his strategy memo in getting the health care legislation back on track after Martha Coakley's loss in January? Very, says Andrew Sabl. Tim at Balloon Juice agrees. So do his colleagues at the Washington Monthly. Congratulations, Steve. Congrats also to two other bloggers whose work Sabl rightly credits with helping turn the tide, Kevin Drum and Brian Beutler--both of whom, I'm proud to say, are alumni of this magazine.

Paul Glastris 7:33 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (67)

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March 22, 2010

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

* Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, still not happy with Israel.

* Google gives up on China.

* President Obama will reportedly sign the first phase of health care reform into law tomorrow morning, around 11:15 a.m. (ET). He'll also hit the road this week, appearing in Iowa City to help promote the new law.

* Leading far-right voices did not respond well to yesterday's historic breakthrough.

* On a related note, Tea Party protestors not only threw around racist and anti-gay slurs, they also used offensive language towards at least one Hispanic lawmaker.

* Noting the outrageous conduct of the right-wing activists, Bill Bennett seems confused about what "racism" means, while a right-wing House member suggests conservative bigotry is Democrats' fault.

* Sarabeth ponders the efficacy of Stupak's strategizing.

* It was largely overshadowed by health care developments, but a huge crowd protested in support of immigration reform in D.C. yesterday. President Obama addressed the crowd via a videotaped message.

* As a national entity, ACORN is no more.

* Horse trading on student loan reform.

* Jane Mayer makes Marc Thiessen look even more ridiculous.

* Fact checking the Sunday shows.

* Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) is just not a serious person.

* I'm a big fan of Dave Weigel's reporting, and I was delighted to learn today that he's headed to the Washington Post. The Independent's loss is the Post's gain, and I wish him all the best in the new gig.

* Can we start helping Rush Limbaugh pack?

* And I feel a little awkward about mentioning this, but I wanted Andrew Sabl to know how much I appreciate his post about my health care-related efforts. His item means a great deal to me.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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ABOUT THAT CNN POLL.... It's likely that much of the polling on health care reform is going to change. As the policy, instead of the process, takes center stage, and the nature of a historic victory creates a new narrative, public attitudes will be subject to change.

But in the meantime, CNN has released its latest pre-vote survey. At face value, the results are a mixed bag for Democrats.

On the one hand, the public still doesn't trust Republicans. Asked who they trust more to handle changes to the health system, respondents preferred President Obama to congressional Republicans, 51% to 39%. Asked which party respondents trust more, the results were closer, but Dems still edge the GOP, 45% to 39%.

But that headline still reads, "CNN poll: Americans don't like health care bill."

A majority of Americans have a dim view of the sweeping health care bill passed by the House, saying it gives Washington too much clout and won't do much to reduce their own health care costs or federal deficits, according to a new poll released Monday.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll found that 59 percent of those surveyed opposed the bill, and 39 percent favored it.

But as we've been talking about for a year, the nature of the opposition counts.

In this case, the follow-up question asked, "Do you oppose that legislation because you think its approach toward health care is too liberal, or because you think it is not liberal enough?" Looked at this way, 39% support the bill, 43% oppose it, and 13% want the legislation to be more liberal.

So, when CNN tells you 59% oppose the Democratic proposal, this is not to say that 59% have bought into the right-wing demagoguery and think Republican criticisms have merit. On the contrary, one could look at the same results and say that a 52% majority either support the Democratic plan or want it to be even more ambitious in a liberal direction.

This is not to say that public attitudes are entirely accurate; they're not. Much of the country is still deeply confused about the plan and what it hopes to accomplish. A 70% majority, for example, said they expect reform to increase the deficit, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

But Republicans assume that voter attitudes on health care are on their side. If this poll is any indication, the GOP is misreading the opinion landscape. For a party that has suddenly decided that public opinion polls are the single most important factor in shaping public policy, Republican officials really should take a closer look at what they're citing.

Steve Benen 4:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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ROMNEY'S WILD-EYED FLOUNDERING.... I get that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) is in a tough spot. After one unsuccessful presidential campaign, he's positioning himself for another, hoping to curry favor with the right-wing activists who make up his party's base.

But he has a problem. Well, more than one, actually. The newest problem is that Democrats are wrapping up a historic victory on health care reform, and their plan looks quite a bit like the health care reform plan he implemented during his one term in office.

The more Republican activists and donors hate the Democratic policy, and notice that their policy is Romney's policy, the more they'll likely end up hating Romney and the one major thing he got done during his only experience in government at any level.

What to do? Apparently, Romney's decided to lash out wildly, attacking the Obama-backed policy in unusually stupid ways, and hoping no one notices the similarities between the president's plan and Romney's.

Romney, a potential 2012 presidential candidate, responded on Monday to the new health care legislation on the National Review's Web site. The president, he wrote, "has betrayed his oath to the nation" by failing to attract any Republican votes for the bill.

Romney's statement reads like something written by a Glenn Beck intern, complaining about an "unconscionable abuse of power" -- apparently defined as lawmakers voting for and passing a bill they like -- and a "historic usurpation of the legislative process," though he doesn't say why. It goes on from there, before concluding that the "act should be repealed."

The whole thing would work well in a fundraising letter from Steve King or Michele Bachmann, but Romney is supposed to be at least a little less ridiculous.

But therein lies the point: Romney doesn't have a choice. It's one thing to undergo a dramatic metamorphosis from a pro-choice, pro-gay, pro-immigration moderate to ostensible right-wing hero. It's another to get stuck attacking the president for supporting a health care policy that's practically identical to his own.

It's worth emphasizing the shifting ideological ground on which Romney cannot find his balance. When he supported his own health care policy, it was not only a pretty good plan, it was perfectly in line with what a moderate Republican who cared about this issue would support. Indeed, notice that Romney ran for president for over a year in 2007 and 2008, and no one -- not even his aggressive primary opponents -- accused of him advancing a radical Soviet-style takeover intended to destroy everything that is good about American freedom. Romney's plan just didn't seem that radical.

That is, until now, as Democrats advance a very similar plan. It's left Romney in an impossible spot, and it's forcing him to sound like a lunatic. I almost feel sorry for the guy -- it's not his fault his party's gone mad, and he's struggling to keep up.

Steve Benen 3:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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IT'S TOUGH TO PARSE 'BABY KILLER'.... Mid-day yesterday, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) told his Republican caucus that he wanted them to "behave like grown-ups" as the process drew to a close.

The advice was not taken to heart. While Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) was delivering a surprisingly rousing speech in opposition to Republicans' abortion-related motion to recommit, it sounded like a Republican lawmaker yelled, "Baby killer!" When a Democrat shouted back, "Who said that?" no Republican answered.

But in the wake of Rep. Joe Wilson's (R-S.C.) presidential heckling last year, and Republicans' apparent abandonment of any sense of decorum, it was hard not to wonder: who did say that?

Today, Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R) of Texas fessed up.

"Last night was the climax of weeks and months of debate on a health care bill that my constituents fear and do not support. In the heat and emotion of the debate, I exclaimed the phrase 'it's a baby killer' in reference to the agreement reached by the Democratic leadership," he said. "While I remain heartbroken over the passage of this bill and the tragic consequences it will have for the unborn, I deeply regret that my actions were mistakenly interpreted as a direct reference to Congressman Stupak himself."

Neugebauer said he apologized to Stupak for the outburst.

"I have apologized to Mr. Stupak and also apologize to my colleagues for the manner in which I expressed my disappointment about the bill. The House Chamber is a place of decorum and respect. The timing and tone of my comment last night was inappropriate," he said.

I see. So, "baby killer" was actually "it's a baby killer." Or so he says. Neugebauer would have us believe he was condemning the policy, not the pro-life Democrat. That's strikes me as implausible, and rather ridiculous on its face, but the audio is online for anyone who's interested and is willing to listen closely.

Either way, the way the GOP chooses to conduct itself continues to be a national embarrassment. If Republicans would at least try to, in Boehner's words, "behave like grown-ups," our discourse might improve, at least marginally.

Steve Benen 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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WHEN POLICY REPLACES PROCESS.... Now that health care reform is advancing, the media is starting to do what we expected it to do: telling news consumers what the policy does, instead of how it's being passed.

Matt Yglesias noticed some movement in this direction yesterday.

[W]atching CNN, we got a little flavor of why having a health reform bill signed into law is going to help improve the political position of reformers. By the late afternoon, it was clear that reform was going to pass. Consequently, the political story was getting a bit boring. And yet, there was important health care news! So CNN did something a bit crazy, and wound up giving a decent amount of camera time to Sanjay Gupta to answer questions about the actual content of the bill rather than the political games around the bill.

The coverage that resulted wasn't glowing. Indeed, Gupta and David Gergen teamed up to give credence to a GOP talking point about the "doc fix" issue that I would deem both dishonest and nonsensical. That said, coverage of the actual content of the bill is by necessity more favorable to the bill than the hokum that's dominated the conversation thus far. After all, most of what people have been talking about is either straight-up lies -- death panels -- or hysterical mewling about the death of freedom and the gulag.

Right. For months, the coverage of this issue was dominated by ridiculous demagoguery. It was followed by excessive scrutiny of legislative procedure, horse-trading, arm-twisting, and vote-counting. Is this the kind of coverage that's likely to generate public support for the underlying effort? Not so much.

But that's changing -- because it has to. Americans' interest in self-executing rules was dubious last week, but it's non-existent now. Reconciliation, cloture votes, motions to recommit -- they all lose their salience the moment the process wraps up.

The result is coverage like this and this, which show what health care reform will do for people, instead of how it will get passed.

I predicted in January that coverage like this would likely make reform more popular with the electorate. As we shift the focus from process to policy, I continue to think that's true.

Steve Benen 2:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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BLANCHE LINCOLN'S ODD STRATEGERY.... When the Senate passed its health care bill in December, it did so with a 60-vote supermajority. With a reconciliation package headed back to the Senate, and the Democratic caucus down to 59 members, there was never any expectation that the budget fix would receive the same vote totals as before. Indeed, it's not necessary -- the reconciliation bill passes with a simple majority.

Instead, we can watch center-right Democrats figure out a way to oppose health care reform they've already supported. For example, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) of Arkansas announced today she will oppose the reconciliation fix.

She has been threatening for weeks to oppose the measure, saying she did not favor using reconciliation to pass it. But she has also said she wanted to take a look at the bill.

"Now that the Senate bill has passed both houses and the President will be signing it into law, the Senate will consider additional changes this week that were adopted by the House tonight as Budget Reconciliation," Lincoln said in a statement released Sunday. "The Reconciliation package devised by the House includes matters unrelated to health care and employs a legislative process that wasn't subject to the same transparency and thorough debate that we used in the Senate. I cannot support this process."

I have a vague sense of Lincoln's motivations. She is, after all, running an up-hill re-election fight in a state that will greatly benefit from health care reform, but which is dominated by voters who hate the legislation anyway. Perhaps Lincoln thinks she'll get bonus points for opposing the final package from conservative voters who already plan to vote against her, and hope Democratic primary voters cut her some slack.

But the senator's strategy here really is foolish. Indeed, it's arguably even dumber than Republicans'.

For the GOP, they're stuck trying to protect special deals -- "Cornhusker Kickback," et al -- that they and everyone else find offensive. And that's odd enough, though Republicans are at least consistent in saying "no" to literally every question, whether it makes sense or not.

But Lincoln is positioning herself for the worst of both worlds. She voted for the reform bill with the controversial provisions -- drawing the ire of conservatives who think they don't like the bill -- and now she'll vote against an effort to get rid of the controversial provisions, hiding behind a silly procedural explanation. This, she believes, will make her more popular.

It's hard to get worked up over this -- Lincoln's opposition is inconsequential unless she has 10 Democratic friends -- but her thinking is nevertheless incomprehensible to me.

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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WHATEVER HAPPENED TO 'COUNTRY FIRST'?.... The morning after a historic Democratic victory on health care reform, several media outlets asked the question tens of people nationwide wanted the answer to: what does John McCain think about the legislation he doesn't understand and had nothing to do with?

For his part, the Arizona Republican said he and his GOP colleagues will no longer want to work constructively with Senate Democrats.

Democrats shouldn't expect much cooperation from Republicans the rest of this year, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) warned Monday. [...]

"There will be no cooperation for the rest of the year," McCain said during an interview Monday on an Arizona radio affiliate. "They have poisoned the well in what they've done and how they've done it."

This is just sad. To hear McCain tell it, Democrats hurt Republicans' feelings, so Republicans don't want to do any more work.

I'm not quite sure how this would be any different from how McCain has been conducting himself all along. Despite repeated attempts at outreach from Democrats, the confused Arizona senator has refused to cooperate on any issue. Now we're going to see McCain fold his arms, pout, and refuse to play nice? Sounds like more of the same.

But it's this notion that Dems "poisoned the well" that's especially foolish. Democrats ran on a platform of reforming the health care system, got elected, and then went about fulfilling their campaign promises. They tried to work with the GOP, which deliberately chose to ignore the outreach. Left with no alternative, Dems proceeded on their own, and achieved a breakthrough success.

For that, McCain believes Dems should be punished ... with more obstructionism.

McCain's sense of duty and responsibility -- I seem to recall a "country first" slogan being used not long ago -- has become a punch-line. If he's decided not to do any work for the rest of the year, why doesn't McCain just forgo his paycheck and stop showing up for work?

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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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.

* New York's gubernatorial race got a little more interesting last week, but Steve Levy's Republican campaign is off to a rough start -- a new Siena poll (pdf) shows him trailing former Rep. Rick Lazio in a GOP primary by 47 points. State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (D) leads both Republicans by wide margins.

* Speaking of New York, now that Rep Michael Arcuri (D) voted with far-right Republicans against health care reform, after having voted for it in November, his union support in the district is poised to disappear entirely.

* In Kentucky, the latest Research 2000 poll shows right-wing ophthalmologist Rand Paul leading Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson by 12 -- 40% to 28% -- in the Republicans' Senate primary. In the Democratic primary, Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo leads state Attorney General Jack Conway by a slightly larger margin. In general election match-ups, both Republicans lead both Democrats.

* Michigan's competitive gubernatorial race continues to be very close. A new Marketing Resource Group poll shows a three-way tie for the GOP nomination between Pete Hoekstra, Mike Cox, and Rick Snyder. Andy Dillon leads the Democratic field.

* North Dakota Republicans met at a convention and chose state Rep. Rick Berg to take on Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D) in November.

* Former Obama campaign aide Steve Hildebrand was prepared to take on Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.) in a Democratic primary if she voted against health care reform. She opposed the bill, but Hildebrand has apparently changed his mind.

* Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.) was appointed as a place-holder senator, but apparently he's thinking about running for his own term at some point.

* And in California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) now has the worst poll numbers of "any governor in modern state history including Gray Davis, who was ousted by Schwarzenegger in a popular uprising." The former actor's approval rating in the latest Field Poll was 23%.

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

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THE PRESIDENT WHO PUT IT ALL ON THE LINE.... It's almost amusing to think back to the commentary of last fall, when prominent voices -- from pundits to Saturday Night Live -- perceived President Obama as accomplishment-free.

After succeeding on health care reform -- where seven other presidents had failed -- I don't imagine we'll be hearing this talk anymore.

Yglesias believes Obama will likely "go down in history as one of America's finest presidents," and a leader who has "reshaped the policy landscape in a way that no progressive politician has done in decades." Chait is only slightly more circumspect: "Let me offer a ludicrously premature opinion: Barack Obama has sealed his reputation as a president of great historical import. We don't know what will follow in his presidency, and it's quite possible that some future event -- a war, a scandal -- will define his presidency. But we do know that he has put his imprint on the structure of American government in a way that no Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson has."

Assessing a presidency after 14 months is inherently tricky -- it's impossible to predict what the next three (or seven) years have in store -- but speculating about Obama's place in history, given his record thus far, is hardly outlandish.

Time will tell what else the president can accomplish, but we can say with confidence that health care reform -- a seemingly impossible task -- would have failed were it not for his leadership. He knew a defeat would leave his presidency badly hobbled, but Obama put everything on the line anyway. The accomplishment will likely help define his tenure.

And it's not just health care. I'm reminded of this piece Jacob Weisberg, published in late November.

We are so submerged in the details of this debate ... that it's easy to lose sight of the magnitude of the impending change. For the federal government to take responsibility for health coverage will be a transformation of the American social contract and the single biggest change in government's role since the New Deal. If Obama governs for four or eight years and accomplishes nothing else, he may be judged the most consequential domestic president since LBJ. He will also undermine the view that Ronald Reagan permanently reversed a 50-year tide of American liberalism.

Obama's claim to a fertile first year doesn't rest on health care alone. There's mounting evidence that the $787 billion economic stimulus he signed in February -- combined with the bank bailout package -- prevented an economic depression. [...]

When it comes to foreign policy, Obama's accomplishment has been less tangible but hardly less significant: He has put America on a new footing with the rest of the world. In a series of foreign trips and speeches, which critics deride as trips and speeches, he replaced George W. Bush's unilateral, moralistic militarism with an approach that is multilateral, pragmatic, and conciliatory. Obama has already significantly reoriented policy toward Iran, China, Russia, Iraq, Israel, and the Islamic world.

As the first 14 months of a presidency go, I'll go out on a limb and say Obama's off to a reasonably impressive start. Given that he inherited arguably the single most challenging landscape any modern president has had to deal with, along with the most obstructionist and least constructive congressional opposition in generations, the future of this presidency looks rather bright.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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SPEAKER PELOSI.... There's no shortage of heroes on health care reform , but the political world should keep one truth in mind: without Speaker Pelosi's determination, the fight would have failed. This will likely serve as a crowning achievement for the California Democrat, but it will also make clear that Pelosi the Powerhouse ranks among the most effective House Speakers ever.

The NYT had a fascinating report yesterday, before the outcome of last night's votes was clear, highlighting the behind-the-scenes role Pelosi played in making reform a reality -- even when some were prepared to walk away.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi was at her wits' end, and she let President Obama know it.

Scott Brown, the upstart Republican, had just won his Senate race in Massachusetts, a victory that seemed to doom Mr. Obama's dream of overhauling the nation's health care system. The White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, once Ms. Pelosi's right hand man on Capitol Hill, was pushing Mr. Obama to scale back his ambitions and pursue a pared-down bill.

Mr. Obama seemed open to the idea, though it was clearly not his first choice. Ms. Pelosi scoffed. "Kiddie care," she called the scaled-down plan, derisively, in private.

By all accounts, Obama didn't need much convincing, but it was the Speaker who refused to let the initiative die, and pressed the White House to seize the opportunity.

Her leadership was instrumental, and her commitment never wavered. Pelosi knew when to push, and when to wait.

"The main thing was Pelosi sticking with it and doing the quiet work of bringing people back to saying, 'We're doing this,' " said John Podesta, a former chief of staff to President Clinton.

Just last week, when it was far from clear if 216 votes would materialize, House Democratic leadership aides approached Pelosi with the names of 68 lawmakers -- more than a fourth of her caucus -- who needed some work. The idea was to divvy up the names among the party's top leaders.

"I'll take all 68," Pelosi declared.

And let's also note that while health care reform was the biggest lift, Pelosi has also passed an economic recovery package, a Wall Street reform bill, student loan reform (twice), and cap-and-trade. All, by the way, in 14 months.

They tend to name buildings after leaders with records like these.

Steve Benen 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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ONE DOWN, ONE TO GO.... As extraordinary as yesterday's developments in the House were, there's another step. Or more specifically, another chamber.

The Senate health care bill is now awaiting President Obama's signature, but the House also approved a reconciliation package that will be considered by the Senate this week. Under the rules of the process, Republicans will not be able to filibuster the budget fix -- it will be majority rule -- but GOP senators have already vowed to do everything they can think of obstruct the final phase of the overall process.

Senate Democrats on Monday are set to pick up the battle over health care reform where the House left off, but the path forward remains uncertain as Republicans comb the reconciliation package for weaknesses and Democrats hunker down in an attempt to preserve the integrity of the bill.

"It will be important that we stay together so we can keep the bill strong," Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said. "We won't want to erode the bill just because certain people from certain states might want to do something. So, we will to a certain extent have to work together on this."

Countered National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas): "We'll either bring down the whole bill, or we'll punch big holes in it."

There's one element of this that's gone largely overlooked, especially while so much attention was focused on the House vote.

The reconciliation package improves the legislation with popular fixes. For example, those "special deals" that so many found offensive ("Cornhusker Kickback" and the like) would be scrapped from the health care package when the budget fix is approved. In a political context, this means that Republicans intend to fight as hard as they can to protect the parts of the Senate bill that no one likes.

GOP senators apparently intend to make the Democrats' campaign message easy -- Republicans were unanimous in saying "no" to elements of health care reform Americans like, and then unanimous again in saying "yes" to elements Americans dislike. I can see the ads now: "Why is Sen. David Vitter fighting to protect special deals for Nebraska?"

This, Republicans are convinced, is a smart strategy. There's a very good reason Democrats don't seem intimidated.

In terms of scheduling, a handful of senators are supposed to meet today with the Senate parliamentarian, and if preliminary hurdles are cleared, debate will begin on the Senate floor tomorrow. We might see a vote on Thursday, though GOP delaying tactics may push it off until Saturday.

Steve Benen 9:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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THE CONSEQUENCES OF A BAD BET.... Congressional Republicans decided very early on in the process that when it came to health care reform, they would gamble. It's easy to forget, especially at a time like this, that there was no shortage of not-so-progressive Democrats who were anxious, if not desperate, to strike a compromise with the GOP. If given a choice between a "comprehensive" bill and a "bipartisan" one, much of the Democratic caucus would have gladly embraced the latter.

But Republicans thought they had a better idea: say "no" to everything, including ideas they support and provisions they came up with. There would be no concessions, no compromises, no good-faith negotiations, and no search for common ground. It was time for the Kristol '93 strategy, and it worked last time, so they decided to give it another shot.

GOP leaders knew there was a risk -- if they lost, they'd be stuck with a far more ambitious reform law than a scaled back, bipartisan deal many Dems would have accepted -- but they genuinely believed their combination of obstructionism, lies, and obstinacy would prevail. They gambled.

And they lost.

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum, in a fascinating piece yesterday, described the success of health care reform as the "most crushing legislative defeat" for the right in a half-century. It was, Frum explained, a debacle of conservative Republicans' own making.

We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat.

There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible. How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother? Or -- more exactly -- with somebody whom your voters have been persuaded to believe wants to murder their grandmother?

Frum concluded with a message to his fellow conservatives: "[I]t's Waterloo all right: ours."

This is not to say Republicans will fare poorly in the midterm elections. On the contrary, they're still likely to do very well. But as Jon Chait noted in December, "The Republicans may gain some more seats in 2010 by their total obstruction, but the substantive policy defeat they've been dealt will last for decades."

Maybe, even now, the bad chess players in the Republican caucus believe they would have made the same moves if they could do it all again. They may very well prefer to be knee-jerk reactionaries with nothing to show for their efforts than constructive lawmakers who met Democrats half-way.

But when the dust settles, here's hoping some Republicans realize they could have driven a wedge into the Democratic Party and forced the White House to accept a smaller, bipartisan reform package -- if only they'd placed a smarter bet.

Steve Benen 8:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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THEY PASSED THE DAMN BILL.... There's a temptation, the morning after an extraordinary event, to try to capture What It All Means with something resembling insight. But when dealing with success on health care reform, and a historic victory a century in the making, where does one begin?

Perhaps with the expectations of Nov. 4, 2008. There was a sense among many when Barack Obama won a sweeping election victory that big things were not only possible, but in fact likely to happen. This was going to be a special time to bring about long-overdue change.

But as 2009 progressed, it wasn't just cynics who started to wonder if change is even possible anymore. Indeed, it was hard to miss an emerging pattern -- a progressive idea is proposed, the right reflexively rejects it, corporate interests scare the gullible, the media ignores the substance, th debate becomes overwhelmed by falsehoods and confusion, the public sours, Democrats grow frightened and fractured, and the idea dies. Introduction leads to demagoguery leads to failure. Lather, rinse, repeat.

In this sense, the debate stopped being simply about health care quite a while ago. If the recipe had been written on how to kill anything of significance, then it was easy to suspect that we might never see social reform on a grand scale again. Ever.

And just when it seemed our political system would be limited indefinitely to playing small-ball, something interesting happened. President Obama decided to keep fighting. Speaker Pelosi decided to keep fighting. Americans who elected a Democratic majority decided they weren't going to be satisfied with failure, and they got to work.

In a result that was hard to even imagine two months ago, they won, delivering the change America needs, and delivering a brutal setback for those who demanded failure. Paul Krugman noted:

This is, of course, a political victory for President Obama, and a triumph for Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker. But it is also a victory for America's soul. In the end, a vicious, unprincipled fear offensive failed to block reform. This time, fear struck out.

Given fear's long winning streak, that's no small feat, especially on a scale so grand.

It's generally wise to not exaggerate current events in a historical context, but I don't think it's hyperbole to compare this breakthrough to passage of American bedrocks like Social Security and Medicare. The health care reform bill represents a towering legislative accomplishment and a transformational moment.

President Obama told Americans last night, "In the end, what this day represents is another stone firmly laid in the foundation of the American Dream. Tonight, we answered the call of history as so many generations of Americans have before us. When faced with crisis, we did not shrink from our challenge -- we overcame it. We did not avoid our responsibility -- we embraced it. We did not fear our future -- we shaped it."

And the nation, its people, and its future are better for it. Cherish this moment; they don't come often.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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March 21, 2010

AN ACHIEVEMENT THAT SEEMED OUT OF REACH.... For about a year now, a friend of mine has asked me, just about every day, what I think the likelihood is of health care reform actually passing Congress and becoming law. The number, as you might imagine, has had a few peaks and valleys.

On Christmas Eve, when a Senate supermajority approved reform, I gave it a 90% shot of finally coming together. On Jan. 20, the day after the Senate special election in Massachusetts, I gave it a 5% chance, and feared that all hope was lost.

It was hard to imagine, two months ago, that we'd reach this point tonight. It's an achievement for the ages, a milestone a century in the making. Democrats were elected to make the nation stronger, healthier, and more secure, and health care reform will do exactly that. It gives me enormous pride to be witness to it.

It's been a long day and I'm calling it a night -- I'll have plenty of commentary and analysis tomorrow -- but in about 10 minutes or so, President Obama will speak from the White House about tonight's developments. You can watch the remarks right here:

Steve Benen 11:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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THE VOTES WE'VE BEEN WAITING FOR.... According to multiple Hill sources, here's what to expect over the next half-hour or so. If you're not watching the proceedings, now would be a good time to tune in.

First, the House will vote on the Senate version of health care reform. This 15-minute vote is slated to start around 10:15.

Second, there will be a vote on the Republicans "motion to recommit," which will take another 15 minutes.

Third, will be a final vote on the reconciliation bill, which is also a 15-minute vote.

And while attention will then immediately turn away from the House, the chamber will then vote on two resolutions unrelated to health care (including one recognizing the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima).

After the health care votes, President Obama is scheduled to say a few words from the East Room of the White House.

Update: At 10:48 p.m. (ET), the vote was complete and the House had passed the Senate health care reform bill. The final tally: 219 to 212. No Republicans voted with the majority, and 34 Dems voted against the bill. When the vote reached 216, much of the House Democratic caucus broke out in a chant: "Yes. We. Can." Here's the roll call on this vote (in case you wanted to see the names of the 34 Dems who broke ranks).

Second Update: At 11:18 p.m. (ET), the House rejected the Republicans' motion to recommit (which would have sent the bill back to committee), 199 to 232. The GOP measure, intended to serve as a wedge between pro-life and pro-choice Dems, was condemned in a surprisingly strong speech from Bart Stupak, which effectively sealed its fate. During his remarks, an unidentified Republican lawmaker shouted, "Baby killer!" at the Michigan Democrat.

Third Update: At 11:36 p.m. (ET), the House voted to approve the reconciliation bill, 220 to 211. As Speaker Pelosi banged the gavel -- a gavel that was used when Medicare passed -- and declared that the bill has passed, about half the chamber erupted in applause. Shortly before, President Obama called Pelosi and told her, "You've done what no other Speaker has done."

And with that, the House's work on health care reform is done. Time to follow through, Senate.

Steve Benen 10:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (94)

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'DEAD OF NIGHT'.... Over the course of the afternoon, we've heard quite a few floor speeches from opponents of health care reform, most of them repeating tired, cliched talking points. I haven't checked, but it stands to reason that some GOP lawmakers are just using their remarks from November, only now with more Soviet references.

But there's one talking point that's new, and unique to the circumstances: Republicans are now saying Democrats intend to pass health care reform in the "dead of night."


Now, my first thought is to remind GOP officials that when House Republicans voted to pass Medicare Part D under almost-comically corrupt circumstances, they did so after 3 a.m. If they want to talk about passing health care bills in the "dead of night," we can talk about passing health care bills in the "dead of night."

But that's not really the best response. The better retort is to note that they're the ones delaying the process. House Dems would almost certainly welcome the chance to vote right now, in prime time, for all the world to see, and then everyone could go home. The people complaining about voting in the "dead of night" are the ones pushing the vote into the "dead of night," with pointless procedural delays.

I don't really expect sincere and honest arguments at this point, but c'mon.

Steve Benen 8:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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MOVING RIGHT ALONG.... As you may have heard, the House passed the rule on health care reform.

House Democrats have approved the rule for debate on the healthcare bill, moving them one step closer toward a final vote on the legislation.

The rule was passed 224-206, with 28 Democrats voting against the measure. All Republicans cast "no" votes. A procedural vote on the rules passed by a similar count, 228-202.

The tally is a key test vote for Democrats, who hours earlier were able to bring aboard Rep. Bart Stupak's (D-Mich.) anti-abortion rights voting bloc by striking a compromise with the White House.

Under House procedure, lawmakers must approve the rules for debate before taking up actual legislation.

The vote allows formal debate to begin on the healthcare bill.

Here's the roll call; note that 28 Dems voted with Republicans in opposition. It's the first of the three key votes.

The next vote will apparently be on the Senate reform bill, followed by a vote on the reconciliation package.

For those still keeping track, Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) looks like a "no," Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa.) is a "yes," Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) is inexplicably still a "no," and Marion Berry (D-Ark.) is a "no." Berry is perhaps the only surprise -- he voted "no" in November, but he's retiring. He cited abortion as his motivation, putting him even further to the right than Stupak on the issue.

As for an end-game, rumor has it that we can expect a final vote around 11:30 p.m. (ET).

Steve Benen 7:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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WHERE THINGS STAND.... We're still several hours away from a final floor vote in the House on health care reform, but proponents have every reason to feel optimistic.

Here's the latest....

* Rep. Joe Donnelly (D) of Indiana, a Stupak ally, announced he will vote for the bill, just as he did in November.

* The increasingly peculiar Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D) of California, who didn't show up at all yesterday, is back on the Hill, but still won't say how she plans to vote. Sanchez, a Blue Dog, voted for reform in November.

* Ezra Klein doesn't think Stupak got much in the way of a concession.

[T]he upside of the farce is that the deal they've reached isn't particularly objectionable: Barack Obama will sign an executive order stating, essentially, that the law will follow the law.

Pro-choice Dems aren't thrilled with how things turned out, but the executive order does not appear to put any "yes" votes in jeopardy.

* If reform passes tonight, President Obama will reportedly make a statement from the White House. That might be a very late speech -- there are rumors that the final vote may occur between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m.

* The latest right-wing attack suggests health care reform will be bad for the military. The White House and Vet Voice push back.

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

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STUPAK REACHES DEAL WITH PRESIDENT, SPEAKER.... It looks like it's finally finished. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) hosted a 4 p.m. (ET) press conference -- he didn't cancel this time -- and announced that Democrats "have an agreement," struck with the White House and Speaker's office.

Stupak said the breakthrough came as a result of an executive agreement from President Obama -- which will apparently be signed after the legislation becomes law, and which Stupak says will maintain existing law.

More soon.

Update: White House officials are now saying they count 220 "yes" votes -- four more than needed for passage.

Second Update: Here's a copy of the text of the executive order. And here's some additional context from the White House.

Third Update: Asked about vote totals, Stupak told reporters, "We're well past 216, yes." It's not exactly clear how many votes this bloc represents, but there are seven pro-life Dems on the dais right now, including Stupak.

Fourth Update: Stupak, during the press conference, said he thought the leadership had reached 216 even without him and his voting bloc. I'm fairly certain that isn't true -- the last I heard from a reliable source, Pelosi had 214, which is one of the reasons the White House was still working on finding a resolution with Stupak.

Steve Benen 4:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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LINE BLURRED BETWEEN RIGHT-WING ACTIVISTS, LAWMAKERS.... The reputation earned by the House Republican caucus is obviously well deserved.

A protester sitting in the House gallery just disrupted the early business going on in the chamber by screaming out: "The people have said no!" and "You took an oath." Leadership tried to gavel the members back into session and ordered the Sargent in Arms to remove the unruly man. Before he was escorted out, however, he did receive a fair amount of applause from the Republican side of the aisle.

It's not terribly unusual for some nut to start shouting from the visitors' gallery in the House, interrupting proceedings, and they're always quickly escorted from the room. But I've never heard of an instance in which House members actually applaud the nut. This sort of thing simply doesn't happen in the United States Congress.

And we're not just talking about a GOP member or two. Jonathan Cohn, who was literally a few feet away, said "at least a dozen" Republican lawmakers cheered on the protestor.

"Did you guys see the Republicans encouraging the disruption?" Frank told reporters. "These clowns are out there encouraging violation of the law and making the job of the guys up there harder. It's really disgraceful.... That's why you get this kind of virulent hatred outside."

Around the same time, three unidentified House Republican appeared on Congress' South Balcony waving a "Don't Tread on Me" flag, to the delight of right-wing activists assembled below. They also held up a sign reading: "Kill" "The" "Bill."

This not only speaks to a pervasive, almost dangerous extremism in the House GOP caucus, but also a blurring of a line between Republican lawmakers and their unhinged activist allies -- the only difference appears to be the suit and the ability to vote on federal policy.

Steve Benen 3:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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CONTINUING TO COUNT HEADS.... In the last half-hour, three undecided Dems made official declarations. One offered good news, two did not.

First, the good news. As we talked about in the last post, Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) will switch from "no" to "yes."

Then, the bad news. Reps. John Tanner and Lincoln Davis, both Democrats from Tennessee, announced they will oppose health care reform. Both also voted "no" in November, but Tanner is retiring at the end of this term and was considered a possible pick-up opportunity. Apparently, it wasn't enough.

At this point, the number of undecided Dems who have not yet said how they'll vote is getting pretty small. Here's a list of members to keep an eye on:

* Marion Berry of Arkansas, who voted for reform in November and is retiring this year

* Rick Boucher of Virginia

* Jerry Costello of Illinois, a Stupak ally

* Kathy Dahlkemper of Pennsylvania, a Stupak ally

* Joe Donnelly of Indiana, a Stupak ally

* Steve Driehaus of Ohio, a Stupak ally

* Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania

* Dan Lipinski of Illinois, a Stupak ally

* Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, a Stupak ally

* Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota, a Stupak ally

* Nick Rahall of West Virginia

* And Bart Stupak of Michigan

Of these, everyone except Boucher voted for the bill in November.

If you're noticing the possible significance of Stupak and his bloc, we're on the same page.

Update: As of 2:19, CNN says Pomeroy will vote "yes."

Steve Benen 2:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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REPORTS: STUPAK SAYS 'YES' TO HEALTH CARE REFORM (OR MAYBE NOT).... There has not yet been confirmation from the lawmaker himself, but MSNBC is reporting that Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) will support the health care reform legislation today. If accurate, this would not only be a huge development, it might seal the deal and point to success. (See updates below)

Reuters is reporting the same thing, as is the Wall Street Journal.

Democratic leaders have reached a deal with antiabortion Democratic lawmakers aimed at winning votes from at least some of them, an aide said Sunday.

The aide said a bloc of antiabortion lawmakers was set to vote "yes" on the bill. It wasn't immediately clear how many lawmakers would be won over by the deal or whether it included Rep. Bart Stupak (D., Mich.), the leader of the antiabortion Democrats.

The abortion issue has been one of the final obstacles Democratic leaders have been seeking to remove to win a 216-vote majority in the House for their health-overhaul bill.

Part of the equation, of course, is how many votes Stupak can/will/would bring with him. The size of his voting bloc is the subject of some debate -- it's somewhere between five and eight votes, as of this morning -- but if he and his allies are all on board with final passage, 216 votes appear to be secure.

The next question -- after official confirmation from Stupak himself -- is what became necessary to earn Stupak's support. Reports suggest it was discussions with the White House over an executive order that won him over, but we do not yet know exactly what that executive order would say.

And in related news, Rep. Brian Baird (D) of Washington state, is reportedly also going to vote "yes," after having voted "no" in November. Baird is retiring at the end of this term, and has been considered a key pick-up opportunity.

Update: CNN is reportng that Stupak is sitll a "no," and the Democratic leadership has not yet said anything, either way.

Second Update: Stupak told CNN's Evan Glass, "There is no deal yet. It's a work in progress. Maybe we'll get there today."

Third Update: Brian Baird confirms that he's switching from "no" to "yes."

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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RATIONALIZING BIGOTRY.... Perhaps I spoke too soon. This morning, a variety of key Republican officials denounced the right-wing activists who engaged in disgusting, bigoted behavior yesterday as part of conservatives' opposition to fixing the dysfunctional health care system. I was heartened to see there were some things the unhinged Tea Party crowd can do that GOP leaders were willing to denounce.

But Republican criticism was not universal.

This morning on C-Span's Washington Journal, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) justified the disturbing racist and homophobic epitaphs that angry tea baggers hurled yesterday at Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), and other House Democrats. Nunes insisted that everyone has a right to "smear" whoever they want and that the tea baggers' behavior was understandable given the "crazy totalitarian tactics" that he alleges Democrats are engaged in.

When the host noted that protestors verbally attacked his own colleagues, Nunes responded, "Yeah, well I think that when you use totalitarian tactics, people, you know, begin to act crazy." (He went on to say use of the "n" word is "inappropriate." How gracious of him.)

A few things. First, Nunes is right that in a free country, odious racists are allowed to say offensive things, even to elected officials. The point, though, isn't that these Tea Party activists did something illegal -- although, in the case of one activist spitting on a congressman, this is a crime -- the point is that they did something morally outrageous. Decent people, regardless of politics, should have no qualms about condemning such ugliness.

Second, when an elected majority tries to pass legislation that they promised voters they'd pursue, this is not an example of "totalitarian tactics." I realize Devin Nunes isn't the sharpest tool in the shed, but if he sees the elected Democratic majority acting in a dictatorial fashion, he's lost his mind.

And third, people of strong character and sound values don't try to rationalize bigotry. For Nunes, there seems to be some kind of reflex at play -- some Tea Party thugs used some deeply offensive language, and in one case even spat on a member of Congress, so it must be Democrats' fault.

It's pathetic.

Steve Benen 12:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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STUPAK SCHEDULES, POSTPONES PRESS CONFERENCE, PART II.... Yesterday, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) scheduled a Capitol Hill press conference for 11 a.m. (ET). It wasn't clear what he'd say at the event, but it had to do with his bloc's willingness to support health care reform.

Shortly before it began, Stupak cancelled.

Today, Stupak scheduled a Capitol Hill press conference for noon (ET). It wasn't clear what he'd say at the event, but it had to do with his bloc's willingness to support health care reform.

Shortly before it began, Stupak cancelled again.

Whether this is encouraging or discouraging is something of a mystery, but there's no shortage of activity on this front. Consider this an FYI, for now.

Steve Benen 12:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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DENOUNCING BIGOTRY.... Given my earlier post on this, it's only fair that I acknowledge Republican officials who did the right thing this morning.

Following reports yesterday that black and openly gay Democratic lawmakers were subjected to spitting and epithets from anti-health care reform protesters outside the Capitol, Republican leaders said Sunday that such incidents were "isolated" and "reprehensible."

On CNN's "State of the Union," Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) denounced the use of such slurs "in the strongest terms possible."

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the "isolated incidents" were "reprehensible."

Later on the same program, Michael Steele, the Republican National Committee's first black chairman, agreed that the incidents were "reprehensible," and added, "we do not support that."

I would have preferred to see Republicans speak out on this sooner, and it would have been nice had they denounced the abhorrent right-wing tactics without waiting to be asked, but it's nevertheless encouraging to see there are still some lines of decency that even far-right protestors are not supposed to cross.

As for Steele, he tried to characterize yesterday's ugliest incidents as the actions of a "handful of people who just got stupid." If I heard him correctly, the RNC chairman went on to denounce "racial epitaphs" like those uttered yesterday.

I'm fairly certain that's not the proper use of the word "epitaph," but the sentiment is appreciated anyway.

Steve Benen 11:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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KAPTUR WILL BACK REFORM BILL.... With a no margin for error, and a dwindling number of undeclared members, every announcement from an undecided House member becomes a key development. But this one is arguably bigger than most because of what it tells us about the pro-life bloc.

In a big step forward for House Dems, Rep Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, one around a half dozen Stupak holdouts, just confirmed to a local TV station that she's voting Yes on the Senate bill.

Kaptur made the announcement on WTGV-TV, the ABC affiliate in Toledo, at around 9:50 AM.

The interview is not yet online but I confirmed Kaptur's quotes with WTGV investigative reporter Zack Ottenstein.

"Yes I will," Kaptur said, when asked if she'd be supporting the Senate bill.

The interview has since been posted, and Kaptur explained that the legislation "addresses a serious problem before the country today, which is that people are finding their insurance plans unaffordable."

As for the abortion-related provisions, Kaptur, a pro-life Dem and Stupak ally, added, "We received assurances last night that we will work with the administration and [HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius] and the President to ensure existing law is maintained. And not to change it in any way but to make sure it applies to this bill."

Asked if health care reform will pass, Kaptur said, "I'm pretty confident at this point."

This is not to say Stupak no longer has a key voting bloc that puts success in jeopardy; he does. The point, though, is that his group is getting smaller, and more of the votes he thought he had in his pocket have declared their support for the final bill.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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A TIMELINE OF EVENTS.... Several readers have asked what the schedule looks like for today, in terms of what votes are likely to happen when. It's been tough to put together a timeline, and scrapping "deem and pass" means the process will take a bit longer.

CBS News, however, put this timeline together, which is consistent with what I'm hearing from Hill aides:

2 p.m.: The House will debate for one hour the rules of debate for the reconciliation bill and the Senate bill.

3 p.m.: The House will vote to end debate and vote on the rules of the debate.

3:15 p.m.: The House will debate the reconciliation package for two hours.

5:15 p.m.: The House will vote on the reconciliation package.

5:30 p.m.: The House will debate for 15 minutes on a Republican substitute and then vote on the substitute.

6 p.m.: The House will vote on the final reconciliation package.

6:15 p.m.: If the reconciliation bill passes, the House will immediately vote on the Senate bill, without debate.

Also note, if the House approves the Senate bill, it will go directly to the White House. It's possible, if not likely, that President Obama would sign it into law this evening.

But if the vote counting goes poorly for the Democratic leadership today, it's also possible that Speaker Pelosi could delay a vote until tomorrow (or later), if she decides the votes aren't there and she needs more time to get them.

For now, however, the timeline published by CBS looks about right. It's subject to revision, of course, but it's something to keep in mind as you plan your day.

Update: OK, it now looks like this schedule isn't even close to being right. Officials circulated a revised timeline, which points to final votes closer to 9:30 p.m. (ET), and even that may be optimistic.

If you're wondering why this can't be a quicker process, note that GOP lawmakers are trying a variety of delaying tactics to drag this out as long as they can.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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WHAT'S THE STORY MORNING GLORY.... It's 10 a.m. (ET) on Sunday; do you know where your health care reform bill is?

No one can say with any real certainty what's going to happen today. House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (D-Conn.) told ABC, "We have the votes. We are going to make history today." But Larson has consistently been more optimistic than arguably anyone, anywhere, so his boast should probably be taken with a grain of salt.

Other key Democratic leaders were far more circumspect. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told NBC, "We're going to have 216 votes," which obviously means the 216 are not yet there. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) told Fox News, "We don't have a hard 216 right now," and added that the count "is in flux."

A breakthrough with Rep. Bart Stupak's (D-Mich.) bloc would almost certainly secure passage, but as of this morning, progress remains elusive.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) just told MSNBC he controls eight votes on the health care reform bill, including his own. According to Stupak, the eight are in discussions with the White House about a possible executive order from President Obama that would affirm the Hyde amendment after the bill passes in the House.

Stupak added, "We're close but we're not there yet." He's made similar comments before, so there's no way to say for sure whether a resolution is likely or not.

In other developments:

* Rep. Glenn Nye (D-Va.) voted against reform in November, but was believed to be a possible switcher. Last night, he disappointed everyone by announcing he would oppose the bill today.

* In a bizarre development, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), a Blue Dog who voted for reform in November, blew off work altogether yesterday and went to Florida to do some fundraising. Despite her previous support, Sanchez may or may not vote today, and if she does, the leadership now expects her to switch from "yes" to "no."

* Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) had expressed reservations about the final bill, but he announced last night that he will support the legislation, just he did in November.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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MCCONNELL'S APPROACH TO PUBLIC OPINION.... Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky isn't especially knowledgeable about public policy, and has never shown any real interest in the substance of lawmaking, but he understands strategy and political tactics with surprising acuity.

In fact, for all of his shameless dishonesty, McConnell is often quite candid about his tactical efforts. He told the NYT this week about his decision early on to undermine health care reform by ensuring total GOP opposition: "It was absolutely critical that everybody be together because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is O.K., they must have figured it out." Since all Democratic legislation necessarily must be killed, all Republicans necessarily had to stand together against it, regardless of merit.

He offered similar candor in an interview with National Journal, explaining the importance he and the House GOP leadership put on "unify[ing] our members in opposition" to just about everything Democrats wanted to do.

"Public opinion can change, but it is affected by what elected officials do. Our reaction to what [Democrats] were doing had a lot to do with how the public felt about it. Republican unity in the House and Senate has been the major contributing factor to shifting American public opinion."

This is critically important, and often forgotten. The basic civics model tells us that if a policy agenda receives an electoral mandate, and enjoys support in public opinion polls, the challenge for opponents of that agenda is deciding whether or not to buck prevailing attitudes and ignore election results.

But the basic civics model is wrong, or at a minimum, overly simplistic. The public's reactions are shaped by officials' reactions. The challenge for a minority party isn't whether to defy the country's wishes, but rather, how to convince the country that their opposition alone necessarily makes the majority's agenda dubious.

Matt Yglesias explained this nicely:

That's exactly right. Since January of 2009, instead of sticking their fingers in the wind and only opposing unpopular initiatives, Republicans have reduced the popularity of initiatives by opposing them. The blanket opposition makes Obama's initiatives look "partisan" and then it leads, necessarily, to Democratic infighting that further reduces support. If you don't care at all about the welfare of human beings, this is a very smart strategy.

Right. And as McConnell and his cohorts have made abundantly clear, Americans' welfare and the nation's future pale in comparison to the Republican quest for power.

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

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A FIRST-HAND ACCOUNT.... A faithful reader who works on Capitol Hill emailed last night to describe the scene yesterday. Specifically, the staffer seemed incredulous about just how "ugly" the right-wing antics became. I'm republishing the aide's email with permission:

[I]t was ugly up here today. A complete disrespect for the people and institutions. The well-reported racial slurs and attacks on Barney Frank's sexuality, but also the little things. At 9am some Tea Partiers were putting a paper placard above a Member's name outside his door that said "I am stupid" and taking a photo. I shook my head at the disrespect and after I turned the corner, yelled at my back was, "You don't agree? Then you are, too."

Or at lunch when my colleague was "boxed out" from the Coke machine by a group of Tea Partiers who used their bodies to keep him from buying a Coke.

Or when I left today and the Capitol grounds were littered w/ trash and discarded protest signs.

Unfortunately I have more stories like that, but you get the idea.... I wonder if I'm watching the death throes of Movement Conservatism up close and personal.

Conservatism will never die (nor should it) and arguably the Democratic plan is conservative in the little c sense by keeping and enriching all the entrenched players.

But Movement Conservatism is definitely dying. You know the kind that thinks a .07 increase in the Medicare tax for those making over 100k ruins America's competitiveness but double-digit inflation in health care costs doesn't. Or 400Billion in tax cuts and another 300 billion investments in infrastructure is something to rally against rather than a major legislative victory.

Or the Movement Conservatism that blows a gasket because the cost of two wars are accounted for rather than being done off-budget. Or, hell, the Movement Conservatism that objects to PAY-GO legislation.

I wonder if I was watching people's worldviews breakdown before their eyes. And they had nothing left but to name call, spit and litter as a form of futile and immature protest.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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CALLING OUT THE LOATHSOME.... Right-wing Tea Party activists hate the idea of improving the nation's dysfunctional health care system, but as became abundantly clear yesterday, their hatred goes considerably further than that. I'm glad to see this get some attention.

[W]hile most of the invective was directed at the health care bill itself, several House members said there was an ugly tone to comments made by some demonstrators against three black lawmakers: Representatives Andre Carson of Indiana, Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri and John Lewis of Georgia, all Democrats.

An aide to Mr. Lewis, a leader of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, said that as he walked to the Capitol, Mr. Lewis was called racial slurs. A spokesman for Mr. Cleaver said that a protester spat on the congressman as he was walking to the Capitol for a vote.

Democratic aides said some demonstrators made anti-gay remarks to Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, who is gay.

The No. 3 Democrat in the House, Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, said, "I heard people saying things today that I have not heard since March 15, 1960, when I was marching to try to get off the back of the bus."

The language the right-wing activists used was disgusting. The protestor who spit at Rep. Cleaver was arrested.

But by last night, a related question arose: why aren't Republicans making any efforts at all to denounce the actions of their extremist allies? Can there be any doubt that if liberal protestors, speaking out against the war in Iraq a few years ago, had engaged in these kinds of tactics, the demands for Democratic condemnations would be overwhelming?

Barney Frank, who was on the receiving end of many verbal attacks, said, "If this was a movement that I was part of, I'd be doing more than I think the Republicans are, to differentiate myself."

It's possible Republicans will show some decency this morning, and at least offer cursory denunciations. At this point, however, their silence is as conspicuous as it is offensive.

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) appeared on the floor last night to urge GOP lawmakers to "distance" themselves from the Tea Party's loathsome tactics. After describing some of the misconduct, Ryan added, "We call on the Republicans to say 'shame on you' to that kind of behavior."

We're waiting.

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

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March 20, 2010

WHERE THINGS STAND.... So, where are we? Here are some key health-care-related developments from the afternoon:

* Rep. Chris Carney (D) of Pennsylvania, believed to be a Stupak ally, announced he will vote "yes" tomorrow. Carney also voted "yes" in November.

* In a key setback, Rep. Zach Space (D) of Ohio switched from "yes" to "no," the first such reversal we've seen in a couple of days.

* Rep. Jim Matheson (D) of Utah, who voted "no" but was considered a key pick-up opportunity, announced he will vote "no." He cited "too many special deals," which seems like a rather callous reason to deny 32 million people health coverage.

* Rep Henry Cuellar (D), a Blue Dog from Texas, best known as the guy who didn't want to return the White House's phone calls, announced he will vote "yes" tomorrow, just as he did in November.

* The dispute over regional disparities appears to have been resolved, so Oregon's Peter DeFazio is back on board, as expected.

* The Senate Democrats' letter, outlining their support for the reconciliation budget fix, has been circulated among House Dems and posted online (pdf).

* For now, there's been no resolution with Stupak, but House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) is reportedly circulating the draft language of an executive order on abortion funding. Whether it will satisfy everyone, anyone, or no one remains to be seen.

* I have no idea whether health care reform will pass tomorrow or not.

Did I miss anything? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 8:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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DIFFERENT SIDES OF HISTORY.... When we get past disputes over legislative procedures and individual provisions, it's hard not to appreciate the historic significance of the pending health care reform legislation.

I was thinking about something I saw in the MoveOn.org ad this week. "Throughout history, America has been blessed with heroic leaders -- individuals who helped us to navigate between right and wrong," the spot says. "We need our leaders to fight for what's right. Call Congress today and ask them: Which side of history will you be on?"

Today, confused right-wing activists descended on Capitol Hill to express their hatred for health reform and its proponents. They didn't leave much doubt as to what side of history they're on.

Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.) claimed Saturday that healthcare protesters at the Capitol directed racial epithets at him and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) as they walked outside.

Carson, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus along with Lewis, told The Hill that protesters called the lawmakers the N-word. [...]

Lewis was one of the leaders of the civil rights movement alongside Martin Luther King. Jr. Asked if racial epithets were yelled at him, Lewis responded, "Yes, but it's OK. I've heard this before in the '60s. A lot of this is just downright hate."

And this.

Abusive, derogatory and even racist behavior directed at House Democrats by Tea Party protesters on Saturday left several lawmakers in shock. [...]

A staffer for Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) told reporters that Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-M.D.) had been spit on by a protestor.

And this.

...Rep. Barney Frank got an uglier version of the treatment. Just after Frank rounded a corner to leave the building, an older protestor yelled "Barney, you faggot." The surrounding crowd of protestors then erupted in laughter.

And this.

ThinkProgress attended today's rally and spotted a sign threatening violence if health care passes. The sign reads: "Warning: If Brown can't stop it, a Browning can," referring to Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) and a Browning firearm.

Can there be any doubt as to what side of history these right-wing activists are on?

Steve Benen 5:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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'I AM BOUND TO BE TRUE'.... As scheduled, President Obama addressed the House Democratic Caucus today, making one final pitch and urging them to do the right thing tomorrow. This was supposed to be a closed-door meeting, but the White House provided a live audio feed online.

I've heard a whole lot of Obama speeches on health care, and this one was a little different, perhaps because he was trying to persuade a much smaller audience than usual. There were far fewer rah-rah moments -- indeed, lawmakers were eerily silent for most of the address -- and much of the message was focused on appeals to members' sense of patriotism and civic duty.

"You have a chance to make good on the promises you made," Mr. Obama said. "This is one of those moments. This is one of those times where you can honestly say to yourself: 'Doggone it, this is exactly why I came here. This is why I got into politics. This is why I got into public service. This is why I made these sacrifices.' "

"Every single one of you have made that promise not just to your constituents but to yourself," he added, "This is the time to make good on this promise."

Finally, Mr. Obama declared, "We have been debating health care for decades. It has now been debated for a year. It is in your hands. It is time to pass health care reform for America and I am confident that you are going to do it tomorrow."

Early on, the president noted an Abraham Lincoln quote, which he returned to throughout his remarks: "I am not bound to win but I am bound to be true," he said. It became the running theme -- policymakers who supported Social Security, Medicare, and the Civil Right Act weren't bound to win, either, but they were bound to be true.

It wasn't all about appeals to principle. Obama noted that Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, and Karl Rove have been giving Dems all kinds of political advice, but they, the president reminded House members, may not have Democrats' best interests at heart.

More specifically, Obama emphasized a wide variety of key new protections that would take effect "this year," probably as a way of reminding members about the popular advances they can point to in their re-election campaigns. He also noted that reform, as law, would debunk right-wing myths: "[I]t's going to be a little harder to mischaracterize what this legislation has been all about."

But mostly, the president sounded sympathetic, acknowledging repeatedly that he recognizes the pressure lawmakers are facing and knows this will be a "tough vote." But Obama said it was imperative for members to have the courage to do the right thing. "Don't do it for me," he said. "Don't do it for the Democratic Party. Do it for the American people."

Post Script: By the way, readers probably know that I like to listen to the president's speeches with the prepared text, checking to see when (and what) he adlibs. In this case, Obama just told House Dems what he was thinking, without a teleprompter and without a prepared text.

Steve Benen 5:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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REID TELLS HOUSE DEMS WHAT THEY WANT TO HEAR.... Lingering in the background has been a lingering question from House Dems: the Senate really will pass the reconciliation budget fix, right?

Before President Obama spoke to the House Democratic Caucus this afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) addressed lawmakers and told them what they wanted to hear.

Reid, in a speech on Saturday to the House Democratic Caucus, said he'd wrangled a majority of votes to pass a series of changes to the Senate's original healthcare bill through budget reconciliation rules.

"I'm happy to announce I have the commitment of a significant majority of the United States Senate to make that good law even better," Reid said.

The applause was loud and lengthy.

Reid's office will reportedly release the contents of the letter -- which he has already shared with Pelosi and Hoyer -- later today. I find it hard to believe there are House Dems who would seriously let health care reform die over concerns that Senate Dems may not follow through, but if the commitment makes the final vote a little easier, it's a welcome development.

Update: To emphasize a key point here, the letter has been "signed by more than 50 Senate Democrats, saying they will vote for the reconciliation amendment."

Steve Benen 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (6)

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THE EXECUTIVE ORDER OPTION.... With Speaker Pelosi having ruled out, at least for now, Rep. Bart Stupak's (D-Mich.) demands for a side vote on his odious anti-abortion amendment, there are limited options for resolving the dispute. One approach, of course, is not resolving it at all, and finding the necessary votes elsewhere.

But over the last few hours, another possibility has become the focus of fairly intense interest.

Democratic lawmakers say party leaders are considering winning crucial support from abortion foes for health care overhaul legislation with an executive order by President Barack Obama.

The order -- which does not require congressional approval -- would be aimed at reflecting long-standing law barring federal aid for abortions except for cases of rape or incest or when the mother's life is threatened.

If this sounds kind of familiar, it's because it came up several weeks ago, but was dismissed without much thought. Apparently, it's back, and is considered a credible solution to the impasse.

Rep. James Oberstar, a pro-life Dem from Minnesota who intends to vote for the reform bill, has signaled an interest in this approach, though he said his colleagues will have to discuss exactly what an executive order might say.

Well, yes, I suppose that is the tricky part. The idea would be a commitment from the White House on how, exactly, exchanges would be allowed to operate. In effect, the president would sign an order applying the Hyde Amendment to health care reform, leaving the status quo in place, which is allegedly what everyone wants anyway. An executive order would aim to satisfy the demands of Stupak and his cohorts without changing the specific language of the legislation that pro-choice lawmakers are willing to accept.

Pro-choice Dems like Henry Waxman (Calif.) and Diana DeGette (Colo.) sound amenable to the executive order approach. DeGette told reporters, "If it simply states that there will be no federal funding of abortion in the bill, that's fine, because we've already agreed to that."

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) was asked whether the pro-life bloc would accept this option, and he replied, "I'm hopeful."

This is moving very quickly, but it's probably a mistake to count on an as-yet-unwritten executive order as a magic bullet. If writing legislative language that satisfies Stupak proved impossible, writing executive order language may not be any easier.

But it's at least an option, and it's gathering steam. Something to keep an eye on.

Steve Benen 3:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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TAKING 'DEEM AND PASS' OFF THE TABLE.... The life of the "self-executing rule" on health care reform was fairly brief, but it experienced quite a ride. What started as an obscure and unlikely approach quickly became a favorite of the leadership. From there is became reviled by right-wing activists and the media, and the subject of considerable legal debate.

As it turns out, it looks like the hullabaloo was for naught -- "deem and pass" has apparently been taken off the table.

House leaders have decided to take a separate vote on the Senate health-care bill, rejecting an earlier, much-criticized strategy that would have permitted them to "deem" the unpopular measure passed without an explicit vote.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said Saturday that the House would take three votes Sunday: first, on a resolution that will set the terms of debate; second, on a package of amendments to the Senate bill that have been demanded by House members; and third, on the Senate bill itself.

Van Hollen, who has been working on the issue with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said House leaders concluded that that order -- approving the amendments before approving the Senate bill -- makes clear that the House intends to modify the Senate bill and not approve the Senate bill itself.

"Our objective all along was to make it clear that the House is amending the Senate bill, and we found another way of accomplishing that," Van Hollen said in an interview.

Days' worth of hysterical cries about a routine procedure were apparently entirely unnecessary. Oh well.

As a practical matter, if the leadership moves forward with its floor plans tomorrow, there will be three votes -- (1) an up-or-down vote on the rule, which is a standard move for all legislation; (2) an up-or-down vote on the Senate bill, just as Republicans demanded; and (3) an up-or-down vote on the reconciliation budget fix.

I can only assume, then, that Republicans and the media will praise the Democratic leadership for their commitment to a transparent, above-board process, and every conservative who whined incessantly about "demon pass" -- Peggy Noonan, I'm looking in your direction -- will credit Speaker Pelosi for doing the right thing.

Yes, I'm sure that praise will happen any minute now.

Steve Benen 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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PELOSI: NO SIDE VOTE ON ABORTION.... Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) is pushing for a side vote on his odious anti-abortion amendment. Speaker Pelosi announced today this won't happen.

Pelosi told reporters on Saturday there will be no separate votes on any proposed changes to the package at this point: "Not on abortion, not on public option, not on single payer, not on anything," she said.

Democratic leaders have been in talks with Stupak about a complicated procedure that would give him a vote on his language but likely result in the Senate's less stringent abortion language still becoming law. But abortion-rights supporters have vigorously resisted any accommodation to Stupak and his allies -- a critical bloc of votes that leaders are courting to put the health package over the top.

In other words, no deal. There was talk that an agreement had been reached, but either those reports were erroneous, or circumstances led the agreement to fall through.

There's ongoing talk about finding yet another alternative -- specifically, an executive order from the White House on how funds can and cannot be allocated -- but those discussions are preliminary. For now, Stupak's demands will go unmet, and Pelosi will play her hand without him.

The ongoing question, then, hasn't changed in quite a while: can health care reform pass without Stupak and his bloc?

And for that matter, is it possible to find members of Stupak's bloc who might still be open to reason? It's worth noting that Pelosi met this afternoon with Democratic Reps. Tim Chris Carney (Pa.), Kathy Dahlkemper (Pa.) and Steve Driehaus (Ohio) -- all three of whom are pro-life allies of Stupak -- perhaps in the hopes of satisfying their concerns, if not the ringleader's.

As of now, there still aren't 216 committed "yes" votes. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), who co-chairs the Pro-Choice Caucus and is a Chief Deputy Whip, said proponents are "very close." Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), another leading pro-choice progressive, added, "We think we have the votes" without Stuapk and his cohorts, but that's unconfirmed by any count anyone has seen publicly.

Meanwhile, six more uncommitted Dems have made their official announcements. Rep. John Barrow (Ga.) will vote "no," while Reps. Harry Mitchell (Ariz.), Jim Costa (Calif.), Bill Owens (N.Y.), Baron Hill (Ind.), and Bruce Braley (Iowa) will vote "yes." None of the six are switching from how they voted in November.

The number of undecided votes is down to about 20, and depending on which count you find most reliable, supporters of reform will still need about five to 10 more votes to get to success.

Steve Benen 1:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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STUPAK SCHEDULES, POSTPONES PRESS CONFERENCE.... Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) scheduled a Capitol Hill press conference for 11 a.m. (ET), at which he was poised to be joined by a cadre of allies. It wasn't altogether clear what he'd say at the event, but Stupak's message was unlikely to be an encouraging one.

About a half-hour ago, Stuapk had a different announcement: the press conference has been postponed.

Things are moving pretty quickly on this front, but it's worth appreciating that the issue of indirect, circuitous funding of abortions really does put the entire health care reform effort in jeopardy.

Is the delay in Stuapk's press conference good or bad? Those of us outside the negotiating rooms can't say with certainty -- at least not yet -- but it could be either.

Maybe Stupak was going to announce that he had 10 votes to kill the legislation, but he struck a deal with the Democratic leadership and no longer needs to make that declaration.

Or maybe Stupak was going to announce that he already struck a deal with the leadership, but then the leadership had to scramble in the face of a pro-choice revolt that would have killed the bill.

Or maybe the talks are just ongoing, and Stupak postponed to see where they're headed.

We do know that the Democratic mainstream doesn't want Stupak to screw up a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan, the longest-serving member of the House and a man who's committed his professional life to completing health care reform, said this morning he would work to "beat" Stupak's efforts.

Steve Benen 11:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is Pope Benedict XVI expressing his regrets today for the sex scandal that's been overwhelming the Roman Catholic Church throughout Europe of late.

Confronting a sex abuse scandal spreading across Europe, including his native Germany, Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday apologized directly and personally to victims and their families in Ireland, expressing "shame and remorse" and saying "your trust had been betrayed and your dignity has been violated."

His message, in a long-awaited, eight-page pastoral letter to Irish Catholics, seemed couched in strong and passionate language. But it did not refer directly to immediate disciplinary action beyond sending a special apostolic delegation to investigate unspecified dioceses and religious congregations in Ireland. Moreover, it was, as the Vatican said it would be, focused particularly on the situation in Ireland, even as the crisis has widened elsewhere.

"You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated," the pope told Irish victims and their families.

"Many of you found that, when you were courageous enough to speak of what happened to you, no one would listen. Those of you who were abused in residential institutions must have felt that there was no escape for your sufferings," he continued.

"It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church," Benedict continued. "In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel."

The pope's message is unlikely to resolve the escalating abuse disaster. Benedict's message not only made no mention of actual penalties for those involved in the scandal and cover-up, and not only does the Vatican seem reluctant to investigate evidence of abuse outside of Ireland (overlooking recent revelations from Germany and Netherlands), but the pope also made no effort to address the Vatican's culpability in the scandal.

The international uproar is likely to continue.

The God Machine also noted that Virginia's state legislature approved a resolution this week, honoring radical televangelist Pat Robertson on his 80th birthday. The resolution celebrates Robertson as "a compelling and compassionate spiritual leader" who is "devoted to his family, his viewers who are his extended family, his community and the Commonwealth."

Given that Robertson blamed Americans for 9/11, and in 2003, expressed his support for a terrorist attack on the U.S. State Department, it strikes me as odd that Virginia lawmakers would approve a resolution to pay tribute to a radical cleric who happens to live in their state.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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BOEHNER AND THE BANKS.... For quite a while now, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) has been going to great lengths to try to make banks happy. Despite the fact that Wall Street and bailed out bankers aren't especially popular among American voters right now -- this is the crowd that nearly collapsed the global economy -- the would-be Speaker has been embarrassing himself, trying to curry favor with the industry.

This week was especially galling. On Wednesday, Boehner spoke at the American Bankers Association's government relations summit, and denounced efforts to bring more oversight and accountability to the industry. He even gave the bankers advice: "Don't let those little punk staffers take advantage of you and stand up for yourselves."

Yes, because the real problem with the last several years is that banks haven't been assertive enough. (The "little punk staffers" line also didn't go over well among more responsible figures.)

Last night on Fox News, Boehner went a little further. Complaining that Democrats may pass a key student-loan package, the Minority Leader insisted that the provisions "eliminate every bank in the country and all private student loan lenders so the government can do it instead."

Pat Garofalo explained how foolish this is.

This is just astoundingly wrong. On a very basic level, it could only be true if the sole thing banks did was make student loans, which is obviously not the case. The day after student loan reform passes, banks will still be there, cashing checks, taking deposits, making home loans, and on and on.

But the greater point Boehner was trying to make is that student loan reform is somehow a new expansion of government into the private economy.... But the government already provides the money for the loans and guarantees the lenders against loss, in addition to directly making millions of loans every year. So student lending is, for all intents and purposes, already a federal program.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) complained last year that the financial industry too often seems to the "own the place," referring to Congress. Boehner seems intent on just handing the keys over entirely.

Steve Benen 10:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (6)

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ENSIGN'S RED-LIGHT DISTRICT.... Ordinarily, Rachel Maddow leads her MSNBC show with the biggest story of the day. Last night, she decided that wasn't health care reform, but rather, the increasingly-important scandal surrounding Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada.

With tongue planted firmly in cheek, the show even gave it a flashing red-light siren.

The result was the most in depth coverage of the Ensign scandal I've seen anywhere on television to date. Here's Part I:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

And here's Part II, which includes a interview with KLAS-TV investigative reporter Jonathan Humbert, who's been doing great work uncovering key details as part of the ongoing investigation.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Given the media's general disinterest in the sex/ethics/criminal investigation -- the Washington Post still refuses to publish a stand-alone article about any development, despite the fact that Ensign is a sitting senator -- Rachel's extensive reports on this were most welcome.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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WITH ONE DAY TO GO.... The health care reform bill had a pretty good afternoon yesterday. Today may not be as pleasant.

Yesterday, key "yes" votes started falling into place, creating genuine momentum towards success. Late in the afternoon, Rep. Scott Murphy (D-N.Y.), who voted against reform in November, announced he would support the final package, calling it "the most important piece of deficit reduction work that's been done here in a decade." Murphy's decision came around the same time that Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-Fla.) made the same "no" to "yes" shift. The two brought the total of previous reform opponent who'll support the bill to seven.

Also encouraging were announcements from several "yes" votes who'd been threatening to bolt -- Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.), Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.), Dina Titus (D-Nev.), Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.), and Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.). -- all of whom said they'll vote to pass reform.

So, is reform finally on track? Not quite yet.

There are still a few liberal Dems who voted for reform in November, including Massachusetts' Stephen Lynch, who intend to vote with right-wing Republicans because they don't see it as liberal enough. New York's Michael Arcuri won't budge, though he can't coherently explain why. Oregon's Peter DeFazio is still threatening to side with the GOP unless changes are made to Medicare reimbursement rates.

And then there's abortion -- or more specifically, indirect, circuitous subsidies for abortions -- which has nearly killed health care reform several times, and which may yet destroy hopes of success.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) still intends to kill the bill, and as of late yesterday, he apparently controlled nine other votes: Arkansas' Marion Berry, Georgia's Sanford Bishop, Louisiana's Anh "Joseph" Cao, Pennsylvania's Kathy Dahlkemper, Ohio's Steve Driehaus, Ohio's Marcy Kaptur, Illinois' Daniel Lipinski, West Virginia's Alan Mollohan, and West Virginia's Nick Rahall.

All 10 voted for reform in November, all are well aware that the restrictions in the Senate bill have satisfied much of the pro-life community, and all are apparently prepared to let the entire initiative fail anyway unless they get their way.

As far as the Democratic leadership is concerned, losing Stupak and a few others is manageable. Losing all 10 puts reform in real peril. And so, as the NYT reports this morning:

House Democratic leaders late Friday were exploring the possibility of a deal with abortion opponents that would clinch the final votes to pass major health care legislation, but they faced stiff resistance from lawmakers who support abortion rights.

It's unclear exactly what will happen next, and the process may get a little more complicated. Speaker Pelosi would give Stupak a vote on a stand-alone bill, but he realizes it would likely fail, especially in the Senate. Brian Beutler had a good explanation of Stupak's ransom.

He's been pushing for a vote on something different, and much more obscure: what's known as an enrollment corrections bill. The details are complicated, but basically, it's a rarely used procedural technique that would allow the House and Senate to amend the Senate bill after it's passed both houses, but before it's signed into law. Stupak says it only requires 51 votes in the Senate. He also implied that passage of health care reform could be made contingent on the adoption of new, stricter abortion language.

Pelosi's gambit may be to give Stupak his vote to get him on board, all the while knowing it won't pass the House or the Senate. But that's a risk pro-choice members aren't prepared to see their leadership take.

And that's key. The leadership may have concluded that reform may not survive if Stupak and his bloc side with Republicans, but if pro-choice Dems decide Pelosi has given Stupak too much, they'll have the votes to kill the legislation, too.

Expect a busy day.

Steve Benen 8:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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March 19, 2010

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

* HRC in Russia: "U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday that American and Russian negotiators are 'on the brink' of agreement on a nuclear arms reduction treaty."

* Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-Fla.) was a "no" on health care, now she's a "yes." That makes six in the "no to yes" category, which is absolutely critical to success.

* Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.) was a yes, and announced that he'll stay a yes. A key vote, to be sure.

* Health care vote watch: Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) was a no and will stay a no, Mary Jo Kilroy (D-Ohio) was a yes and will stay a yes.

* Democratic memo published by Politico appears to be a fake.

* The memo hoax was pushed aggressively by leading congressional Republicans.

* Looks like the president's speech to the House caucus will be on the Hill, instead of the White House.

* Thanks to Republican budget cuts in Arizona, 47,000 low-income children will lose their health coverage.

* Sean Hannity has some explaining to do.

* The stimulus worked.

* Bob Greenstein gets it.

* Follow-up on the guy in Ohio with Parkinson's who was mocked and upbraided by right-wing activists.

* Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have an immigration reform plan.

* Christiane Amanpour is a surprisingly good choice for ABC's "This Week."

* Re-organizing No Child Left Behind with an eye towards higher-ed.

* Let's not overlook the significance of the date: the U.S. invasion of Iraq began seven years ago today.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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AND THEN THERE WERE FIVE.... Following up on an item from this morning, if the House is going to pass health care reform, proponents are going to need to convince some lawmakers who voted against it in November to support it now. The "no to yes" push is absolutely critical.

Wednesday, we saw our first switch (Ohio's Dennis Kucinich). Thursday, we learned of two more (Tennessee's Bart Gordon and Colorado's Betsy Markey). This morning, a fourth made the switch (Ohio's John Boccieri), and this afternoon, Blue Dog Rep. Allen Boyd (D) of Florida became the fifth.

The Monticello Democrat said he studied the revised bill and the Congressional Budget Office report on its costs and benefits. He said "it's not perfect" but that the package meets the four criteria he set forth in a series of 16 meetings across the 2nd Congressional District last summer.

Boyd said the overall plan will preserve patient choice of insurance plans and doctors, will improve access to coverage for about 50 million Americans and will be "deficit-neutral." The fourth criteria, slowing the rise of medical costs, was the main thing that caused him to vote against the bill a few months ago, but Boyd said he thinks the new version will do that.

Boyd said 194,000 households in North Florida will be eligible to get coverage through insurance exchanges. He said small-business tax credits will benefit 15,400 businesses in his district, which runs from the Suwannee-Columbia County line to the southeastern corner of Okaloosa County.

"My decision has been based from the very beginning on the substance of this policy," said Boyd. "It's been my belief that good policy equals good politics."

Boyd, it's worth noting, has long been one of the caucus' most conservative Dems, and five years ago, he was the only House Dem to express support for the Bush Social Security privatization plan. This year, he's facing a primary challenger, who's emphasized Boyd's vote against health care reform last November.

His endorsement of the reform plan, then, is a pretty big deal, and gives the legislation another boost at a key time.

Also this afternoon:

* Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.) told CNN, "Right now, I'm a firm no." The first half of that sentence doesn't really match the second, but I'd be surprised if he supports the bill when the roll is called.

* Rep. Tom Periello (D-Va.) voted for reform in November, and officially announced his continued support today. He's been under intense pressure to switch, and his decision comes as a relief to the leadership.

* Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) has repeatedly said he's undecided, but told MSNBC earlier that he's "leaning much more in favor now that the CBO score is out."

* Reps. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) and Dina Titus (D-Nev.) both voted for reform in November, but were considered on the fence now. Both said today they will support the bill.

* Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), a key pro-life Democratic vote, has been leaning "no," but now appears to be leaning "yes."

* Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass), in an unusually ridiculous display that puts his career in jeopardy, voted "yes" in November, but has dug in his heels as a "no" now.

* Rep. Heath Shuler (D-Tenn.) was a "no" and is still a "no."

* Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) has been a solid "yes," but is having a freak-out over a Medicare reimbursement provision in the sidecar, and is threatening to vote "no." The leadership thinks it'll work out with him.

Am I missing anyone?

Steve Benen 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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HEALTH CARE BUDGETING FOR DUMMIES.... This morning, Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade explained why he simply cannot believe the Congressional Budget Office's favorable score on the pending health care reform package.

"When the average person who -- and I think 99 percent our people are not economists that are watching right now -- say if a plan costs $940 billion, tell me how I'm saving $130 billion. So it doesn't make any sense. And by the way, while insuring 30 million more Americans."

If only Kilmeade had contacted the CBO first, it would have saved all of those number-crunchers so much time! If a bill is going to spend money, it can't save money, right? What were Dems thinking? "It doesn't make any sense."

Poor Brian. After 14 months of policy debate, you'd think even a Fox News personality would have picked up on a few of the basic details. Indeed, Kilmeade's own show has run plenty of segments about "cutting Medicare," "new taxes," and other measures that would increase revenue, offseting new costs.

Of course, it's not just Fox News personalities. House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-Ind.), the #3 man in the House GOP caucus, said yesterday:

"Only in Washington can you spend a trillion dollars and say you're gonna save the taxpayers' money."

And as Ezra noted, "[O]nly in Washington can such willful obtuseness be considered a professional attribute. You can believe that the savings in the Democratic plan will work as CBO thinks they will work, or you can disagree with that. But let's not pretend there's something complicated about the theory of spending money and saving money at the same time."

For the record, I don't think Kilmeade and Pence are trying to deliberately mislead people -- I think they really doesn't understand the basics of the debate. Fox & Friends and the House Republican Conference cover health care policy with all the sophistication of a kindergarten finger-coloring class.

Steve Benen 3:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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A CLOSING ARGUMENT.... More than five months ago, just hours before the House would vote on health care reform, President Obama traveled to the Hill to speak directly to the entire Democratic caucus in a private meeting. It went pretty well -- reports noted that lawmakers spontaneously erupted in a "fired up, ready to go" chant that could be heard from the hallway -- and the bill passed.

Tomorrow, the entire House Democratic Caucus will hear directly from the president, this time at a White House meeting, scheduled for 4 p.m. -- 22 hours before the likely vote.

And while we don't know exactly what Obama will tell the House Dems, it's probably a safe bet that we got a preview of the message this morning, when the president spoke at an event at George Mason University in Virginia.

We talked the other day about Obama's habit of ignoring what's on the teleprompter and just adlibbing what he wants to say. Greg Sargent noticed the same thing today, reporting that the president went "considerably off the script of his prepared remarks," which is worth considering because "it demonstrates once again that in the final stretch of this fight, he managed to locate a voice, summoning a level of energy and emotion that by any measure had been badly lacking for much of the past year."

For example, the speech as written didn't include a reference to the Civil Rights Act, but Obama made the connection anyway. The text also didn't include this concession: "As messy as this process is, as frustrating as this process is, as ugly as this process can be, when we have faced such decisions in our past, this nation, time and time again, has chosen to extend its promise to more of its people."

In the larger context, the theme was hard to miss: the president was connecting this effort to the landmark progressive achievements of the 20th century, and how the policymakers of those eras had the courage not to back down in the face of hysterical criticism and unfounded fears. Those officials rose to the occasion, and now today's leaders must do the same.

The message for lawmakers wasn't subtle, and they should expect to hear it again tomorrow afternoon.

For those of you who can't watch videos online, I've included a transcript of this portion of the speech below.

As transcribed by the White House:

"And in just a few days, a century-long struggle will culminate in a historic vote. (Applause.) We've had historic votes before. We had a historic vote to put Social Security in place to make sure that our elderly did not live out their golden years in poverty. We had a historic vote in civil rights to make sure that everybody was equal under the law. (Applause.) As messy as this process is, as frustrating as this process is, as ugly as this process can be, when we have faced such decisions in our past, this nation, time and time again, has chosen to extend its promise to more of its people. (Applause.)

"You know, the naysayers said that Social Security would lead to socialism. (Laughter.) But the men and women of Congress stood fast and created that program that lifted millions out of poverty. (Applause.)

"There were cynics that warned that Medicare would lead to a government takeover of our entire health care system, and that it didn't have much support in the polls. But Democrats and Republicans refused to back down, and they made sure that our seniors had the health care that they needed and could have some basic peace of mind. (Applause.)

"So previous generations, those who came before us, made the decision that our seniors and our poor, through Medicaid, should not be forced to go without health care just because they couldn't afford it. Today it falls to this generation to decide whether we will make that same promise to hardworking middle-class families and small businesses all across America, and to young Americans like yourselves who are just starting out. (Applause.)

"So here's my bottom line. I know this has been a difficult journey. I know this will be a tough vote. I know that everybody is counting votes right now in Washington. But I also remember a quote I saw on a plaque in the White House the other day. It's hanging in the same room where I demanded answers from insurance executives and just received a bunch of excuses. And it was a quote from Teddy Roosevelt, the person who first called for health care reform -- that Republican -- all those years ago. And it said, "Aggressively fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords."

"Now, I don't know how passing health care will play politically -- but I know it's right. (Applause.) Teddy Roosevelt knew it was right. Harry Truman knew that it was right. Ted Kennedy knew it was right. (Applause.) And if you believe that it's right, then you've got to help us finish this fight. You've got to stand with me just like you did three years ago and make some phone calls and knock on some doors, talk to your parents, talk to your friends. Do not quit, do not give up, we keep on going. (Applause.) We are going to get this done. We are going to make history. We are going to fix health care in America with your help. (Applause.)

"God bless you, and God bless the United States of America. (Applause.)"

Steve Benen 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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AMA, AARP THROW SUPPORT TO REFORM.... During previous fights over health care reform, the American Medical Association (AMA) played a strong opposition role. Today, the group endorsed the final reform package pending in Congress.

"The pending bill is imperfect, but we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good when it comes to something as important as the health of Americans," said J. James Rohack, M.D., AMA president. "By extending health coverage to the vast majority of the uninsured, improving competition and choice in the insurance marketplace, promoting prevention and wellness, reducing administrative burdens, and promoting clinical comparative effectiveness research, this bill will help patients and their physicians."

"While the final product is certainly not what we would have devised, we strongly support the parts of this bill that are desperately needed by millions of Americans who are struggling to get or keep health insurance coverage," Dr. Rohack said.

Separately, but around the same time, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) also threw its backing to the health care legislation.

The AARP endorsed the reconciliation healthcare bill today, placing the heft of its 40 million members behind final passage.

"After a thorough analysis of the reform package, we believe this legislation brings us so much closer to helping millions of older Americans get quality, affordable health care," AARP chairwoman Bonnie Cramer said in a statement. "For too long, our members and others have faced spiraling prescription drug costs, discriminatory practices by insurance companies and a Medicare system awash in fraud, waste and abuse."

AARP CEO Barry Rand sent a letter to every member of Congress today urging them to support the legislation.

It sure does seem odd that the powerhouse organizations would endorse a radical "government takeover" of the nation's health care system. It's almost as if the AMA and AARP scrutinized the legislation and concluded that the unhinged complaints from opponents have no basis in reality.

As a practical matter, I'm not sure how many votes, if any, are swayed by these kinds of institutional endorsements. But as Democratic leaders seek to generate some momentum, having backing from the AMA and AARP certainly doesn't hurt -- especially 48 hours before a final vote -- and may even offer some cover to lawmakers who are anxious to characterize the proposal as a consensus, mainstream approach to health care policy.

Steve Benen 2:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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CHILDREN AREN'T OFF-LIMITS TO THE RIGHT.... A few years ago, Democrats invited 12-year-old Graeme Frost to deliver the party's weekly address, as part of an effort to generate support for S-CHIP, a program that brings health coverage to children. The right responded by going after the kid and his family.

Last week, we saw something of a replay.

Conservative talk show hosts and columnists have ridiculed an 11-year-old Washington state boy's account of his mother's death as a "sob story" exploited by the White House and congressional Democrats like a "kiddie shield" to defend their health care legislation.

Marcelas Owens, whose mother got sick, lost her job, lost her health insurance and died, said Thursday he's taking the attacks from Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin in stride.

"My mother always taught me they can have their own opinion but that doesn't mean they are right," Owens, who lives in Seattle, said in an interview.

Owens' grandmother, Gina, who watched her daughter die, isn't quite so generous.

"These are adults, and he is an 11-year-old boy who lost his mother," Gina Owens said. "They should be ashamed."

It's really an awful story. Tifanny Owens was an assistant manager at a fast-food restaurant, but her health deteriorated, and she needed time off. She was fired and left with no insurance. Three years ago, Tifanny Owens died at age 27 of pulmonary hypertension, leaving Marcelas and his two younger sisters to live with their grandmother.

The pain and tragedy surrounding Marcelas Owens was first identified by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who helped bring him to Washington to share his story at a touching event last week.

Limbaugh, Beck, and Malkin, showing the kind of restraint we've come to expect from leading right-wing voices, have gone after nearly everyone involved -- including Tifanny Owens, who they say should have done more to find government programs that might have helped her (as if it's the dead mother's fault she died, after failing to find government programs that Limbaugh, Beck, and Malkin oppose anyway).

"I would say this to Marcelas Owens: 'Well, your mom would still have died, because Obamacare doesn't kick in until 2014,'" Limbaugh said.

It's just the kind of decency and class today's conservatives are known for.

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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BROUN EQUATES HEALTH REFORM WITH 'YANKEE AGGRESSION'.... When looking for members of Congress who are likely to make unhinged, borderline-disturbed remarks, we tend to rely on folks like Reps. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). But pound for pound, word for word, Rep. Paul Broun (R) of Georgia has to be considered a #1 seed in this competition.

It was Broun, for example, who said not long ago that President Obama reminds him of Hitler and that the Democratic president might establish a Gestapo-like security force to impose a Marxist dictatorship on Americans. More recently he insisted that if health care reform became law, the government would dictate what kind of car Americans could drive.

Last night, Broun was in rare form, appearing on the House floor and talking about health care reform in the context of the Civil War: "If ObamaCare passes, that free insurance card that's in people's pockets is gonna be as worthless as a Confederate dollar after the War Between The States -- the Great War of Yankee Aggression."

Now, as far as I can tell, Broun is pretty deranged, so there's probably not much point in dwelling on his "arguments," such as they are. But in case there are any lingering doubts about the specifics of the legislation, there's no provision mandating a "free insurance card."

But it's the Civil War reference that rankles here. References to "Yankee Aggression" in the 21st century are awkward enough, but using this language in the context of the health care debate is especially problematic.

As Lee Fang noted, "Rather than simply distort the legislation by lying about how much it costs or how it will affect people, the right has tried to build opposition to health reform using racial, militant rhetoric.... Broun's analogy between health reform and a 'Great War of Yankee Aggression' might take the cake for its coded racism, historical revisionism, and outright level of detachment from reality."

As an aside, let's also note that if Republicans reclaim the House majority next year, Paul Broun and his creative intellect will be the chairman of the House Science Committee's panel on investigations and oversight. Just thought I'd mention it.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (67)

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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.

* How badly is Florida Gov. Charlie Crist struggling in his Republican Senate primary against former state House Speaker Marco Rubio? The latest Research 2000 poll shows Rubio's support nearly doubling Crist's -- Rubio 58%, Crist 30%.

* Republicans in Kentucky and D.C. are starting to worry that right-wing ophthalmologist Rand Paul might actually beat Trey Grayson in the Republican Senate primary.

* Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is already facing a tough primary challenge, and now a credible Democrat is eyeing the race: Arizona businesswoman Nan Stockholm Walden.

* In the race to replace the late Rep. John Murtha in Pennsylvania, it looks like Democrat Mark Critz has the early edge.

* In New York, Long Island Democrat Steve Levy announced this morning that he will run for governor as a Republican.

* Speaking of New York, Levy's gubernatorial GOP primary opponent, former Rep. Rick Lazio, said he will not jump to the Senate race.

* And in still more New York news, the Working Families Party is about to make life much more difficult on Rep. Mike Arcuri (D), now that he's chosen betrayal and will oppose health care reform after supporting it in November.

* The U.S. Chamber of Commerce intends to spend at least $50 million to elect "pro-business" candidates this year.

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

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AND THEN THERE WERE FOUR.... If the House is going to pass health care reform, proponents are going to need to convince some lawmakers who voted against it in November to support it now. This morning, reform got another boost with its fourth "no" to "yes" switch.

Democrats picked up another crucial healthcare vote Friday after Rep. John Boccieri (D-Ohio) announced he'd vote for the package.

Boccieri, who had voted against the healthcare bill before the House in November, said this morning that he would now support the healthcare measure set for a vote on Sunday. [...]

"Yes, I will be voting yes for the bill," Boccieri said, adding that a score on the bill's budget impact was key to switching his vote. "I was very encouraged by the budget results that came back from the Congressional Budget Office."

This is a pretty big one -- Boccieri, a pro-life freshman Dem, was considered a key swing vote on the legislation. His announcement gives the bill a significant boost.

Also this morning:

* Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who'd been threatening to oppose the bill after having supported it in November, announced on MSNBC that he's "satisfied" with the final package and will vote for it.

* Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-Ohio), who voted for the bill in November but had been wavering, officially declared his support for the legislation.

* Rep. Michael Arcuri (D-N.Y.) seems to have dug in on opposing the bill, despite having voted for it in November. The SEIU has said it's pulling its support for the lawmaker and a search is underway for a primary challenger. (Arcuri's rationale for opposition is incoherent, and he's making the biggest mistake of his career.)

* The Congressional Black Caucus has officially endorsed the legislation, but its membership will not unanimously support -- Rep. Artur Davis (D) will vote with Republicans as part of his effort to impress voters in Alabama, where he's running for governor.

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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SHEEHAN'S CRAZED DADT DEFENSE.... We've all heard some pretty awful arguments over the years from those trying to defend "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." But linking gay troops to Bosnian genocide is a new one.

A retired Marine general told senators on Thursday that the Dutch Army failed to protect the city of Srebrenica during the Bosnian war partly because of the presence of gay soldiers in its armed forces.

John J. Sheehan, a former NATO commander who retired in 1997, made his comments during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy that bans gay people from openly serving in uniform.

The collapse of the Soviet Union led European militaries, including the Netherlands, to believe there was no longer a need for active combat capabilities, Sheehan said.

"As a result, they declared a peace dividend and made a conscious effort to socialize their military," he said, noting that the Dutch allowed troops to join unions and enlisted openly gay soldiers. Dutch forces were poorly led and unable to hold off Serb forces in 1995, leading to the execution of Bosnian Muslims and one of the largest European massacres since World War II, Sheehan said.

Putting aside the question of whether the overmatched Dutch forces were sufficiently trained and equipped for the massacre, the argument itself is hard to take seriously. To argue, in public and with a straight face, that the Dutch couldn't defend Srebrenica because of the presence of openly gay soldiers is just breathtakingly foolish. Would Sheehan seriously argue that events would have unfolded differently if the Dutch military forced gay soldiers to stay in the closet?

For that matter, is Sheehan also prepared to argue that international forces that fight alongside U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan -- some of which include gay servicemen and women -- shouldn't be there?

The office of the Dutch defense ministry responded, "It is astonishing that a man of his stature can utter such complete nonsense."

Sheehan's ridiculous remarks come the same week as the release of a poll of military personnel who served in the Afghanistan or Iraq. It found that most of the veterans say they served alongside gays and lesbians, most believe sexual orientation has "no bearing on a service member's ability to perform their duties," and about three out of four agreed that it is "personally acceptable to them if gay and lesbian people were allowed to serve openly in the military."

Steve Benen 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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EVEN MORE COVER FOR PRO-LIFE DEMS.... Pro-life Democrats who want to support health care reform, but are worried about the provisions restricting abortion funding, really couldn't ask for more political cover than they've received this week.

In the latest development, the National Catholic Reporter published an editorial yesterday urging Roman Catholic lawmakers to "say yes to health care reform," despite the demands of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

[T]he bishops have to be clear that some of their talking points might lead honest observers to question their competence -- or worse.... The current legislation is not "pro-abortion," and there is no, repeat no, federal funding of abortion in the bill.

Meanwhile, writing in The Washington Post last Sunday, T.R. Reid, a first-rate journalist, a Catholic, and author of "The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care." argues persuasively that industrialized countries that achieve universal or near-universal insurance coverage have a demonstrably lower abortion rate than we have in the United States. It should matter to those who believe in the sacredness of all human life that this legislation will not only provide health care to those who don't currently possess it, but will encourage women facing crisis pregnancies to choose life. Given the intractable nature of the abortion debate in the United States, this amounts to a pro-life victory of historic proportions.

Not surprisingly, the White House was anxious to tout the editorial, calling it a "very important health care development."

In the larger context, plenty of pro-life leaders on the Hill have now endorsed the legislation, and so has the Catholic Health Association, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, dozens of pro-life leaders, and the leaders of religious orders representing 59,000 nuns.

Pro-life lawmakers who want to vote for this bill can vote for this bill.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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ENSIGN SCANDAL LEADS TO NRSC SUBPOENAS.... It's not every day one of the major party's campaign committees get subpoenaed by a federal grand jury, but the scandal surrounding Republican Sen. John Ensign (Nev.) isn't done heating up.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury looking into the aftermath of Sen. John Ensign's extramarital affair with a former staffer, adding a new political problem for GOP leaders in their response to the dual criminal and ethics probes of the Nevada Republican.

The NRSC was asked to turn over documents related to Ensign's tenure as NRSC chairman. Ensign chaired the committee during the 2007-08 cycle.

NRSC officials declined to comment on the subpoena other than to confirm its existence.

This follows reports of subpoenas for six Las Vegas-area businesses, as part of the same federal investigation.

The goal, of course, is determining the extent of the Ensign cover-up, and whether his actions were criminal. In the case of the NRSC, Ensign was the campaign committee's chairman through the 2008 election cycle, and investigators likely want to know whether the far-right hypocrite misused his NRSC authority as part of his humiliating sex scandal.

In particular, a local report noted that investigators want more information about Ensign's outreach to a company called eCommLink, which was concerned about pending federal regulations. Ensign's office may have offered the company "more protection from regulation in exchange for a $28,000 contribution to the National Republican Senatorial Committee."

The allegations prompted Zachary Roth to note that the allegations raise "the possibility that the probe could be mushrooming into a bribery inquiry that could ensnare the NRSC as it gets set for this fall's election."

If the media just blows this one off, it will be journalistic malpractice. As of today, the Washington Post still hasn't published an article about the Ensign scandal in months, despite the new developments.

Update: MSNBC's First Read asks, "How did the Eric Massa mess dominate the news for an entire week, while the latest allegations surrounding John Ensign -- which include an ACTUAL FBI investigation -- have registered just a blip on the media radar?"

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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CONFUSION-BASED RAGE, CONT'D.... Former Bush speechwriter David Frum enlisted some interns this week to survey Tea Party activists protesting in D.C. earlier this week. The goal was to get a sense of the activists' understanding of taxes -- ostensibly, the "movement's" raison d'etre -- and factual knowledge.

Bruce Bartlett reported today on the survey's results, and found that for an anti-tax group, "they don't know much about taxes."

Indeed, it appears much of the Tea Party crowd is simply clueless about the issues they claim to care the most about, wildly exaggerating federal tax rates, how much a median family pays in taxes, and what's changed since President Obama took office.

In short, no matter how one slices the data, the Tea Party crowd appears to believe that federal taxes are very considerably higher than they actually are, whether referring to total taxes as a share of GDP or in terms of the taxes paid by a typical family.

Tea Partyers also seem to have a very distorted view of the direction of federal taxes. They were asked whether they are higher, lower or the same as when Barack Obama was inaugurated last year. More than two-thirds thought that taxes are higher today, and only 4% thought they were lower; the rest said they are the same.

As noted earlier, federal taxes are very considerably lower by every measure since Obama became president.... No taxpayer anywhere in the country had his or her taxes increased as a consequence of Obama's policies.

There were no questions in the survey about health care policy, but it stands to reason that these same folks are basing their opposition to the Democratic plan based on little more than confusion.

Bruce added that "it's a bad idea for so many participants to operate on the basis of false notions." It is, indeed. We're talking about a reasonably large group of people who seem to have no idea what they're talking about, revel in their own ignorance, and nevertheless seek an active role in the process.

Making matters worse, this is also a group that seems to actively eschew reality, deliberately rejecting the truth because facts are perceived as having a liberal bias. As John Cole recently noted, "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."

Following up on an item from last month, 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? How can policymakers actually address substantive challenges while following the advice of angry mobs who reject reason and evidence?

The bottom line seem inescapable: Tea Party activists have no idea what they're talking about. Their sincerity notwithstanding, this is a confused group of misled people.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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WHERE THINGS STAND.... Last night, House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) was asked whether his caucus has the 216 votes it needs to pass health care reform. He said he believes so. This morning, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) was asked the same question. He said he doesn't think so, but was confident about success "by Sunday."

Watching this process unfold is not for the faint of heart.

I'm deeply skeptical of this, but the New York Times reported this morning that the leadership is so confident about securing a majority, the Speaker's office is now in the process of trying to figure out which vulnerable Dems to give passes to.

Yes, the 11th-hour vote tallying is under way at a brisk pace in offices from Capitol Hill to the West Wing, with Ms. Pelosi and her lieutenants keeping hour-by-hour tabs on wavering Democrats.

But as the week inches along, with momentum steadily building to a Sunday vote, the party leaders are also beginning to decide which politically endangered lawmakers will be given absolution to vote no. [...]

There are, of course, very few votes to spare. Yet there are some. And even most Republican leaders concede that the mystery is not so much whether Democrats will reach the magic number of 216, but rather whose names will be included as yes votes in the final count.

That's about the most optimistic assessment for reform supporters I've seen, which is probably why I find it so hard to believe.

The good news for proponents is that there are now three Dems who voted against reform in November who are going to support the bill. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who announced his switch on Wednesday, was first, and two more -- Tennessee Blue Dog Bart Gordon and Colorado's Betsy Markey -- made the same switch yesterday afternoon. Illinois' Luis Gutierrez and Ohio's Charlie Wilson, who were threatening to switch from "yes" to "no," both said they'd vote to pass reform, too.

But the news was not all good. New York's Michael Arcuri, in a rather shocking display of cowardice, declared on his website that he would oppose the bill he supported in November. Illinois' Daniel Lipinski signaled his intention to follow Bart Stupak's lead. Ohio's Zack Space is leaning "no," despite supporting reform in the past, and in a head-scratcher, Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts, a member of Speaker Pelosi's whip team, declared that the reform bill isn't liberal enough for him, and declared his opposition.

And, of course, Bart Stupak is still Bart Stupak.

Expect a busy day.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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March 18, 2010

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

* Vote-counting in Iraq is a bit of a mess.

* President Obama signs a jobs bill into law, hopefully the first in a series.

* On a related note, the number of Americans filing for initial unemployment insurance fell last week, but it's still too high.

* A vote on a House resolution to prevent a vote on a self-executing rule was defeated.

* When an insurance company targets HIV patients to drop their health coverage, it tells you quite a bit about the industry.

* South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) will apparently be allowed to keep his job, but he'll pay $74,000 in ethics fines.

* Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) didn't just endorse the Democratic health care reform package, he's begun putting real effort into convincing other Dems to support it, too. Good for him.

* Seems like a key concession right now: "Student Lender Not Actually Sure if Direct Lending Will Cut Jobs."

* I really do like these Organizing for America videos; they're well done.

* Speaking of great videos, Amanda Terkel has the gem of the day, comparing Fox News' Bret Baier's interview with President Obama to his interview with then-President Bush. Fantastic clip.

* Change I can believe in: "Quietly, free of headlines and fanfare, the Obama White House is toning down the bellicose 'war on drugs' position that's defined the country's narcotics policy for the last 25 years."

* Right-wing bloggers really should learn to use Google before accusing the president of making up earthquakes.

* And in the deranged wing of the Republican Party, the new complaint is that it's morally wrong to ask Congress to vote on health care reform on a Sunday because, as Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), it's "the Sabbath." Glenn Beck called the legislative schedule "an affront to God." Conservatives do pick strange things to complain about.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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A CONSTANTLY-EVOLVING HEADCOUNT.... Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) raised more than a few eyebrows this week when he said he just couldn't support the Democratic health care reform package. He argued that restrictions on undocumented immigrants buying into health care exchanges were punitive and harsh, and Gutierrez's remarks were strong enough that CNN counted him as a "no" vote among House Dems.

But as we're likely to see more than once in the very near future, those who've voiced one position or another may end up in a different place. Today, for example, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus announced its unanimous support, which means Gutierrez, his threats notwithstanding, will also back the final package.

But Gutierrez voted for reform in November. What about moving votes from "no" to "yes"? Yesterday, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) became the first to make the switch. Today, Rep. Bart Gordon, a Blue Dog Democrat from Tennessee, became the second.

In a statement Gordon's office issued this afternoon, the center-right Dem explained:

"In November, I said I hoped the Senate and House could work out the difference and produce a bill I could support -- one that takes responsible steps to make health care more affordable for our economy and for our families and small businesses. If I and each of my 534 colleagues in Congress had been able to write our own health reform packages, we would be looking at 535 different bills today. In the end, the question I'm faced with is this: will this reform be better for Middle Tennessee than the status quo? I think it will. That's why I believe passing meaningful health care reform is essential and why I have made my decision to help ensure health care is affordable for Middle Tennesseans today and for generations to come."

While Gutierrez coming around is a welcome development, it was largely expected. Gordon's switch, however, is even more significant. The center-right Tennessean is retiring, and doesn't have to worry about re-election, but for a leading Blue Dog who voted against reform to come around not only gives the leadership a little more wiggle room, it also sends a clear signal to the rest of the caucus.

Steve Benen 5:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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NO STONE UNTURNED.... When it comes to House members who voted in support of health care reform in November, we know some of the 220 "yes" votes won't be there for final passage. The trick is to keep as many of the 220 together as possible.

One of the most likely switches from "yes" to "no" is Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao (R) of Louisiana, who represents the most Democratic district currently represented by a Republican. Cao announced several weeks ago that he would not back the Senate bill, citing the abortion language as the sole factor in his decision.

Yesterday, President Obama met directly with Cao, and asked him to take another look.

"He's asked if I would restudy the Senate language and that I would approach it with an open mind. And I promised that I would go back and study the Senate language again," Cao said after meeting with Obama in the Oval Office for about 10 minutes Wednesday.

Cao said he appreciated the president's sensitive approach in seeking his vote on an issue that many observers say could make or break Obama's presidency.

"He fully understands where I stand on abortion, and he doesn't want me to vote against my conscience because he, like me, believes that if we were to vote against our conscience, our moral values, there is really nothing left for us to defend," Cao said. "I'm glad that the president is very understanding. He really shows his own moral character."

I'd pretty very surprised if Cao backs the reform proposal, if for no other reason because his House Republican colleagues would likely become violent.

But if Cao were serious about re-evaluating the language in good faith, and considering whether he could support the bill in good conscience, he'd probably conclude that he can support the bill.

After all, he's not the only pro-life official who was prepared to walk away from reform over this provision. Prominent members of the Democrats' Pro-Life Caucus faced a similar struggle. Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), for example, was reluctant to back reform until he read the specific language, "understood it better," and agreed that the Senate version "does what we need to do."

Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), who trained to be a priest, came to the same conclusion, as did the Catholic Health Association, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, dozens of pro-life leaders, and the leaders of religious orders representing 59,000 nuns.

If Cao wants to vote for this bill, he can vote for this bill.

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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DESPITE SETBACK, AFL-CIO RALLIES TO SUPPORT REFORM BILL.... As the final provisions of the Democratic health care reform package was coming together, a wrinkle emerged. In order to get the best possible score from the Congressional Budget Office, Dems would have to tweak the excise tax on some health care plans.

For unions, this could pose a problem, prompting a hastily-arranged meeting at the White House yesterday between President Obama and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

The meeting must have assuaged fears -- the AFL-CIO threw its full support to the Democratic reform plan today.

The group's Executive Council met on Thursday to discuss new legislative language that will index the excise tax on so-called "Cadillac" plans to the Consumer Price Index (the rate of inflation) rather than the Consumer Price Index plus one percent. The change, which is in the final bill, will affect more union insurance policies at a quicker rate over time. And in a last-minute meeting at the White House, the union's president, Richard Trumka fought the new language.

He lost that battle. But in the process was able to secure provisions that were enough to temper the discouragement he and his union colleagues felt. Under the final bill, all insurance plans (not just those that were structured from collective bargaining) will be exempted from the excise tax until 2018.

This was not in the original deal. But labor officials view it as a major victory.

Keep in mind, despite yesterday's dispute, the AFL-CIO's support will not be tempered or luke-warm. On the contrary, the powerhouse is taking steps to "bring the hammer down on wavering House Dems."

"Everybody who's undecided now, all the different union presidents are going to get on the phone and bring very heavy pressure," a labor source told Greg Sargent. "Trumka, McEntee, Larry Cohen -- all of our presidents will be laying down the law."

The effort will need all the help it can get.

Steve Benen 3:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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THREADING AN IMPOSSIBLE NEEDLE.... It's probably an esoteric point, but it's worth pausing to appreciate just how ridiculously challenging it was to craft this health care reform proposal. There's a very good reason this legislation has never passed up until now, and why presidents who've tried have failed, and it goes beyond just right-wing hysterics and corporate pushback.

Think about the scope of the task -- Democrats were told they needed a health care reform bill that spends a lot of money on covering the uninsured, lowers the deficit, strengthens Medicare, helps businesses, eases government budgets, protects consumers, and controls costs, all at the same time. It would also need to earn the blessing of Congressional Budget Office, the American Medical Association, the AARP, and the nation's largest labor unions.

Democrats were also told they needed to do all of this in the face of unanimous and apoplectic Republican opposition, far-right manipulation of gullible conservative activists, and media coverage that largely ignores the substance of the bill while pretending every right-wing attack deserves attention.

This is a needle that's almost impossible to thread. And yet, that's exactly what the White House and congressional leaders have done. It's no small feat.

But it might yet fail anyway, in part because some Dems prefer cowardice to success. Ezra Klein does a nice job setting up the substantive dilemma facing Democratic lawmakers who are thinking about siding with far-right Republicans to kill the legislation.

If you're a liberal House Democrat, here's what you'd be voting against: Legislation that covers 32 million people. A world in which 95 percent of all non-elderly, legal residents have health-care coverage. An end to insurers rescinding coverage for the sick, or discriminating based on preexisting conditions, or spending 30 cents of each premium dollar on things that aren't medical care. Exchanges where insurers who want to jack up premiums will have to publicly explain their reason, where regulators will be able to toss them out based on bad behavior, and where consumers will be able to publicly rate them. Hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to help lower-income Americans afford health-care insurance. The final closure of the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit's "doughnut hole."

If you're a conservative House Democrat, then probably you support many of those policies, too. But you also get the single most ambitious effort the government has ever made to control costs in the health-care sector.

Greg Sargent added, "The House Dem leadership's game plan all along has been to tell wavering conservative Democrats who voted No last time that they have now gotten their way -- a bill with no public option, a bill with stronger cost controls, a bill that's more fiscally responsible, etc."

In a divided Democratic caucus, featuring liberals and conservative Blue Dogs, the trick was to find a way to deliver on what both contingents wanted to see in a reform bill. As impossible as this seemed, the final Democratic reform proposal does just that.

I have no idea what's going to happen when the final roll call is held, but Democrats have no reason, no excuse, no coherent rationale for killing the best chance the United States has ever had to pass health care reform.

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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DELAYED TRIP = DELAYED VOTE?.... President Obama was originally scheduled to leave for a week-long trip to Asia today. Last week, the White House pushed back the departure date, announcing that the president would instead leave on Sunday, after the House vote on health care reform.

Now, the trip may not happen until June.

President Obama has called off his trip to Australia and Indonesia, deeming it necessary to stay in Washington to push for passage of the health care legislation up for a vote later this weekend in the House.

In making the announcement, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said that Mr. Obama on Thursday was telephoning the leaders of the two countries to say he will be staying in Washington to nurse passage of what could be the signature issue of his presidency.

"The president greatly regrets the delay," Mr. Gibbs said. "Passage of health insurance reform is of paramount importance and the president is determined to see this battle through."

This isn't too big a surprise. When the House vote was scheduled for Saturday, the White House saw Sunday as a reasonable departure date. But with CBO delays forcing the vote to Sunday, at the earliest, the president doesn't want to be on a plane when he might need to do some last-minute arm-twisting.

I can't help but wonder, though, if there's more to it than this. I don't know exactly what time Air Force One would have taken off, but the White House likely could have delayed the trip a few hours without any serious repercussions. Isn't it possible the trip was pushed off to the summer in case Obama needed to also be around for a vote next week?

The search for 216 House Dems is still incredibly difficult, and nowhere near complete. While yesterday offered good news with a few key Dems signaling support, today offers bad news, with a few signaling opposition (despite the highly favorable CBO score).

If the votes are not in place on Sunday, the leadership will likely push off the vote. I wouldn't be surprised if the decision to delay the president's Asia trip was made to accommodate this possibility.

Steve Benen 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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DEMONSTRATING INSURERS' TRUSTWORTHINESS.... Insurance giant WellPoint Inc. -- the company planning double-digit rate hikes for customers -- made a compelling promise a few years ago. Shortly after Democrats reclaimed the congressional majority, the insurer announced that it would use its charitable foundation to invest $30 million over three years as part of a "comprehensive plan to help address the growing ranks of the uninsured."

That was three years ago. How's that promise working out? Not especially well.

[A]ccording to tax filings, company promotional material and former executives familiar with the initiative, WellPoint never came close to fulfilling that pledge. [...]

However, WellPoint's public records indicate that from 2007 to 2009 the foundation gave less than $6.2 million in grants targeted specifically at helping uninsured Americans get access to coverage and care -- barely one-fifth of what was promised and just 11% of the charity's total giving over the last three years.

"It was just not something that the company really wanted to do," said one former executive, who, like others interviewed for this story, asked not to be identified out of concern that discussing WellPoint could have adverse career consequences. "So it went by the wayside."

A company spokesperson said the company fulfilled its pledge, despite evidence to the contrary. Asked for an explanation the spokesperson said the reporting process is "complicated," but as the LAT added, "she declined to provide details."

Keep in mind, it's not that WellPoint was hurting for cash -- it's enjoyed steady profits over the three-year period -- it's just that it apparently didn't feel like helping the uninsured as much as it pledged to.

Kevin Drum asked some reasonable questions: "Why bother reneging on this promise? Are they trying to confirm that they're the scumbags everyone thinks they are? Or did they just not figure that anyone would ever follow up on this?"

This doesn't have to be an either/or situation.

Steve Benen 1:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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JOHN ENSIGN BETTER HAVE A GOOD LAWYER.... While the media generally seems inclined to give Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) a pass on his sex/ethics/corruption scandal, the controversy itself seems to be getting more serious. Yesterday, a federal grand jury started issuing subpoenas.

According to one subpoena obtained by a Las Vegas television station, recipients were ordered to testify March 31 in Washington, D.C., and to turn over documents relating to the Republican senator.

TV station KLAS reported Thursday that the subpoenas went to six unnamed Las Vegas businesses. The subpoena posted on the station's Web site blacks out the recipient's identity.

The local station reported that the subpoenas are part of a "wide-ranging and deadly-serious criminal probe."

The businesses themselves are unlikely to have done anything wrong here. It's more likely that the subpoenas are intended to determine exactly what Ensign did to help cover up his sex scandal.

If you're just joining us, Ensign's humiliation came to public attention in June, when we learned the conservative, "family-values" lawmaker carried on a lengthy extra-marital affair with one of his aides, who happened to be married to another one of his aides. Ensign's parents tried to pay off the mistress' family.

The scandal grew far worse in October, when we learned that the Republican senator pushed his political and corporate allies to give lobbying contracts to his mistress's husband. When Douglas and Cynthia Hampton left Ensign's employ -- because, you know, the senator was sleeping with Cynthia -- Ensign allegedly took steps to help them make up the lost income, leaning on corporate associates to hire Douglas as a lobbyist. Emails that surfaced last week bolstered the allegations.

Federal officials are apparently trying to determine whether the far-right senator contacted these Las Vegas businesses about helping Doug Hampton.

The investigation is apparently moving quickly -- the local report noted that the grand jury "wants all of the subpoenaed records by the end of this month."

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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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.

* New York's gubernatorial race will likely get a significant shake-up when Long Island Democrat Steve Levy runs as a Republican.

* Support for Connie Saltonstall, who is challenging Rep. Bart Stupak (Mich.) in a Democratic primary, keeps growing -- the National Organization for Women is now getting behind Saltonstall's campaign.

* If Rasmussen is to be believed, Sen. John McCain's (R) lead over his Arizona primary challenger, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, is slipping -- McCain is now up by seven, 48% to 41%.

* The latest survey from Public Policy Polling continues to show Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) struggling with a 35% approval rating. However, the same poll shows Burr leading his largely unknown Democratic challengers.

* It looks like Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is even more vulnerable than previously thought. A new Field Poll shows her trailing Tom Campbell (R) by one point, and leading the other GOP candidates by narrow margins.

* In Connecticut's Democratic gubernatorial primary, Ned Lamont leads Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy in a new Quinnipiac poll, but "undecided" leads them both.

* Michigan's Republican gubernatorial primary is now a three-way tie between businessman Rick Snyder, state Attorney General Mike Cox, and Rep. Pete Hoekstra.

* Retired football player Jon Runyan will join the GOP field hoping to take on Rep. John Adler (D-N.J.) in November.

* And in South Dakota, former Obama campaign guru Steve Hildebrand is considering running against Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin in a Democratic primary. "I want to see how she votes on health care," Hildebrand said. "If the vote is very, very close and we lose it or come close to losing it, I will take a seriously look at challenging her... She is on the wrong side of history."

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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A SURPRISINGLY HELPFUL RNC POLL.... In general, when the Republican National Committee releases results of an internal public opinion poll, it's best to view it with a skeptical eye. We're not, after all, talking about a reliable, independent source for accurate surveys.

That said, I found this report from Dave Weigel interesting.

I noticed in Massachusetts that the idea of "backroom deals" and horse-trading to bring on extra votes in the Senate -- to get the bill to 60 -- was far more unpopular than any aspect of the bill itself.

An internal RNC poll, released to the press this afternoon, backs that up. By far, senators who make "backroom deals" are less popular than senators who merely support health care reform.

I don't know if that's true, but let's say, just for the sake of discussion, that the RNC poll is accurate. Indeed, there's been some other polls pointing in similar directions -- folks have concerns about the legislation, but they're especially turned off by the process. Fine.

In the bigger picture, isn't this a good thing for Democrats and reform proponents? If much of the opposition to reform seen in the polls is driven by dissatisfaction with procedural machinations, and the ugly process is put behind us once the legislation is signed into law, then doesn't it stand to reason that the result will be a more popular initiative once the wheeling and dealing is done?

I suspect Dems, if given a choice, would much prefer that Americans dislike the process more than the policy, precisely because the policy is what will matter most when all is said and done. If my self-employed neighbor can finally get coverage, if my aunt with a pre-existing condition can finally afford insurance, if my Mom isn't going to get stuck in the Medicare "donut hole," if my former colleague can finally overcome job-lock and start that small business he's been thinking about, if my 22-year-old cousin can get back onto her parents' insurance plan, it's not going to occur to me to think, "You know, I never cared for budget reconciliation."

Every major piece of legislation in American history has been the result of some deal-making -- this is really the first time the media has ever shown an interest in documenting it in real time.

But the sausage-making process is nearing an end, and folks tend to like good sausages once they're ready to eat. The RNC poll, to my mind, is encouraging.

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

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DEMS 'ABSOLUTELY GIDDY' WITH CBO SCORE.... Following up on the last item, it's hard to overstate how pleased Democrats are with the new health care reform score from the Congressional Budget Office. House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) conceded this morning, "We are absolutely giddy."

To briefly review, the final package costs $940 billion over 10 years. It reduces the deficit by $130 billion in the first decade, and $1.2 trillion in the second. The bill will bring coverage to 32 million Americans, while extending Medicare solvency by at least 9 years.

Democrats have begun calling the package the "biggest deficit reduction measure in 25 years," which happens to be true. It's also arguably the biggest cost control bill ever.

Also note, the final Democratic proposal lowers the deficit more than the previous versions. The Senate bill was projected to reduce the deficit by $118 billion in the first decade, and this one does even better.

Ezra added:

[T]he bottom line is that this is the exact sort of score that Democrats wanted, and is in fact considerably better than some had come to expect they would receive. Coverage is better than the Senate bill, which will reassure liberals, and deficit reduction is better than either bill, which will reassure conservatives.

All the leadership and the White House have to do now is figure out of how to get the votes. For Democrats who claim to care principally about fiscal responsibility, it's very difficult to take a firm stand against reform after a CBO score like this one.

But I still don't know exactly where Pelosi & Co. find the votes. Stupak and at least a few of his friends will chose betrayal, and so far, only one "no" vote from November -- Dennis Kucinich -- has been willing to switch sides. They have 72 hours, but they don't yet have the votes.

The CBO's report gives the effort a shot in the arm, but "giddiness" will have to wait until the votes materialize.

Steve Benen 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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CBO DELIVERS LONG-AWAITED SCORE.... No more excuses. This week, a variety of wavering House Democrats that they wouldn't make up their minds on health care reform until they got the final score on the package from the Congressional Budget Office.

It took longer than expected, but the CBO has weighed in. Democrats looking for an encouraging score should be thrilled.

A Democratic source provides TPM with the CBO's final numbers on the health care reform bill -- the composite analysis of the Senate health care bill as amended by a soon-to-be-released reconciliation bill, which makes a number of amendments. The findings, as expected, keep the bill in line with the Senate bill's stand alone score:

The bill would reduce the deficit by $130 billion in the first ten years, and potentially by $1.2 trillion in the second ten years (though CBO always warns that projections into the second decade are extremely unpredictable).

The legislation is fully paid for, reduces the deficit in this decade, and even more in the next decade. It will bring coverage to 32 million Americans -- slightly better than the earlier estimate -- and extend Medicare solvency by at least 9 years while closing the prescription drug "donut hole."

Generally, when a report like this comes out, both parties find specific points to suggest that the score helps their side, not the other. But a report like this one should prove exceedingly difficult for Republicans to spin. If I had to guess, the GOP will talk up the overall price tag -- it's a 10-year, $940 billion package -- because it slightly exceeds the $900 billion ceiling originally talked about.

But for anyone serious about the substance, condemning health care reform over a $4 billion-a-year difference is pretty silly.

By any reasonable measure, this is a very strong CBO score, which should push some on-the-fence Democrats off the fence and into the "yes" column. No more "wait and see"; no more excuses. This is a reform package that works, and does exactly what these Democratic holdouts say they want.

And with this, the clock starts on the final vote. If the leadership can get 216 votes together, House members will decide the fate of health care reform on Sunday morning -- 72 hours from now.

Steve Benen 9:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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POOR BART.... After making countless unreasonable demands, offering a variety of inaccurate claims, and threatening to work with far-right Republicans to kill health care reform, Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) isn't having any fun.

Leading a revolt against President Barack Obama's healthcare legislation over abortion has been a "living hell" for Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.). [...]

"How's it been? Like a living hell," Stupak said.

I guess we're supposed to feel sorry for Stupak now? If he's waiting for an outpouring of sympathy, I suspect he'll be waiting a long while.

These comments also stood out.

The ideal outcome, Stupak said, might be for the House Democratic leadership to get the votes they need without him and for the bill to pass.

"You know, maybe for me that's the best: I stay true to my principles and beliefs," he said, and "vote no on this bill and then it passes anyways. Maybe for me is the best thing to do."

I'm not sure what to make of this. Stupak, who claims to have always supported health care reform, apparently wants the legislation to pass, but also wants to be on record opposing it -- because of abortion provisions he's already mischaracterized and doesn't seem to understand.

What an odd lawmaker.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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MARGOLIES KNOWS A LITTLE SOMETHING ABOUT TOUGH VOTES.... When former Rep. Marjorie Margolies (D-Pa.) talks about the challenges of casting tough votes, she knows of what she speaks.

In 1993, Margolies (then Margolies-Mezvinsky) was a targeted Democratic freshman representing a Republican district. Bill Clinton needed her help to pass his budget plan, which Republicans insisted would lead to economic disaster and national ruin. Her constituents bought into the far-right rhetoric and opposed the Clinton plan, but Margolies supported it anyway.

The Clinton policy went on to produce remarkable economic prosperity -- Republicans' uninterrupted track record of wrong predictions goes back quite a while -- but voters nevertheless threw Margolies out of office in the '94 midterms.

In a terrific Washington Post op-ed today, Margolies tells Democratic lawmakers wavering on health care reform: "I am your worst-case scenario. And I'd do it all again."

[I]t is with the perspective of having spent nearly two decades living with your worst political nightmare that I urge you to vote for health-care reform this week.... The moral of my brief political story is not that casting a tough and decisive vote necessarily predicts a bad electoral outcome for you, nor that the majority of your constituents is always wrong or always right.

It's that there are times in all our careers when we must ask ourselves why we're here. I decided that my desire for public service at that moment was greater than my desire to guarantee continued service. Yes, there are few jobs as rewarding (mostly) as being a member of Congress, and I was let down after I lost. But I believed then and now that being able to point to something tangible that changed our country for the better was a more powerful motivator than the possible electoral repercussions.

I urge you simply to cast the vote you can be proud of next week, next year and for years to come. Given the opportunity, I wouldn't change my vote.

Margolies's piece, which is well worth reading, notes that Republicans will attack vulnerable Dems anyway, so they might as well "cast the vote that you won't regret in 18 years." She also reminds lawmakers that their constituents' judgment is not flawless -- her district actually thought Clinton's economic policies would be awful. Her constituents got it wrong, but benefited when their representative got it right. If the goal is for lawmakers to help those they represent, Margolies succeeded in siding with her district's best interests.

There's one point, though, that her op-ed didn't mention, but which is also worth keeping in mind -- with her judicious vote in 1993, Margolies secured a place in history. Indeed, her name is still remembered on the Hill, all these years later, as an example of wisdom and courage. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that Marjorie Margolies did the right thing and made a positive difference in the lives of millions.

Isn't this why candidates run for Congress in the first place? Do these wavering Dems really want to be remembered for cowering on the biggest vote of their careers? Do they really want to be known forever as politicians who wilted when given history's spotlight?

Or would they rather put their stamp on history and be remembered as a hero?

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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AN EVER-CHANGING TIMELINE.... It really did seem as if the Congressional Budget Office would release its final score on health care reform last night, which would prompt Democratic leaders to start the 72-hour clock and schedule a vote for Saturday.

But by early evening, leadership aides told reporters waiting on the Hill, "Go home." No CBO score for you, at least not yet.

The delay affects the ever-changing timeline.

House Democratic leaders on Wednesday night said the long-awaited Congressional Budget Office score of the reconciliation bill will not come out until Thursday, forcing an acknowledgement that a Saturday healthcare vote is likely off the table.

But leaders are still hoping for a score on Thursday, and are still preparing for a possible vote before the end of the weekend.

The release of a CBO score on Thursday -- triggering the Democrats' 72-hour clock -- would mean that voting on the reconciliation bill would "most likely happen on Sunday, if that scenario plays out," Assistant to the Speaker Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told reporters after leaving Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) office Wednesday night.

The CBO's report may very well be published this morning -- literally, any minute now -- or not. The over-worked budget office is doing its best, but it's been overwhelmed by lawmaker requests.

It's worth appreciating that this process is an example of Democratic leaders trying to do the right thing. When Republicans were in the majority, CBO scores were deemed irrelevant -- it didn't matter how much legislation cost or how much it would add to the deficit, because Republican policymakers decided they didn't care. Every new dollar of GOP-backed spending would simply get added to the debt. What's more, the 72-hour timeline is entirely self-imposed -- Dem leaders decided it would simply be a matter of propriety to have the bill published and available for three full days before a vote is held. Again, under GOP rule, such niceties were non-existent. When Republican leaders had secured the necessary support, they held a vote.

As Jonathan Cohn explained yesterday, these delays are frustrating, but they're evidence of Democrats being "guilty" of "trying to practice good government."

That Dems have been accused of overseeing an abusive process would be funnier if it weren't so ridiculous.

So, as things stand, don't be surprised if the House vote is scheduled for Sunday morning, at the earliest. As for actually finding the votes to pass the legislation -- a reasonably important detail -- the NYT reported that Democrats are "inching toward the majority they need."

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

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March 17, 2010

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

* Pakistan: "Suspected U.S. drones fired missiles at vehicles and hit a militant hide-out in a tribal region of northwestern Pakistan on Wednesday, killing at least nine insurgents, two officials said."

* Expect a CBO score on health care reform tonight. Probably. We think.

* President Obama will appear at his fourth health care rally in two weeks on Friday, this time appearing at George Mason University in Virginia.

* Good: "The drive to pass health care legislation intersected with calls for President Obama's proposed overhaul of the student loan system on the sun-soaked steps of the Capitol on Wednesday. House Democrats plan to tack a student loan package onto the health care bill in order to get the controversial overhaul through the chamber."

* A Republican effort to freeze on earmarks for a year came to an abrupt halt yesterday, when the Senate voted 68 to 29 to defeat a one-year moratorium on earmarks. Fifteen Republicans opposed the idea.

* Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao (R-La.) became the second House Republican to sign on as a co-sponsor of a measure to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

* Fox News and other opponents of health care reform have taken to making up surveys and falsely attributing them to the New England Journal of Medicine.

* The American Graduation Initiative lacks some necessary support.

* Rep. John Shadegg, a right-wing Republican from Arizona, was part of a bizarre interview on MSNBC this morning, in which Shadegg seemed to endorse a public option, and expressed surprising sympathy for single-payer.

* And speaking of odd interviews, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) undermined his own party's talking points this, conceding on ABC this morning that the "deem and pass" approach being considered for health care reform is entirely legitimate. "The rules of the House allow for this type of deeming provision, it's called a self-executing provision which means that once the bill, the rule for the next bill passes, the Senate bill is automatically is deemed as having passed," Cantor explained.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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A FEW KEY 'YES' VOTES.... When Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) announced this morning that he will support the health care reform bill, it gave reform proponents a helpful boost. But, while Kucinich is the first "no" vote to switch, there were a few other key "yes" vote announcements today.

Representative Dale Kildee, Democrat of Michigan and a strong opponent of abortion, announced on Wednesday that he was satisfied with the provisions in the Senate-passed health care bill that seek to limit the use of federal money for insurance coverage of abortion.

The announcement by Mr. Kildee that he would support the health care legislation and would not oppose it based on the abortion issue gave a huge lift to House Democratic leaders, who have been working to assure abortion opponents that a vote for the bill would not reflect any change in policy on abortion, including the law known as the Hyde amendment, which prohibits the use of federal money for abortion in most cases.

In a statement, Kildee emphasized the fact that he "spent six years studying to be a priest and was willing to devote my life to God." He added, "I am convinced that the Senate language maintains the Hyde amendment, which states that no federal money can be used for abortion.... We must not lose sight of what is at stake here -- the lives of 31 million American children, adults, and seniors who don't have health insurance. There is nothing more pro-life than protecting the lives of 31 million Americans."

Kildee has been a close ally of Rep. Bart Stupak, suggesting the Michigan Democrat is struggling to keep his bloc together. (For the record, Stupak never identified exactly which members were/are part of his alleged dozen.)

Kildee's announcement came on the heels of a statement from Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), another pro-life Dem believed to be an ally of Stupak's. Oberstar, who said he only supported the reform bill in November because of the Stupak language, said today that he will back the final reform legislation. "I wanted to see the language, understand it better, have conversations with Sen. [Ben] Nelson," Oberstar said this morning. "On balance, it does what we need to do."

Now, with Kildee and Oberstar, the reform bill is keeping "yes" votes, rather than gaining "no" votes. But this is every bit as necessary in getting to 216.

Steve Benen 4:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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THE WIT AND WISDOM OF MIKE PENCE.... House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-Ind.), the #3 official in the House GOP leadership, spoke to The Daily Caller about some of the procedural questions surrounding health care reform.

So, for example, we see this exchange:

The Daily Caller: Yesterday you said the self-executing rule was unconstitutional. Is that correct?

Mike Pence: Well I think it's probably unconstitutional. I know that there are leading legal scholars who believe it is unconstitutional. My background in law and constitutional issues suggests to me it's unconstitutional.

Which was followed soon after by this exchange:

The DC: My question is, though, that Democrats say you voted for self-executing rules yourself on three occasions.

MP: Yeah, sure.

Oh my.

Pence added that if the House approves the Senate bill and a reconciliation budget fix through "deem and pass," then the House will have passed the Senate bill "without ever voting on it" -- suggesting he doesn't really understand what the self-executing rule is.

Pence went on to say that the Senate bill, even if it's signed into law, "cannot be fixed by reconciliation." To bolster this bizarre assertion, he pointed to ... nothing in particular.

As for the constitutionality question, and the fact that Pence has voted for self-executing rules several times, I also enjoyed this exchange:

The DC: It's an issue of the magnitude of the legislation?

MP: I think that's part of it.

I see. The constitutionality of a procedural rule in the House is dependent on whether Mike Pence things the rule is being applied to a "big" bill or not.

Remember, this guy not only went to law school, but is a top member of the Republican leadership and -- I kid you not -- someone openly considering a presidential campaign.

Steve Benen 3:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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THE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL ISN'T A TRAIN.... Time's Jay Newton-Small has a good piece today about a larger political environment that Democrats find intimidating, but which may be poised to change.

Take a good look around, Democrats, this is likely to be as bad as it's going to get. As Kate Pickert and I note in a story out today on time.com, the 24-hour cable net cycle has been stuck on ugly process maneuverings in the vacuum of no score from the Congressional Budget Office and no bill. This meme just adds to the back room aura and sweetheart reputation the legislation has enjoyed for months. You're getting hit on all sides - from the President, the Speaker, constituents, even donors. Oh, and, it turns out most folks really do hate you.

But, oh how quickly things can change. If you pass the bill, next week's coverage is likely to trumpet triumph, the most productive legislative session since LBJ, an historic and seminal victory. It's getting from here to there that's the hard part....

I can appreciate why some antsy Dems would be feeling anxiety about this. It's the kind of fear that can cloud one's judgment, and lead a lawmaker to think that failure will pay greater political dividends than success -- a conclusion that wouldn't even be considered by someone thinking clearly.

That's why it takes some courage to finish the task and reap the rewards of a historic victory. Risk-averse politicians in competitive districts tend not to care for courage -- it invariably means doing something that may cost them votes -- but it tends to pay off in the end.

As Paul Krugman explained yesterday, a week from now there will be headlines about Dems winning a hard-fought victory or losing a humiliating defeat: "[I]t's up to a handful of Democrats to decide which headlines we get. They're out of their minds if they don't choose door #1."

Steve Benen 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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CLASSY.... I suppose it's safe to say we won't be hearing the phrase "compassionate conservatism" again anytime soon.

Supporters and opponents of health care reform assembled outside Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy's (D-Ohio) office yesterday, at times leading to heated exchanges between the two groups. Reader B.T. was on hand for gathering, and sent me this clip, originally published by the Columbus Dispatch.

If you can't watch videos on your work computer, the clip shows a man holding a sign, explaining that he has Parkinson's and needs health care reform to pass. When he sat on the pavement near the reform opponents, a conservative activist proceeded to lecture the man: "You're looking for a hand-out, you're in the wrong end of town. Nothing for free over here, you have to work for everything you get."

Another far-right protestor mocked the man, dropping a dollar bill on him, saying, "I'll pay for this guy. Here you go. Start a pot." Throwing another wadded bill, the protestor added, "I'll decide when to give you money. Here's another one, here you go." A moment later, he shouted at the man sitting on the street: "No more hand-outs."

Someone in the crowd is also heard saying, "You love a communist."

I know Limbaugh thinks it's appropriate to mock people with Parkinson's, but this was just painful to watch.

Here's hoping Mary Jo Kilroy was paying close attention, and realizes that those doing the mocking aren't going to vote for her anyway.

Steve Benen 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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MORE COVER FOR PRO-LIFE DEMS.... Following up on an item from the weekend, there are a lot of eyes focused on pro-life Democrats right now, some of whom may balk at health care reform. The question, for them, is whether already-tough restrictions on abortion funding in the Senate bill are strong enough.

We know how Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) answers that question. We also know that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Right to Life Committee agree with Stupak.

But for those pro-life Dems, mostly Roman Catholics from the Midwest, who want to vote for health care reform, they've been offered an abundance of political cover. Take this announcement from earlier today, for example.

[I]n a rare public disagreement that will reverberate among the nation's 70 million Catholics, leaders of religious orders representing 59,000 nuns sent lawmakers a letter urging lawmakers to pass the Senate health care bill. Expected to come before the House by this weekend, the measure contains abortion funding restrictions that the bishops say don't go far enough.

"Despite false claims to the contrary, the Senate bill will not provide taxpayer funding for elective abortions," said the letter signed by 60 leaders of women's religious orders. "It will uphold longstanding conscience protections and it will make historic new investments ... in support of pregnant women. This is the real pro-life stance, and we as Catholics are all for it."

"This is politics; this isn't a question of faith and morals," said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a national Catholic social activism lobby. "We are the ones who work every day with people who are suffering because they don't have health care. We cannot turn our backs on them, so for us, health care reform is a faith-based response to human need."

There's been quite a bit of movement on this over the last week or so. Over the weekend, the president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association also endorsed the Democratic reform plan, which followed support from the Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. Late last week, 25 evangelical and Catholic leaders also wrote to lawmakers urging passage of the reform bill.

And, of course, the Senate language has also been written and endorsed by prominent pro-life Democrats like Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).

If members of Stupak's bloc want to help make reform reality, and they're looking for some political cover, they should have what they need to vote "yes."

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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A STROLL DOWN MEMORY LANE.... Lately, the complaints from opponents of health care reform have been almost entirely about process. Republicans have decided they don't like reconciliation or the self-executing rule anymore -- they loved it when they were in the majority -- and the debate over how Dems are working on health reform passage has become nearly as important as whether Dems pass it or not.

But if Republicans wants to talk about process, we can talk about process.

Let's look back at 2003, when the Republican House and Republican Senate worked on Medicare Part D -- a bill Karl Rove saw as a way of creating a "permanent" GOP majority -- which was the biggest expansion of government into the health care industry in four decades.

The bill -- written behind closed doors with lobbyists -- came with a price tag of $1 trillion, despite leaving a "donut hole" that undercut the needs of millions of seniors. How did Republicans pay for it? They didn't. GOP lawmakers, with the Bush administration's blessing, financed the bill entirely -- literally, 100% -- through deficit spending, leaving future generations to pick up the tab.

But that's not the most interesting part. Consider what happened the night of the vote on the House floor.

A 15-minute vote was scheduled, and at the end of 15 minutes, the Democrats had won. The Republican leadership froze the clock for three hours while they desperately whipped defectors. This had never been done before. The closest was a 15-minute extension in 1987 that then-congressman Dick Cheney called "the most arrogant, heavy-handed abuse of power I've ever seen in the 10 years that I've been here."

Tom DeLay bribed Rep. Nick Smith to vote for the legislation, using the political future of Smith's son for leverage. DeLay was later reprimanded by the House Ethics Committee.

The leadership told Rep. Jim DeMint that they would cut off funding for his Senate race in South Carolina if he didn't vote for the bill.

The chief actuary of Medicare, Rick Foster, had scored the legislation as costing more than $500 billion. The Bush administration suppressed his report, in a move the Government Accounting Office later judged "illegal."

If you don't remember hearing about this much at the time, you're not alone -- the media decided this wasn't especially interesting. After all, even though Dems were beside themselves, reporters were certain "everyone knows" process stories aren't important.

And yet, words like "reconciliation" and "deem and pass" are now all the rage -- both among Republicans who made a mockery of the legislative process when they worked on health care, and among reporters who seem to find controversial whatever Republicans tell them to find controversial.

Now, it's not enough to say, "Republicans were worse." Democrats vowed to do better.

But therein lies the point -- Dems have done better. While Republicans worked on expanding the government's role in health care with almost comical corruption and abuses, the current health care reform process, while hardly perfect, has followed the rules and been largely above board.

A little something to keep in mind while the GOP and its media allies are hyperventilating.

Update: An alert reader, who prefers to remain anonymous, emails to remind me of another detail: the Republican leadership ordered that C-SPAN turn off the cameras while arms were twisted, so GOP leaders' corruption wouldn't be seen on television. Try to imagine what the reaction ould be if that happened with now with Pelosi.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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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.

* Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), facing an uphill re-election fight and a tough primary challenge, has a new television ad out this week that knocks labor unions. Seems like an odd strategy in advance of a Democratic primary.

* In the fight in Colorado between appointed Sen. Michael Bennet and former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff for the Democratic Senate nomination, the first round goes to the challenger.

* In Connecticut, once thought to be a key Republican pick-up opportunity, a new Quinnipiac poll shows state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D) with leads of about 34 points over the top GOP candidates. In the Republican primary, wrestling executive Linda McMahon is now in the lead.

* On the national level, progressive groups are beginning to get more seriously involved in a primary fight against Rep. Bart Stupak (D) in Michigan.

* A new Field Poll in California shows Meg Whitman (R) way out in front over Steve Poizner (R) in the Republican gubernatorial primary, and enjoying a narrow edge over state Attorney General Jerry Brown (D).

* Speaking of California, if Rasmussen is to be believed, Sen. Barbara Boxer's (D-Calif.) re-election bid is still struggling, and her lead over the Republican field ranges from two to six points.

* New York Republicans are still struggling to find a credible challenger to take on Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) in November. Yesterday, former Rep. Joe DioGuardi (R) kicked off his campaign. DioGuardi, who served two terms in the House more than two decades ago, is best known as the father of one of the "American Idol" judges.

* Will former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) take on Sen. Russ Feingold (D) this year? Thompson, who also served as Bush's HHS Secretary and ran an unsuccessful presidential campaign, said the odds are "50-50."

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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SENATE SENDS JOBS BILL TO WHITE HOUSE.... It took a little longer than expected, but Congress completed its work on another jobs package today, sending it to the White House for the president's signature.

The Senate approved and sent to President Obama on Wednesday what Congressional Democrats hope will be the first in a series of bills spurring employment by providing tax breaks and other hiring incentives to businesses.

The measure, approved on a bipartisan vote of 68 to 29, would give employers an exemption from payroll taxes through the end of 2010 on workers they hire who have been unemployed for at least 60 days. It also extends the federal highway construction program and takes other steps to boost public building projects.

"Congress is focusing on what the American people want us to focus on -- which is jobs, jobs, jobs," Senator Charles E. Schumer, the New York Democrat, said on the Senate floor before the vote.

In a surprising display, a whopping 11 Republicans voted with the Democratic majority to pass the legislation. Most GOP senators still opposed the measure, and even mounted a filibuster to prevent a vote from even happening, but given recent history, 11 Republican votes in support of anything seems like a pleasant surprise.

Here's the final roll call on today's vote. Note that Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska was the only Democrat to oppose the jobs bill and vote with 28 Republicans.

President Obama, not surprisingly, has already said he looks forward to signing the measure, called the "HIRE Act," into law.

To be sure, the legislation could be far more ambitious, but the crux of the jobs bill is a payroll tax cut on newly-hired employees, a series of business tax breaks, and an additional $20 billion in infrastructure/highway spending.

According to leading Democrats, it's intended to be the first of several bills related to job creation.

"This is just the first, certainly not the last, piece of legislation that we will put forward in relation to jobs," Schumer said. "If we don't create jobs, the economy will not move forward."

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

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KUCINICH TO SUPPORT HEALTH CARE REFORM BILL.... Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) hosted a press conference on the Hill this morning to announce, once and for all, how he would vote on the Democratic health care reform package. Kucinich, of course, opposed the proposal when the House voted on it in November, and the White House hoped to persuade the progressive Dem to change his mind.

Today, Kucinich continued to voice his concerns about this "historic fight," and said more than once that the bill is "not the one I want." Noting his series of criticisms of the legislation, Kucinich added that he does not "retract" those remarks, adding, "They stand as legitimate and cautionary."

After "careful discussions" with President Obama, Speaker Pelosi, and others, Kucinich declared:

"I've decided to cast a vote in favor of the legislation.... I'm gonna vote for the bill."

He emphasized that he still has "doubts," and that he "struggled with this decision," but Kucinich has decided to accept the package as it is, rather the way he'd "like it to be."

Overnight, The Hill noted that Kucinich's announcement "will either be a huge boost, or a significant blow, to Obama's effort to overhaul the nation's healthcare system.... If Kucinich is now a yes, it will provide some political cover for other skeptical progressives in the House. The about switch would also generate momentum because Kucinich would be the first no vote last November to publicly commit to voting yes on the final measure."

Before leaving the podium, the Ohio congressman said he'd "like people to think about" the possibility of "destroying" the Obama presidency if the health reform fight fails.

The turnaround is a bit of a surprise given Kucinich's previous opposition. Given the razor-thin margin we're likely to see when the House votes, today's announcement will no doubt come as a relief to the party leadership and the White House.

Steve Benen 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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PUTTING THE 'OPPOSITION' IN 'OPPOSITION PARTY'.... Starting early last year, Senate Republicans had a decision to make about how they would approach their responsibilities to the nation. The GOP had just suffered another round of humiliating defeats, and found themselves with their smallest Senate minority in a generation.

The chamber's Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, doesn't much know or care about public policy, but he has a thorough understanding of how to bring the legislative process to a standstill. A decision was made early on: the GOP would take its chances by simply saying "no" to everything, regardless of merit; blocking Democratic efforts at governing; and pretending that elections should have no consequences.

Before the health care fight, before the economic stimulus package, before President Obama even took office, Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader, had a strategy for his party: use his extensive knowledge of Senate procedure to slow things down, take advantage of the difficulties Democrats would have in governing and deny Democrats any Republican support on big legislation.

Republicans embraced it. Democrats denounced it as rank obstructionism. Either way, it has led the two parties, as much as any other factor, to where they are right now. [...]

In the process, Mr. McConnell, 68, a Kentuckian more at home plotting tactics in the cloakroom than writing legislation in a committee room or exhorting crowds on the campaign trail, has come to embody a kind of oppositional politics that critics say has left voters cynical about Washington, the Senate all but dysfunctional and the Republican Party without a positive agenda or message.

But in the short run at least, his approach has worked. For more than a year, he pleaded and cajoled to keep his caucus in line. He deployed poll data. He warned against the lure of the short-term attention to be gained by going bipartisan, and linked Republican gains in November to showing voters they could hold the line against big government.

McConnell was surprisingly candid with the NYT: "It was absolutely critical that everybody be together because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is O.K., they must have figured it out." Total GOP opposition, regardless of substance, was absolutely necessary, because "it's either bipartisan or it isn't." If Americans saw even a hint of broad support, they'd be more likely to approve of the legislation. And since all Democratic legislation necessarily must be killed, all Republicans necessarily had to stand together against it.

There are, however, two angles to keep in mind here. The first is that there's nothing especially wrong with an opposition leader opposing the majority party's agenda. Opposition parties are supposed to reject what the majority wants; it's why they're there. The problem arises when there's an expectation that nothing can/should happen in Congress unless President Obama and congressional Democrats find a way to make far-right Republicans happy. I don't care that McConnell ensures unanimous GOP opposition to everything Democrats want; I care that their opposition is characterized as some kind of Democratic failure.

The second is that there's a structural problem in the Senate. Americans can elect a large Democratic majority, and endorse an ambitious Democratic agenda, but then nevertheless see the entire American policymaking process brought to a standstill because Mitch McConnell and his cohorts feel like it. The flaw is systemic -- we expect the governing majority to deliver, and at the same time we give the failed minority the tools to prevent the majority from governing at all.

It creates a ridiculous cycle. The electorate gives Democrats power to get things done ... so McConnell uses his power to stop things from getting done ... which causes voters to grow frustrated by the gridlock ... which leads to rewards for McConnell and his party ... which leads to more gridlock.

It's quite a racket.

Post Script: Long-time readers may recall that the Monthly described exactly how McConnell operates in a 2006 profile. Looking back, we got it just right.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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'THE REPERCUSSIONS THEY WILL SUFFER WILL BE HUGE'.... The new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll offers a few interesting insights on health care. In particular, the results suggest Democrats would be committing political suicide if they let this opportunity fail.

First, let's note a few top-line results. President Obama's approval rating stands at 48% in this poll. On the generic ballot questions, Dems lead Republicans by three points, one point better than in January, and Democrats still enjoy a modest lead over the GOP on overall favorability. Congress' overall approval rating is down to a humiliating 17%, its lowest point since late 2008.

Specifically on the issue of the day, however, the divisions on health care are pretty stark. A 46% plurality believe it would be better to see the Democratic proposal pass, while 45% would rather see it fail and keep the status quo (this is better than December, when the numbers leaned in the other direction). Just 36% believe the reform plan is a good idea, though that total is up five points since January.

This was symptomatic of the overall divisions -- 34% of poll respondents said they'll be less likely to vote for their representative if they vote to kill reform, and 36% said they'll be less likely to vote for their representative if they vote to pass reform.

So, what's an on-the-fence Democratic lawmaker to think? These are the numbers they should probably pay the closest attention to:

Democratic respondents are overwhelmingly supportive of Obama's health care plan -- they think it's a good idea by a 64-16 percent margin, according to the poll. [Pollster Peter Hart] argues that such strong support from the base will ultimately make a "yes" vote an easier sell for Democrats who are on the fence.

The key concern for these lawmakers isn't losing some voters in the middle, he says. "It is alienating the base."

"From my point of view, it might look like a difficult vote," Hart says. "But they don't have a choice. The repercussions they will suffer will be huge."

Dems also must be cognizant of the enthusiasm gap -- 67% of Republicans said they're "very interested" in the midterm elections, compared with 46% of Democrats.

"If the Democrats are going to close that gap, they've got to get their people excited," Hart added. "And I don't see how you get those people if you vote no" on health care reform.

Some readers have emailed me lately, asking whether I think the reform bill will pass when push comes to shove. My answer is always the same: if common sense prevails, Dems have no choice but to succeed. If Democrats work for a year, pass reform in both chambers, and then let it die anyway, it would be electoral suicide.

But that's not a firm answer, because Democrats' capacity for self-destruction can be extraordinary.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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CHUTZPAH WATCH.... Let me get this straight -- the single biggest story in the political world yesterday was over consideration of a House procedure, used many times before by both parties? Republicans decided they don't like "self-executing rules" anymore, so the matter dominated the discourse?

Pretty much. We talked yesterday about how "deem and pass" became more common after Gingrich's Republicans took over, but AEI's Norm Ornstein delved into this in more detail, expressing dismay over the "level of feigned indignation" coming from GOP lawmakers and their media allies.

In the last Congress that Republicans controlled, from 2005 to 2006, Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier used the self-executing rule more than 35 times, and was no stranger to the concept of "deem and pass." That strategy, then decried by the House Democrats who are now using it, and now being called unconstitutional by WSJ editorialists, was defended by House Republicans in court (and upheld). Dreier used it for a $40 billion deficit reduction package so that his fellow GOPers could avoid an embarrassing vote on immigration.

I don't like self-executing rules by either party -- I prefer the "regular order" -- so I am not going to say this is a great idea by the Democrats. But even so -- is there no shame anymore?

I'll assume that's a rhetorical question. Of course there's no shame anymore. Republicans who are scandalously abusing legislative procedures have found that the media will play along if they accuse Democrats of abusing legislative procedures. The GOP relied on reconciliation when they were in the majority, but raise hell about reconciliation now. The GOP relied on self-executing rules when they were in the majority, but are apoplectic about the same procedure now.

And news outlets just keep deeming routine steps as "controversial" because Republicans say so.

To be sure, Democrats complained about "deem and pass" when Republicans used it, so the hypocrisy isn't exactly scarce on the Hill right now. For that matter, there's a reasonable case to be made that Dems moving forward on health reform using this procedure complicates the political implications in unhelpful ways.

But the larger freak-out reminds us of how silly our discourse can be sometimes.

Indeed, hearing Republicans whine incessantly yesterday about the need for an "up-or-down vote" on the Senate bill was especially amusing yesterday. If GOP lawmakers would allow both chambers to vote up or down on important legislation, procedural alternatives wouldn't be necessary in the first place.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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March 16, 2010

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

* Israel: "The discord between the United States and Israel over Jewish building in East Jerusalem deepened Tuesday with Israeli officials rejecting demands by Washington and expressing anger over the public upbraiding of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by the Obama administration. On a day of scattered -- although, in spots, fierce -- disturbances by Palestinians in East Jerusalem, news emerged that Israel was moving ahead with a second building project there."

* Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. troops in the Middle East and South Asia, had a nuanced answer for the Senate Armed Services Committee on DADT repeal, but he acknowledged for the first time that "the time has come" to consider scrapping the existing policy.

* Don't expect interest rates to go up any time soon: "The Federal Reserve on Tuesday repeated its pledge to hold interest rates at record lows to foster the economic recovery and ease high unemployment."

* Nice to see a boost in consumer sentiment, for a change.

* Words of wisdom from Attorney General Eric Holder to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science.

* Important piece on U.S. Central Command and the "Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict" that is jeopardizing U.S. standing in the Middle East.

* There's a fascinating tale behind the gun used at the Pentagon shooting two weeks ago. The madman, John Patrick Bedell, was able to get the gun without a background check -- which would have prevented the sale -- at a Las Vegas gun show, taking advantage of the gun-show loophole.

* The burden of higher-ed costs on students and their families in California is pretty extraordinary.

* And demonstrating the kind of dignity we've come to expect from House Republicans, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) spoke on the House floor today and said the health care reform legislation should be eaten ... and then "passed." Stay classy, Louie.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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A TALE OF TWO HEADLINES.... Paul Krugman makes a point that congressional Democrats may want to keep in mind over the next several days.

By this time next week we'll have seen huge headlines about health care. These headlines will either read "Democrats do it!", followed by various Republicans and their apologists complaining that what the Dems did wasn't nice, or "Democrats -- losers again", followed by Republicans going bwahahaha.

And it's up to a handful of Democrats to decide which headlines we get. They're out of their minds if they don't choose door #1.

It's tempting to think this would be obvious to lawmakers, but I don't think it is.

It doesn't take much of an imagination to visualize what the media narrative will be after the debate over health reform ends. If Dems fail, they can expect the rest of the year to be dominated by stories about how a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate both passed a monumental reform bill, but the hapless party managed to screw it up anyway.

If Dems succeed, they can expect news reports about what the new law does and does not do -- "How the new health care law affects you" -- which would further help improve the policy's public standing, while at the same time seeing "comeback kid" coverage, with Dems snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, rather than the other way around.

Just today, the Washington Post, speculating about the possible success of the reform push, ran an article about whether "this be the week congressional Democrats reverse their fortunes." Perry Bacon Jr. asked, "Will this week be the start of a political comeback" for Dems?

If the party wants the answer to be "yes," it's going to have to succeed on health reform. It's really not that complicated.

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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MAJOR LEGISLATIVE BREAKTHROUGHS ARE ALWAYS CONTROVERSIAL.... Americans now consider programs like Medicare bedrocks of our society, but it was not always thus.

Dem leadership staff is highlighting a series of numbers from 1962 on President John F. Kennedy's proposal. In July of that year, a Gallup poll found 28% in favor, 24% viewing it unfavorably, and a sizable 33% with no opinion on it -- showing an evenly divided public.

A month later, after JFK's proposal went down, an Opinion Research Corporation poll found 44 percent said it should have been passed, while 37% supported its defeat -- also showing an evenly divided public.

Also in that poll, a majority, 54%, said it was a serious problem that "government medical insurance for the aged would be a big step toward socialized medicine."

The point, as Greg Sargent emphasized, is that "passing dramatic, history-making reform in the face of intense organized opposition has never been politically easy."

Risk-averse lawmakers never want to hear this, but it takes some courage.

If it's any consolation to wavering Dems, progressive policymakers are always vindicated by history.

In 1935, Republican opponents of Social Security insisted that Roosevelt's "socialistic" plan would, among other things, force all Americans to wear dog tags. Not quite a half-century ago, conservative critics of Medicare seriously argued, in public, that the law would empower bureaucrats to dictate where physicians could practice medicine, and open the door to government control over where all Americans were allowed to live. Around the same time, many opponents of the Civil Rights Act believed the fabric of America was being torn apart by the legislation.

Right-wing arguments of today are absurd, but they are branches on a large and ridiculous tree.

The question now is whether Democrats will do as their predecessors did -- overcome the lies and scare tactics, stick to their principles, and pass their agenda anyway.

Major change is always scary and controversial initially, until it becomes law and Americans realize the fears were unfounded. There's every reason to believe the same will be true with the current reform proposal.

Just 216 House lawmakers simply have to pass ... the ... damn ... bill.

Steve Benen 3:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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DIMINISHING RETURNS, CONT'D.... We talked the other day about the right-wing protests against health care reform, and how attendance seems to have fallen off quite a bit as the process has unfolded. It looks like we saw another example of this today.

Hundreds of conservative "tea party" activists gathered outside the U.S. Capitol Tuesday to protest health-care legislation up whose fate will be decided by the House this week, urging Congress to "kill the bill."

Carrying signs condemning "Obamacare" and "socialized health-care," they cheered on a litany of speakers who insisted it is not too late to stop a bill they consider unAmerican. Some wore suits as they prepared to enter the Capitol and confront their members of congress, where they hoped to capture the encounters on video and post them online.

Speakers accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of "treason" because of the procedural maneuver she plans to use to push the bill through.

As a substantive matter, it seemed pretty obvious that most of those complaining about the health reform proposal don't have a clue what the plan actually is. It takes a unique kind of activist to travel to a rally to oppose legislation he/she doesn't understand.

But of particular interest here is the turnout. The DNC did a headcount of about 300 people, but the Dems probably shouldn't be considered an objective source. Rally organizers estimated "about 1,000" attendees, which is far below the 17 gazillion attendees usually identified by Tea Party event organizers. Journalists seem to be putting the number in the "hundreds."

Whatever the case, as the reform debate nears its end, it seems conservatives aren't showing up in force the way they once did.

"The air is out of the tea party balloon," DNC spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine said. "Today's dismal showing on Capitol Hill coupled with the turnout we're seeing at health reform rallies across the country where supporters are outnumbering opponents by three to one and four to one clearly demonstrates that the momentum is squarely on the side of those who support reform."

That's some partisan bravado, to be sure, but it's not unwarranted.

On Friday, Tea Party organized a "Take the Town Halls to Washington" effort, with the intention of meeting 50 key House Democrats. They fell 49 short. November's "house call" event was a bit of a flop. December's event on the Hill was even worse.

I don't want to dismiss this too cavalierly. Some Dem lawmakers are easily rattled, and might feel antsy if even a few constituents showing up for an event like today's. For that matter, if those lawmakers aren't hearing from reform supporters in their districts, even weak, scarcely-attended right-wing protests might be influential.

That said, just as Democrats are generating some momentum for final passage, it's not unreasonable to wonder if the opposition is running out of steam.

Steve Benen 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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FRANKEN DESCRIBES NOMINATING BREAKDOWN AS 'NUTS'.... President Obama nominated Michael Punke to serve as the Deputy U.S. Trade Representative, and his nomination was confirmed unanimously by the Senate Finance Committee three months ago. Islam Siddiqui was nominated to serve as the Chief Agriculture Negotiator, a position American food and agriculture groups desperately need to see filled.

Democrats want to give these nominees an up-or-down vote. Thanks to Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), they're not getting one.

The Kentucky Republican battled Democrats on the Senate floor Tuesday to block two nominations to relatively backbench positions -- because he is opposed to a tobacco-related law passed by the Canadian Parliament (that's right, the Canadian Parliament). The use of such delaying tactics is not unprecedented in Senate history, but holding up such minor business stretches the purpose of the Senate's open debate rules to the breaking point.

"This is a perversion of the filibuster and a perversion of the role of the Senate. It used to be that the filibuster was reserved for matters of great principle," said Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) from the well of the Senate. "Some of my colleagues seem more interested in using every procedural method possible to keep the Senate from doing anything than they are in creating jobs or helping Americans struggling in a difficult economy."

It's just so painful to see what Republicans are doing to destroy the Senate, and it's encouraging to see several Dems, including a few moderates, argue that the status quo is simply untenable. The United States government wasn't designed to function this way, and it quite obviously can't.

Virginia's Mark Warner (D), not exactly a bold progressive, explained to his colleagues, "Some of the very safeguards that were created to make this a serious and responsible deliberative body have been abused in a way that damages this institution."

I found Franken's remarks especially compelling:

Steve Benen 2:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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DESPERATE TIMES CALL FOR DESPERATE RHETORIC.... Josh Marshall had a good item earlier on the tone of Republicans' rhetoric this week about health care. To be sure, GOP attacks on reform proposals aren't exactly new -- and have never been mild or even-tempered -- but there is a new air of desperation about them.

"All liquored up on sake" ... "a suicide run" ... bizarre invocations of assassination. Threats of civil (or perhaps not so civil) disobedience against new Health Care laws. The Republican rhetoric sure is heating up as momentum gathers for a final vote on Health Care Reform. But there's no missing that it's the intensity of desperation. [...]

Passing Health Care Reform won't save Democrats -- whatever 'save' means in this context. They're going to have a very hard November. But there's little doubt that passing will improve their prospects politically -- perhaps only marginally, perhaps by quite a lot. Republican leaders get that, which is why they're pulling out all the stops for a final push to stop it. So since the politics makes sense and the policy does too, there's simply no reason not to push ahead to conclusion.

This has come through repeatedly in all the disingenuous campaign "advice" Republicans have offered Dems of late. Matt Dowd, a former Bush adviser, recently argued, "Republicans would like this bill to pass because they know how unpopular it is." GOP lawmakers, on a nearly daily basis, argue to the majority party, "Health care reform will be electoral suicide for Democrats."

And yet, Republican rhetoric sounds increasingly panicky. Given how awful the reform bill is supposed to be, and how much Americans are supposed to hate it, the GOP ought to be feeling a whole lot better right now.

Indeed, if they were so convinced that Dems are on "a suicide run," Republicans should probably want to give the party a hand -- the GOP should be inviting up-or-down votes in both chambers, with no filibusters or delaying tactics. If your rivals are drowning, why not throw them an anvil, right?

The truth, in all likelihood, is that "the intensity of desperation" is growing because Republicans fear that the country might actually like the Democratic proposal. Remember the Bill Kristol memo to the GOP during the last health care fight 16 years ago -- the merit of the reform proposal and its ability to improve the lives of Americans was deemed largely irrelevant; what mattered were the political consequences. A successful reform effort, Kristol said at the time, would position Democrats as the "protector of middle-class interests," a fate the GOP could not allow.

If Dem lawmakers don't notice the fear behind the Republican hysterics this week, they're just not paying attention.

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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THIS IS CNN?.... If I didn't get independent confirmation of this, I honestly would have assumed the announcement was some elaborate practical joke. Alas, it's true.

Prominent conservative commentator and RedState.com editor Erick Erickson will join CNN as a political contributor, appearing primarily on CNN's new show John King, USA, the network announced Tuesday.

Erickson, a self described "obsessive news junkie" who grew up in Dubai and rural Louisiana, will also provide perspective and commentary on other programs across the network. [...]

"Erick's a perfect fit for John King, USA, because not only is he an agenda-setter whose words are closely watched in Washington, but as a person who still lives in small-town America, Erick is in touch with the very people John hopes to reach," said Sam Feist, CNN political director and vice president of Washington-based programming. "With Erick's exceptional knowledge of politics, as well as his role as a conservative opinion leader, he will add an important voice to CNN's ideologically diverse group of political contributors."

This is easily the worst decision CNN has ever made. That the network probably reviewed Erickson's work before hiring him, and offered him a job anyway, suggests CNN's professional standards for what constitutes "an important voice" have all but disappeared.

The point here isn't that it's disappointing to see CNN hire yet another conservative voice, adding to its already-large stable of conservative voices. To be sure, it's frustrating, but it's nothing new.

The problem here is with Erickson himself.

For example, it wasn't long ago when Erickson explained his belief on why the left has a stronger online presence than the right. He attributed it to an asymmetry in free time, since conservatives "have families because we don't abort our kids, and we have jobs because we believe in capitalism."

This is the same Erickson who recently called retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter a "goat f--king child molester," referred to two sitting U.S. senators as "healthcare suicide bombers," praised protesters for "tell[ing] Nancy Pelosi and the Congress to send Obama to a death panel" (he later backpedaled on that one), and described President Obama's Nobel Prize as "an affirmative action quota."

And perhaps my personal favorite was the time, just last year, when Erickson was angry about new environmental regulations relating to dishwasher detergent. He told his readers, "At what point do the people tell the politicians to go to hell? At what point do they get off the couch, march down to their state legislator's house, pull him outside, and beat him to a bloody pulp for being an idiot?"

There was a point when major professional outlets would look at a voice like this as an "extremist," to be shut out of the mainstream of America's civil discourse. CNN, however, considers this record of radical rhetoric, and concludes it should pay him to offer on-air political commentary.

CNN will no doubt hear about blog posts like this one, and assume that liberals are angry because the network hired a right-wing blogger. But that's not it -- there are thoughtful, intelligent conservative bloggers in the country, who occasionally have insightful things to say. The problem here is that Erick Erickson isn't one of them.

This is a genuinely sad day for American journalism. CNN ought to be ashamed of itself.

Update: Echidne reminds me that Erickson's utterances on feminists are also pretty astounding.

Steve Benen 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (107)

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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.

* The GOP strategist behind the Willie Horton ads in 1988 is now going after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). The new spot accuses Reid of being supported by Arab slave-masters.

* Sen. Arlen Specter's (D-Pa.) primary campaign got a boost yesterday with an endorsement from the Pennsylvania chapter of the Service Employees International Union.

* Speaking of labor endorsements, Sen. Michael Bennet's (D-Colo.) primary campaign also got a boost yesterday with an endorsement from the Colorado chapter of AFSCME.

* On a related note, today is a key day for Bennet's campaign, with Colorado hosting its first round of precinct caucuses across the state.

* And in still more Colorado news, the latest survey from Public Policy Polling shows Bennet leading his Democratic primary challenger, Andrew Romanoff, by six, 40% to 34%.

* As the far-right wing of the GOP rallies against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), former half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), probably feeling a sense of obligation, has agreed to campaign alongside her former running mate later this month.

* In California, Senate hopeful Carly Fiorina supported cap-and-trade, right up until she started running for office as a Republican.

* And in North Carolina, the latest survey from Public Policy Polling shows no clear favorite in the crowded Democratic Senate primary. NC Secretary of State Elaine Marshall (D) is out in front, but her support is only at 20%. Former state Senator Cal Cunningham (D) is second with 16%.

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

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WHY TALKING TO CONSERVATIVES IS EXASPERATING.... J.D. Hayworth, the congressman-turned-right-wing-radio-host taking on Sen. John McCain in a GOP Senate primary, isn't exactly the kind of guy to celebrate diversity. But it's his approach to reality that deserves special attention.

A couple of days ago, Hayworth said during a radio interview, "[T]he Massachusetts Supreme Court, when it started this move toward same-sex marriage, actually defined marriage -- now get this -- it defined marriage as simply, 'the establishment of intimacy.'" He went on to argue that such an approach would allow humans to marry horses.

There's all kinds of things wrong with this, but if you look at the Massachusetts Supreme Court, there are no references to "the establishment of intimacy" as a standard for anything. The words simply aren't there. Hayworth made up the quote.

Last night, Rachel Maddow asked Hayworth to explain his bizarre remarks. The exchange was quite illustrative. (via Alex Koppelman)

For those of you who can't watch clips from your work computers, Maddow tried to explain that she looked for evidence to support Hayworth's claim, and couldn't find any. "Well, that's fine," Hayworth said. "You and I can have a disagreement about that."

"Well, it either is true or it isn't," Rachel responded. "It's empirical."

Hayworth, perhaps unaware of what "empirical" means, replied, "OK. OK. I appreciate the fact that we have a disagreement on that."

And this is why conversations with conservatives never seem to go well. Reality is an inconvenient detail that can be twisted, manipulated, and frequently ignored.

In a normal, sensible debate, one side might make a provocative claim. The other side can challenge the claim, and provide evidence. If it's proven false, the first side moves on to some other claim. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But that's not how Republicans work. They make claims that aren't true, and after being corrected, either repeat those claims again anyway, pretend the matter is subjective, or both.

It's genuinely painful to listen to clowns for whom reality is meaningless.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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CUCCINELLI'S UNPERSUASIVE WALK-BACK.... Since we talked yesterday about Virginia's right-wing state Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli, and his ridiculous Birther tendencies, it's only fair that I note that he's walked back his rhetoric.

An audio clip surfaced with Cuccinelli telling someone that it "doesn't seem beyond the realm of possibility" that President Obama was born outside the United States, adding that "the speculation is Kenya." Cuccinelli added that "it's possible" he would use his office to test the president's eligibility/citizenship if Virginia were involved in litigation against the federal government.

As the story made the rounds yesterday, Cuccinelli felt the need to respond, and issued a statement through his office:

"I absolutely believe that President Obama was born in the United States. I don't buy into the claims that he wasn't. On the recording, I was asked a hypothetical legal question, and I gave a hypothetical legal answer in response...."

At the risk of sounding picky, I can't help but notice this isn't much of a walk-back. He now "absolutely" believes the president is a natural-born citizen, and I'm glad to hear it, but his remarks on the recording weren't exactly "hypothetical." Cuccinelli specifically said that it "doesn't seem beyond the realm of possibility" that the president was born outside the country, and openly speculated about what he could do about it.

I can think of a variety of words to describe his comments, but "hypothetical" isn't one of them.

Adam Serwer added, "I'm willing to believe that Cuccinelli doesn't actually believe this stuff, and that he was just engaging in a little partisan signifying for the GOP crazy wing. But that doesn't mean he should be let off the hook for saying something as outrageous as suggesting the president was born in Kenya just because he has the good sense to be embarrassed enough to lie about it later."

Steve Benen 10:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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BROOKS ON RECONCILIATION.... I read David Brooks's column on Congress' reconciliation rule a couple of times, assuming I was missing something on the first go-around. But it seems the NYT columnist really did write an 800-word piece insisting that Democrats should allow Republicans to deny votes on practically everything -- because reconciliation isn't very nice.

In the United States, leaders in the House of Representatives have done an effective job in getting their members to think in group, not person-to-person, terms. Members usually vote as party blocs. Individuals have very little power. That's why representatives are often subtle and smart as individuals, but crude and partisan as a collective. The social psychology of the House is a clan psychology, not an interpersonal psychology.

The Senate, on the other hand, has historically been home to more person-to-person thinking. This is because the Senate is smaller and because of Senate rules. Until recently, the Senate leaders couldn't just ram things through on party-line votes. Because a simple majority did not rule, and because one senator had the ability to bring the whole body to a halt, senators had an incentive, every day, to develop alliances and relationships with people in the other party.

It's worth noting that the Senate passing legislation on party-line votes has long been common in periods of intense partisanship. Remember the Radical Republicans' era of the 19th century? Indeed, for the better part of two centuries, the majority approving bills over the concerns of the opposition party wasn't known as "ramming things through"; it was generally called "the American legislative process." It'd be more common now if moderate Republicans existed, were willing to work with Democrats; and didn't engage in scandalous obstructionism.

The Senate is now in the process of using reconciliation -- rule by simple majority -- to try to pass health care.

Actually, no. The Senate already passed its health care reform bill, and it was approved (after defeating a Republican filibuster) with a 60-vote supermajority. Reconciliation would be used for a budget fix, which, as Brooks may have heard, is why reconciliation exists, GOP hurt feelings notwithstanding.

Reconciliation has been used with increasing frequency. That was bad enough. But at least for the Bush tax cuts or the prescription drug bill, there was significant bipartisan support. Now we have pure reconciliation mixed with pure partisanship.

Actually, that's not true, either. Reconciliation has routinely been used on bills with stark partisan divisions. Bush's 2003 tax cuts were approved after Dick Cheney broke a 50-50 tie. If Brooks considers that "significant bipartisan support," he's using a definition of the phrase that I'm not familiar with.

Once partisan reconciliation is used for this bill, it will be used for everything, now and forever. The Senate will be the House. The remnants of person-to-person relationships, with their sympathy and sentiment, will be snuffed out. We will live amid the relationships of group versus group, party versus party, inhumanity versus inhumanity.

And that's based on ... what exactly? Dems aren't rewriting the rules ; they're just using them. Besides, using majority-rule for all legislation in both chambers is hardly a dystopian nightmare -- Congress used to operate this way, and important legislation used to be able to pass. The "inhumanity" of a dysfunctional Senate that isn't allowed to vote on legislation anymore seems far more serious.

With increasing effectiveness, the system bleaches out normal behavior and the normal instincts of human sympathy.

Got that, Dems? If you used reconciliation the way it was intended to be used, you're all big meanies. 'Tis better to be polite and allow Republicans to prevent an elected majority from voting on its own agenda, allowing national crises to continue to deteriorate.

Steve Benen 9:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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THE IOKIYAR RULE, PROCEDURAL EDITION.... For a while, Republicans were awfully worked up about using the reconciliation process to pass a health-care related budget fix, despite the GOP's repeated use of the same procedure. Now Republicans are headed for the fainting couch over use of the self-executing rule, despite the GOP's repeated reliance on the same procedure.

After laying the groundwork for a decisive vote this week on the Senate's health-care bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested Monday that she might attempt to pass the measure without having members vote on it.

Instead, Pelosi (D-Calif.) would rely on a procedural sleight of hand: The House would vote on a more popular package of fixes to the Senate bill; under the House rule for that vote, passage would signify that lawmakers "deem" the health-care bill to be passed.

The tactic -- known as a "self-executing rule" or a "deem and pass" -- has been commonly used, although never to pass legislation as momentous as the $875 billion health-care bill.

We talked yesterday about how this would work. In a nutshell, the House would vote once -- approving the sidecar measure and "deeming" the Senate bill as having passed. The Senate bill would then head to the White House for a signature, while the budget fix would head to the Senate.

As expected, the responding tantrum is nearing full force. The WSJ editorial page is outraged; Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is suggesting laws approved through the self-executing rule aren't laws that Americans have to follow; and assorted GOP voices, on and off the Hill, are characterizing the deem-and-pass approach as unconstitutional.

Of particular interest were complaints from Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), the ranking member on the House Rules Committee, who called use of the self-executing rule "very painful and troubling." It's interesting -- Dreier found the rule neither painful nor troubling when he used it in 2006.

Indeed, while the deem-and-pass approach used to be rare, its use became far more common 15 years ago -- right after Republicans took over Congress. Don Wolfensberger, former chief of staff for the House Rules Committee under Republicans, explained in a column a few years ago, "When Republicans took power in 1995, they soon lost their aversion to self-executing rules and proceeded to set new records under Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.)."

It's a familiar pattern -- Republicans open doors, and then whine incessantly when Democrats walk through them.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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A FIGHT TO THE FINISH.... I'll admit it -- it's tempting to think the final push towards health care reform is going well. President Obama told ABC's Jake Tapper yesterday, "I believe we are going to get the votes, we're going to make this happen." House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (D-Conn.) told reporters after a caucus meeting last night, "There's tremendous anticipation, and certainly a lot of anxiety, but I believe we have the votes and that we will get this bill done this week."

At the same time, Republicans sound increasingly discouraged. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) seems to think Democrats are going to succeed, and as desperation sinks in, GOP rhetoric is getting a little more excessive.

But let's pause for a moment to remember that failure remains a distinct possibility, and by most estimates, the leadership still doesn't have 216 votes. Indeed, with the clock winding down, we don't see a new round of undecided Dems announcing their support for health reform; we actually see some key Dems making very discouraging announcements in the opposite direction.

On-the-fence members are hearing plenty this week from those who don't want to fix the dysfunctional status quo.

Several on-the-fence Democrats said they were scrambling to sort out their constituents' views as the outside noise grows deafening.

"There is definitely more passion from people opposed to the bill," said Representative Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania, whose offices have been inundated with protests and calls. "I have to decide between passing this bill or doing nothing at all. I need to do what's best for my district." [emphasis added]

The White House is twisting arms, and that's likely to help. Labor leaders and MoveOn are playing hardball, and that's critically important, too. But are rank-and-file Democratic and left-leaning voters picking up the phone? About half the country wants this bill to pass -- but how many of them have communicated that directly to their House rep?

Jonathan Cohn explained, "[W]ith the vote count so close, reform may not pass without ... a push from the outside. It's not clear if that push will come. Recent polls show a clear change in public opinion: People are demonstrating more approval both of the Democrats and their reform bill. But, as far as I can tell, an enthusiasm gap remains. Conservatives hate the bill. Liberals, well, they're still learning to like it."

It's not at all complicated. A once-in-a-generation opportunity is on the line, and if supporters fail to fight, reform may fail to pass.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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March 15, 2010

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

* Mexico: "President Barack Obama is 'deeply saddened and outraged' at news of the murders of a federal employee and two relatives of workers at the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, an administration spokesman said."

* Netanyahu is sorry U.S. officials are upset, but Israel isn't changing course: "In the face of sharp American disapproval of an Israeli plan for an East Jerusalem building project, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu firmly rejected Monday any curbs on new Jewish settlements in and around Jerusalem."

* And predictably, GOP leaders are attacking the Obama administration for being unhappy with Israel.

* Step one is done: the House Budget Committee voted 21 to 16 this afternoon to send the final health care reform package to the House Rules Committee. Two Blue Dogs -- Texas's Chet Edwards and Florida's Allen Boyd -- voted with Republicans. Both voted against reform in November.

* Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) kicks off his initiative to reform the way Wall Street does business. The White House is pleased. More surprisingly, Elizabeth Warren seems to like the plan, too.

* Good to see industrial production edge up.

* Eyeing an overhaul of No Child Left Behind.

* Student aid bill "hobbles forward."

* Fantastic interview with Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens from Jeff Toobin. Of particular interest: Stevens will retire before the end of Obama's first term.

* Fareed Zakaria on the success of Obama's approach to Pakistan.

* After Rep. Dennis Kucinich's (D-Ohio) votes against health care, against the hate crimes bill, against the Democratic budget, against the cap-and-trade bill, and against financial regulation, Nate Silver considers the liberal lawmaker's value to the Democratic Party.

* Utah's House Republican majority leader resigned in the wake of his under-age, hush-money, hot-tub scandal. Probably a good idea.

* Fact Checking the Sunday Shows.

* Harry Reid issued a statement today, noting that he still expects his wife to make a "full recovery."

* And on a related note, I'm reminded why I don't miss reading right-wing blogs: one relatively prominent conservative blogger suggested, in print, that Reid's wife should be "euthanized.