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Tilting at Windmills

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December 31, 2010

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

* The EPA is damned if it does; we're all damned if it doesn't: "With the federal government set to regulate climate-altering gases from factories and power plants for the first time, the Obama administration and the new Congress are headed for a clash that carries substantial risks for both sides."

* Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano arrived in Afghanistan this morning, and will spend New Year's Eve with U.S. troops. It's part of a week-long trip for the cabinet secretary, which will also include stops in Israel and Qatar.

* The process of trying to reform Senate rules is extremely complicated, and Brian Beutler has a helpful walkthrough of what the "constitutional option" is all about.

* Remember the ongoing court fights over "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"? Given recent developments, there's no longer any point to pursuing them.

* On a related note, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) raised a few eyebrows when he ended up voting with the majority on DADT repeal. Now he's facing a fair amount of right-wing heat back home for having done the right thing.

* Outgoing Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) said yesterday that a "credible conservative" movement should do more than focus on "hatred" of President Obama. That's true, which is probably why conservatives aren't especially credible.

* Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) said the ideological differences between the parties on immigration policy are so great, they're "almost irreconcilable" and make compromise unrealistic. Regrettably, I suspect he's right.

* DNC Chair Tim Kaine is obviously not objective, but his take on President Obama's first two years is pretty compelling.

* When Vice President Biden called health care reform a "big f**king deal," that doesn't qualify as a "gaffe."

* Is college a good investment? Of course. But while it's a smart investment for young people, it's a wise investment for states, too.

* Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) was a Democrat when she was younger. Then she read Gore Vidal's "Burr" and became a Republican. Apparently, she found Vidal "snotty" towards the founding fathers.

* Picking up where Jon Swift left off, Batocchio has a collection of Blog Posts of the Year, as chosen by the bloggers themselves. (Disclosure: one of the entries came from me.)

* I like to mock listicles as much as the next guy, but I actually kind of liked Politico's Top 10 "worst decisions of 2010." There are some real doozies in there, worthy of the recognition.

* And with that, Happy New Year to you. See you in 2011, which is to say, tomorrow.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 12:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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THE FOUNDERS WERE MANY THINGS, BUT THEY WEREN'T LIBERTARIANS.... As part of the right's newfound interest in all things constitutional, there's been a related push of late to recast the framers of the Constitution. Today's far-right activists, we're told, are the ideological descendents of the Founding Fathers.

Indeed, in Christopher Beam's widely noted piece this month, we're told, "The Constitution was a libertarian document that limited the role of the state to society's most basic needs, like a legislature to pass laws, a court system to interpret them, and a military to protect them."

This is certainly a welcome characterization for those who prefer to believe most of the progressive bedrocks of modern American society -- Social Security, Medicare, etc. -- are not only unconstitutional, but are wholly at odds with the vision of limited government established by the framers.

The problem, of course, is that the framers weren't libertarians. John Vecchione had a good piece on this the other day.

George Washington belonged to the Established Church (Episcopalian) of the State of Virginia; he also was the chief vindicator of national power in the new republic. Thomas Jefferson determined to wage war by simply denying foreigners the right to trade with the U.S. So did Madison. What libertarian has ever thought the government could cut off trade between free individuals?

Further, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine supported the French Revolution. That revolution denied there was anything the state could not do in the name of the people. Jefferson never repudiated his support for that tyranny and Thomas Paine was only slightly more dismissive even after it nearly killed him. [...]

The Founders believed in carefully delineated federal powers either broad (Hamilton) or limited (Jefferson, sometimes) but all believed in a more powerful state than libertarians purport to believe in. If ever there was a libertarian document it was the Articles of Confederation. There was no national power. The federal government could not tax. Its laws were not supreme over state laws. It was in fact, the hot mess that critics of libertarians believe their dream state would be ... and it was recognized as such by the majority of the country and was why the Constitution was ratified. The Articles of Confederation is the true libertarian founding document and this explains the failure of libertarianism.

Jon Chait noted a recent piece from historian Gordon Wood that touches on this, emphasizing the similarities between the debates of the framers and those of today. "The great irony, of course, is that the Anti-Federalist ancestors of the Tea Partiers opposed the Constitution rather than revered it," Wood explained.

And this, too, speaks to a larger truth. As Ezra Klein noted yesterday, "In reality, the tea party -- like most everyone else -- is less interested in living by the Constitution than in deciding what it means to live by the Constitution." Or as Matt Yglesias added this morning, "The field of constitutional law has always featured a great deal of what's known as 'motivated belief' where people look at the document and tend to see it as supporting their preexisting policy conclusions."

The same is true of the nation's founders, and the drive on the right to convince themselves that they think as the framers did, which somehow gives contemporary conservatism a weighty, historical legacy, and a strong foundation from which to attack the modern welfare state.

This might be more compelling if it weren't transparent nonsense.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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RYAN'S RADICAL RULE?.... House Republicans quietly advanced procedural budget rules last week, which would be funny if they weren't so ridiculous. But there's a second part of this that shouldn't go overlooked.

We talked the other day about Republicans' "Cutgo" rules. The policy allows the GOP to try to keep slashing taxes, without having to pay for them, while requiring spending cuts to pay for new or expanded programs.

As Paul Krugman explained this morning, "Spending increases will have to be offset, but revenue losses from tax cuts won't. Oh, and revenue increases, even if they come from the elimination of tax loopholes, won't count either: any spending increase must be offset by spending cuts elsewhere; it can't be paid for with additional taxes." The Nobel laureate labeled this "the new voodoo."

And then there's the other part of House Republicans' new budget rules.

A little-noticed detail in the new rules proposed by House GOP leaders would greatly increase the power of Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the incoming chairman of the House Budget Committee. As National Journal's Katy O'Donnell reports, the new rules say that, for fiscal 2011, the chairman will set spending limits without needing a vote.

If that sounds insane, that's because it is. Under the proposed rules, Ryan would be empowered to single-handedly establish spending levels if the House and Senate struggle to agree on a budget resolution. Just as important, Ryan's levels would be binding on the chamber, without even being subjected to a vote.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explained:

This rule change ... means that by voting to adopt the proposed new rules on January 5, a vote on which party discipline will be strictly enforced, the House could effectively be adopting a budget resolution and limits for appropriations bills that it has never even seen, much less debated and had an opportunity to amend. [...]

Once Rep. Ryan places in the Congressional Record discretionary funding limits set at the [2008] level, they will become binding on the House, and any attempt to provide funding levels that allow for less severe cuts will be out of order.

In addition to inviting a crisis and almost-unavoidable government shutdown, Pat Garofalo reminds us, "The proposed change also seems to fly in the face of the GOP's promise to end backroom deals and increase transparency, as with one vote, the GOP House may yoke itself to a budget that has never been made public."

Worse, the chamber would be forced to honor mandatory spending levels, established by one crackpot lawmaker, which the rest of Congress would never have even voted on.

We're starting to see some outrage from House Democrats on this, but the fix may be in.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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QUIETLY EXECUTING A NATIONAL SECURITY TRIUMPH.... One of the year's biggest national security developments actually gets overlooked. In April, at the kickoff of the Nuclear Security Summit, the Obama administration reached an agreement with the Ukrainian government on the country giving up its entire stockpile of highly enriched uranium, inherited after the fall of the Soviet Union.

For those concerned about the security of the most dangerous material on the planet, this was quite a breakthrough. What we didn't know until last night is that the process of moving more than 110 pounds of highly enriched uranium -- enough to make two nuclear bombs -- was quietly completed this week.

It sounds like something out of a spy thriller, but this was, by all accounts, an extremely complicated, extremely dangerous, process involving five flights in four countries and 21 specially designed casks carrying previously unsecured uranium to a secure facility. Andrew Bieniawski, the U.S. agency's associate deputy administrator for global threat reduction, said, "This may have been the most complicated operation NNSA has done in recent years."

The result, of course, is a safer world. If you watch one clip today, make it this one from last night, in which Rachel Maddow interviewed Thomas D'Agostino, head of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration.

Also note, President Obama established a goal early on of securing all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years -- a task that encompasses locking down materials in 35 countries. Less than two years later, the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration has completed its work in 19 of those countries, and D'Agostino believes the agency is on track to meet the White House's deadline.

The political world covers quite a bit of ground, but arguably nothing is quite as important to global security as this. The developments in Ukraine are a triumph to be celebrated.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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WHEN A SIDESHOW IS EVIDENCE OF SOMETHING LARGER.... As 2010 comes to an end, there are plenty of retrospectives on the year in politics. The Washington Examiner's Tim Carney, a conservative, has a worthwhile suggestion this morning for anyone still writing their year-end list.

You might be a self-delusional liberal if ... you think Christine O'Donnell was one of 2010's most important political stories.

That strikes me as more than fair. O'Donnell was a freak show. Her excruciating presence in American politics this year wasn't meaningful or important -- it was a train wreck. A few years from now, most of us will struggle to remember her as anything but "that lunatic who managed to win a low-turnout primary."

But there's a flip side to this. As a partial defense of those writing year-end lists and including O'Donnell, I think it's more than reasonable to note that her primary win was at least part of one of the year's most important political stories: extremists who won GOP primaries and ended up hurting their party in the process.

Obviously, Republican candidates had a tremendous year nationwide, but in several key contests, GOP primary voters went with radical, borderline-dangerous crazy people, which in turn gave Democrats a much-needed boost. Dem victories in Nevada, Delaware, and Colorado can be directly attributed to the wild-eyed Republican base, which rejected credible, electable frontrunners, only to nominate extremists who lost*. It made the difference between another Congress with a Democratically-controlled Senate, and a chamber with a 50-50 split.

So, sure, I agree with Carney that it's foolish for any political observer to give O'Donnell, an obvious laughingstock, too much credit. But I'm happy to make the case that one of 2010's most important political stories was the poor judgment of fanatical Republican primary voters who nominated, among others, maniacs like O'Donnell.

* Update: Dana Houle is right to note that Alaska's U.S. Senate race fits into the model, even if a Republican ended up winning, given that the party had to invest resources it wouldn't have had to spend, and is left with a far-less-loyal senator. I suppose we might also put Kentucky in the category, even though Rand Paul won, given that nominating the ridiculous candidate made the race competitive (and expensive), when it wouldn't have otherwise been close.

Steve Benen 8:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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NRSC FLUBS THE DETAILS.... Fundraising appeals are, by their nature, expected to be hyperbolic. But I'm consistently impressed by the ways in which the Republican campaign committees are willing to mislead their donors.

Yesterday, for example, the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent around one last, end-of-the-year appeal. This little bit of spin was striking:

"During the lame duck session we saw the power of your vote from November 2. No longer could the Democrats choose to ignore Republicans and keep them from the negotiating table. Instead Democrats were forced to listen to what the American people wanted by extending tax cuts for all Americans and scrapping a last-minute, pork-laden spending bill."

(thanks to reader C.R. for passing this along)

First, Democrats hadn't ignored Republicans or kept from the negotiating table; Democrats practically begged Republicans to work with them for nearly two years. The GOP refused to compromise or negotiate in good faith.

Second, and more important, though, is the notion that "the American people wanted" Congress to extend tax cuts "for all Americans," and those rascally Democrats were finally "forced to listen."

But that's nonsense. Poll after poll for months showed that the Republicans' top priority -- breaks for the wealthy -- wasn't popular at all. On the contrary, "the American people wanted" the highest-income Americans to go back to paying Clinton-era top rates. Republicans didn't push a popular idea; they held middle-class tax breaks hostage until they won concessions for their unpopular demands.

As for the NRSC boasting about the splendor of the lame-duck session, one wonders if the campaign committee realizes it's the same lame-duck session in which Democrats repealed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," ratified New START, and passed the most sweeping food-safety bill in 70 years, the Zadroga 9/11 health bill, and the defense authorization bill.

This is evidence of "the power" of Republican votes?

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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December 30, 2010

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

* Some of the best economic news in a long while: "The number of people applying for unemployment benefits fell sharply last week, with applications hitting the lowest level in two and a half years. The Labor Department said applications dropped by 34,000, to 388,000, the lowest number since the week of July 12, 2008." In general, applications below 425,000 signal modest job growth.

* Two million American veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan return home and struggle to find work: "Some experts say the grim employment landscape confronting veterans challenges the veracity of one of the central recruiting promises of the nation's all-volunteer force: that serving in the military will make them more marketable in civilian life. "

* One never knows what Joe Miller will think of next, but the Senate race in Alaska appears to be officially over: "The state of Alaska has certified Sen. Lisa Murkowski as the winner of the state's Senate race, allowing Murkowski to be sworn in with the rest of the Senate next week, according to the Associated Press."

* Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) is getting some good news as he walks out the door -- the Senate ethics committee has dismissed a complaint against him.

* MSNBC's Keith Olbermann wants to make it clear that, in his words, "Fox News is 100% bullshit." That seems like a reasonable assessment.

* Lanny Davis was subjected to some rather fierce criticism for taking on President Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast as a client. Yesterday, Davis reversed course.

* Great piece from Ben Smith on Richard Ben Cramer, who apparently isn't fully aware of the fact that his "What it Takes" is "now widely considered the greatest modern presidential campaign book." (I read it -- yes, the whole thing -- in grad school, and still consider it an exceptional piece of work.)

* I'm starting to think Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) has a problem with black people. Try not to be surprised.

* Daniel Luzer: "College is still 'worth it' in the long run (the amount of money one pays to attend college will be returned in terms of additional income over a lifetime) but the increasing cost of college means that the payoff now seems to take a damn long time."

* R.I.P., Geraldine Hoff Doyle, best known as the inspiration for "Rosie the Riveter." She died Sunday at the age of 86.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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THE WHO, HOW, AND WHEN OF REFORMING THE SENATE.... With the 112th Congress getting ready to begin quite soon, there are multiple ideas under consideration. The details, of course, matter -- it's one thing for a wide variety of members to agree that the process no longer works; it's something else for them to coalesce around specific changes.

But while there are competing reform ideas, there are also competing conversations about reform ideas. On the one hand, we have Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) working on an ambitious set of changes. Simultaneously, there's a discussion underway with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who are exploring a different approach.

Brian Beutler had a helpful lay of the land today.

Here's how this dynamic evolved. Udall along with several freshman Democrats, and even some senior Dems like Tom Harkin, have been making the case -- and building support -- for rules reform for many months. Their efforts have been successful enough to get just about every Democrat in the caucus on board with the idea of some kind of rules reform. [...]

But there isn't party-wide agreement on what should be reformed, or how extensive the changes should be.

That gave Reid the balance of power in this debate. Armed with the letter, and with the fact that the filibuster can be reformed on a majority-rules basis at the beginning of each Congress, he can get Republicans to negotiate under the credible threat that he and the Dems could go it alone, and change the rules more dramatically.

The likelihood of generating enough support for ending filibusters altogether is extremely remote. At this point, the three main areas that reform-minded senators are focused on are (1) prohibiting filibusters on motions to proceed, which prevent senators from even having a debate; (2) ending the practice of secret holds; and (3) forcing those filibustering legislation to actually stand on the floor and talk endlessly.

Details are scarce, but these Democratic ideas already seem excessive and unnecessary to GOP leaders.

In other words, trying to find common ground with Republicans on improving the way the chamber functions is about as easy as finding common ground with Republicans on anything else.

In the larger context, this may seem like a pretty slow week in the political world, but decisions on possible reforms are coming up very quickly -- as in, next week. The Senate will reconvene on Wednesday, and immediately take up proposals dictating how the institution will work, or not work, for the next two years. Behind the scenes, there have been a slew of communications between members, but it's almost impossible to say with any certainty how these efforts are going, or how close members are to some sort of consensus.

One angle to keep an eye on: what Vice President Biden thinks. As Amanda Terkel noted today, "First, [reform-minded senators] have to convince the Vice President that the Constitution allows senators to adopt rules on the first day of a new congressional session with just 51 votes. Then, the majority must agree on what those changes should be."

Steve Benen 4:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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MAYBE LAMAR SMITH SHOULD TAKE A CLOSER LOOK.... For about four years, the Bush administration held terrorist Ahmed Ghailani at Guantanamo Bay, and didn't have much of a plan going forward. The Obama administration tried a different approach -- filing charges against Ghailani, subjecting him to the federal criminal justice system, and convicting him on terrorist conspiracy charges. Ghailani will now likely spend the rest of his days behind bars.

The case against him, however, wasn't easy. The accused was acquitted on most of the charges against him because the evidence was inadmissible -- the Bush gang tortured him. Still, a conviction is a conviction.

The right doesn't quite see it that way. Elon Green notes an exchange this week between Hugh Hewitt and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. For Hewitt, the successful conviction of Ghailani was a "fiasco," and asked whether Smith's committee could prevent similar trials in the future. Smith replied:

"Well, as you say, they tried a terrorist in New York City. That was supposed to be their best case, they had their best witnesses. That was the one that they were going to use as an example and say you know, here, yes we can conduct a trial of a terrorist in the United States. And even if they get some rights as citizens, we're still going to be able to find them guilty on all counts.

"Well as you know, this individual was found guilty on one count of, I think, 254. And even though he was found guilty of building the explosives, he wasn't found guilty of killing, I think, 254 innocent people who were killed, among them several dozen Americans. So in that situation, it clearly did not work as the administration had planned, and it kind of blew up in their face, and the judge didn't allow some of the evidence and some of the testimony that would have been allowed if this individual had been tried at Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba, the so-called Gitmo."

Fact-checking this is a challenge, only because Smith is so wrong, it's hard to know where to start. Let's stick to the most glaring flaws.

First, the administration never promised a conviction on "all counts"; it promised that following the American rule of law and our system of justice would lead to the appropriate outcome. And it did -- the terrorist is going away. If Smith wanted Ghailani convicted on more counts, he should take it up with the Republican administration that tortured him.

Second, the administration may have intended to use this trial to demonstrate a larger point, and to a very real extent, it worked -- there were no security threats, no opportunities for the accused to use the proceedings as a platform, and stick to the rule of law led to a conviction. The administration wanted a public, transparent, legitimate trial, with lawyers and a jury, to help demonstrate America's commitment to its own principles.

Lamar Smith might not remember, but Republicans used to be for this, too. As Elon noted, "During George W. Bush's presidency, it was not uncommon for terrorism suspects to be tried, convicted and receive lengthy sentences in American courts. These numbers include Mohammed Jabarah, Richard Reid, the 'shoe bomber,' Bryant Neal Vinas, Mohammed Junaid Babar and Shahawar Matin Siraj -- all of whom will be imprisoned for decades."

Smith wasn't complaining at the time. I wonder why that is.

And finally, Smith is also convinced it's preferable to try terror suspects in military tribunals. As the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, it's disconcerting that he doesn't realize how awful tribunals' track record is.

As Colin Powell noted earlier this year, "In eight years the military commissions have put three people on trial. Two of them served relatively short sentences and are free. One guy is in jail. Meanwhile, the federal courts -- our Article III, regular legal court system -- has put dozens of terrorists in jail and they're fully capable of doing it."

Steve Benen 3:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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OPEN TO INTERPRETATION.... For their first bit of pandering to a confused party base, conservative Republicans will kick off the 112th Congress by reading the Constitution out loud. There's nothing especially wrong this, of course, but it's a rather meaningless stunt.

But wait, there's more. After reading the document aloud, Republicans will then force House members to include a statement from bills' sponsors "outlining where in the Constitution Congress is empowered to enact such legislation."

Ezra Klein asks a good question: "What's the evidence that this will make legislation more, rather than less, constitutional, for whatever your definition of the Constitution is?"

My friends on the right don't like to hear this, but the Constitution is not a clear document. Written more than 200 years ago, when America had 13 states and very different problems, it rarely speaks directly to the questions we ask it. [...]

In reality, the tea party -- like most everyone else -- is less interested in living by the Constitution than in deciding what it means to live by the Constitution. When the constitutional disclaimers at the bottom of bills suit them, they'll respect them. When they don't -- as we've seen in the case of the individual mandate [as part of the Affordable Care Act] -- they won't.

Quite right. The rhetoric about constitutional fealty from the right of late has taken on a certain childish quality -- the founding document supports their preferred policy goals, because they say so. It's the basis for this legislative push -- prove your legislation is constitutional, by including a statement saying it's constitutional.

This is terribly silly. If constitutional law were easy and straightforward, watching the Supreme Court would be exceedingly dull -- the justices would hear a case, read the document, and issue one 9-0 ruling after another.

But that's not the case. Interpreting 18th-century text, applying it to 21st-century law, and considering how and whether to consider framers' intent, context, and forethought is inherently tricky. The far-right Republican Party and its activists are convinced that they know what is and isn't constitutional now -- even on policies where they believed the exact opposite up until extremely recently -- but their rhetoric is painfully shallow.

As Ezra added, "To presume that people writing what they think the Constitution means -- or, in some cases, want to think it means -- at the bottom of every bill will change how they legislate doesn't demonstrate a reverence for the document. It demonstrates a disengagement with it as anything more than a symbol of what you and your ideological allies believe."

To reiterate a point from the other day, I'd add that all of this is part of a larger, misguided push intended to show that conservatives are the Constitution's true champions.

But there's a problem with this: it's crazy. We are, after all, talking about a House Republican caucus with leaders who support allowing states to overturn federal laws they don't like.

In recent years, congressional Republicans haven't just endorsed bizarre legal concepts; they've advocated constitutional concepts that were discredited generations ago.

Worse, they have ambitious plans to shuffle the constitutional deck more to their liking. During the campaign, we heard from a variety of bizarre candidates, many of whom won, who talked about scrapping the 17th Amendment, repealing the 16th Amendment, getting rid of at least one part of the 14th Amendment, "restoring" the "original" 13th Amendment, and proposing dozens of new amendments.

Similarly, these same officials intend to radically transform the country as we currently know it, identifying bedrocks of society, and declaring them not just wrong, but literally unconstitutional.

For these guys to somehow claim they've cornered the market on constitutional fealty is ridiculous, and arguably, backwards. Stunts and legislative gimmicks won't change this.

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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THE PREDICTABLE RECESS-APPOINTMENT COMPLAINTS.... With the White House announcing six new recess appointments late yesterday, it was only a matter of time before Republicans began complaining. What I was curious to see, however, is what they came up with.

The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin took a crack at it this morning. (via Memeorandum)

On Wednesday, Obama shed any pretense of bipartisanship in making six recess appointments. As were his previous recess appointments, this batch included two individuals whose records are so controversial that they could not obtain confirmation even with 59 Democratic senators.

Hmm. Let's unpack this a bit.

President Obama nominated six qualified officials to fill a variety of executive branch vacancies. These nominations were considered in the respective Senate committees, and approved by committee members. If brought to the floor, each of the six would have been confirmed, most with more than 60 votes. (When Rubin claims they were too "controversial" to "obtain confirmation," this has no relation to reality. She's simply wrong.)

Knowing this, conservative Republicans, who've engaged in obstructionist tactics unseen in American history, placed anonymous holds on the nominees. They could have simply voted against the nominees and urged their colleagues to follow suit, but that wasn't good enough -- Republicans had to shut down the advise-and-consent process altogether.

This, in turn, left the president with a choice: (a) leave the positions vacant until a Senate minority agreed to let the chamber vote up or down; or (b) fill the vacancies with qualified nominees who enjoyed the support of a Senate majority. He wisely chose the latter.

I am intrigued, though, by the notion of "partisanship" as a criticism from a partisan. Let me see if I have this straight -- when Republicans engage in obstructionism, breaking down the confirmation process, that's fine. When the president exercises the power available to him to circumvent this obstructionism, that's "shedding any pretense of bipartisanship"?

It's almost as if Obama is allowed to be affected by institutional abuses, but he's not allowed to respond. There's nothing wrong with political pugilism, just so long as Obama realizes he's not supposed to punch back.

That's quite a standard.

Rubin's piece goes on to make arguments against some of the six officials to receive recess appointments -- again, opponents could have made these arguments on the floor and tried to defeat the nominations as part of the traditional confirmation process -- before wrapping up with an especially interesting point.

What, if anything, can be done by the imperious recess appointments of such controversial nominees? Todd Gaziano of the Heritage Foundation emails me, "The real threat (which Robert C. Byrd famously did once) is for the entire GOP caucus" to refuse to consent to any further nominees unless Obama agrees to refrain from issuing more recess appointments. Gaziano says that Republicans "could refuse to confirm another judge, diplomat, etc. until they extract their promise."

Fascinating. Note Rubin's use of the word "imperious" to describe a legal process used by George W. Bush more than 170 times.

Let's appreciate exactly what's being proposed here.

Every president since George Washington has used recess appointments; it's a power explicitly given to the president in the Constitution. Rubin and Gaziano, however, envision yet another hostage scenario -- the White House would have to commit to the Republican Senate minority that the president won't exercise his own authority or the GOP will simply refuse allow any nominees to receive any votes to any office for any reason.

The president might not be inclined to pay such a ransom. Of course, if he resists, I'm sure conservative bloggers will be there to insist the White House has "shed any pretense of bipartisanship."

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

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A TEXTBOOK CASE OF HISTORICAL INACCURACIES.... A few months ago, the Washington Post reported that public school textbooks in use in Virginia told students that thousands of black soldiers fought for the South during the Civil War. That's plainly false. But it led to some interesting questions, such as, what else is wrong in these textbooks?

As it turns out, quite a bit.

In the version of history being taught in some Virginia classrooms, New Orleans began the 1800s as a bustling U.S. harbor (instead of as a Spanish colonial one). The Confederacy included 12 states (instead of 11). And the United States entered World War I in 1916 (instead of in 1917).

These are among the dozens of errors historians have found since Virginia officials ordered a review of textbooks by Five Ponds Press, the publisher responsible for a controversial claim that African American soldiers fought for the South in large numbers during the Civil War.

"Our Virginia: Past and Present," the textbook including that claim, has many other inaccuracies, according to historians who reviewed it. Similar problems, historians said, were found in another book by Five Ponds Press, "Our America: To 1865." A reviewer has found errors in social studies textbooks by other publishers as well, underscoring the limits of a textbook-approval process once regarded as among the nation's most stringent.

"I absolutely could not believe the number of mistakes -- wrong dates and wrong facts everywhere. How in the world did these books get approved?" said Ronald Heinemann, a former history professor at Hampden-Sydney College.

Five professional scholars oversaw the review process. One, historian Mary Miley Theobald, a former Virginia Commonwealth University professor, reviewed a currently-used history textbook and concluded that it was "just too shocking for words." She prepared a list of errors for state officials -- and the list is 10 pages long.

"Any literate person could have opened that book and immediately found a mistake," she said.

The publisher, which hired an amateur who relied on web searches, is clearly responsible for these errors, but it's also worth noting that Virginia officials aren't helping.

Five Ponds Press provides books mainly to the Virginia Department of Education. The department is required to find texts that meet the state's stringent Standards of Learning, which includes lists of themes that each textbook must cover. That disqualifies many books produced for the national textbook market.

The department approves textbooks after panels of reviewers, often elementary school teachers, verify that the books cover each of the Standards of Learning themes.... The creation of Standards of Learning requirements helped create niche markets for smaller publishers, including Five Ponds Press.

Among the restrictions: Virginia requires state textbooks to tell students the Civil War was primarily a matter of states' rights, not a conflict over slavery.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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

* Federal law-enforcement officials have launched a criminal investigation into Christine O'Donnell's (R) failed U.S. Senate campaign in Delaware. The allegations are focused on evidence that the extremist candidate used campaign funds for person use.

* In response, O'Donnell, one of the most radical statewide candidates in recent memory, argued that the investigation is the result of an elaborate conspiracy involving the FBI, George Soros, both major parties in Delaware, Vice President Biden, and disgruntled former aides. All of them got together, O'Donnell said, to undermine her "political reputation."

* In Alaska, Joe Miller (R) will host a press conference tomorrow to announce whether to continue his ridiculous legal fight. Miller who lost to Sen. Lisa Murkowski's (R) write-in re-election bid, has gone 0-for-4 in the courts thus far.

* Due to population shifts, Ohio is poised to lose two congressional seats. Once the redistricting process is complete, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) fears one of the eliminated seats will be his. The liberal, Cleveland-area lawmaker hopes to rally supporters to prevent that outcome.

* Republican National Committee members will pick their party chair next month, and the early favorite appears to be Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, though a majority of the 168 members on the committee are still undecided.

* Public Policy Polling's latest report shows approval ratings for governors likely to seek re-election over the next two years. The most popular incumbents appear to be Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) and Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D). The least popular is Christine Gregoire (D) in the state of Washington.

* When it comes to Sen. Olympia Snowe's (R) 2012 re-election campaign in Maine, most of the attention is focused on who'll challenge the incumbent in a Republican primary. But what about Maine Democrats? Rosa Scarcelli (D), the CEO of an affordable-housing agency, said this week she's interested in the race, and might run if Snowe moves to the right or it appears likely Snowe will lose to a primary challenger.

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

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POOR STAFFING DECISIONS.... In the wake of the midterm elections, a wide variety of incoming Republican lawmakers needed to put together teams of staffers, and many immediately began hiring corporate lobbyists as their chiefs of staff. It didn't exactly fit in with the anti-establishment, Tea Party-style campaigns that dominated GOP politics in 2010, and vowing to break with the entrenched establishment and its corrupt power structure.

In fairness, though, it's worth emphasizing that some of these new Republican officials aren't hiring lobbyists as chiefs of staff, they're hiring right-wing talk-show hosts.

In mid-November, Rep.-elect Allen West (R-Fla.) announced his choice for chief of staff: a right-wing radio host who hates immigrants, hates Muslims, and has raised the prospect of an armed insurrection against the United States government. (The host soon after said she would not join West's staff after all, but the fact that she was hired in the first place told us a great deal about the congressman-elect's judgment.)

Yesterday, we saw this same dynamic play out again.

Rep.-elect Tim Huelskamp has hired a conservative talk radio host with no Hill experience and a track record of advocating against abortion and gay marriage as his chief of staff.

The Kansas Republican hired Jim Pfaff, who hosts the Denver-based Jim Pfaff Show, to be his top staffer in Washington, D.C., Pfaff said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Pfaff has advocated at the state level against gay marriage, abortion and Democratic policy initiatives and garnered praise from former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, who told a Colorado newspaper last year that Pfaff is "one of the greatest grass-roots organizers in the country."

The politician and the radio host apparently met through their work with Focus on the Family, a fundamentalist group created by James Dobson. Pfaff has also been part of right-wing activism on a variety of related fronts, including organizing against Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination, against economic recovery efforts, and against efforts to combat global warming.

It's quite a crop of GOP freshman lawmakers we'll see next year, isn't it? Those who aren't hiring corporate lobbyists are embracing extremist media personalities to oversee their congressional offices.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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ROOTING FOR FAILURE.... Last year featured one of the more baffling, big-picture political debates in quite a while. Just as President Obama was being inaugurated, conservatives began to explore whether it's acceptable to actively root against America's leader as they dealt with a variety of foreign and domestic crises.

In general, the right seemed to agree that there was nothing especially wrong in hoping for failure. The contingent was led by Rush Limbaugh, who told his audience the day before Inauguration Day, "I hope Obama fails." A month later, Limbaugh, talking about efforts to revive the economy, added, "I want everything he's doing to fail... I want the stimulus package to fail."

We don't hear quite as much about this anymore, but the sentiment hasn't disappeared. The latest CNN poll (pdf) asked respondents a pretty straightforward question: "In general, do you hope that Barack Obama's policies will succeed or do you hope that his policies will fail?" Overall, 61% want the president's policies to work, 27% do not. That's not especially encouraging.

But the partisan breakdown was especially interesting. Among Democrats, 89% are hoping for success. Among self-identified Independents, it's 59%. Among Republicans, a 61% majority went the other way, hoping to see the president's policies fail.

Here's that breakdown in visual form:

rootingchart.jpg

I guess this isn't surprising anymore, but I nevertheless find it rather depressing. It's always struck me as the bare minimum of patriotism: don't root against the home team. It's one thing to disapprove of, or even actively loathe, the country's elected leaders. But rooting for their failure has never supposed to be one of the options.

It's really not complicated -- the president's policies, whether wise or not, are at least intended to bolster the economy and strengthen our national security. If those policies fail, Americans will suffer more and the country will be weaker.

And yet, a majority of Republicans are nevertheless rooting for failure?

Several weeks ago, George W. Bush noted, "I want my president to succeed because if my president succeeds my country succeeds, and I want my country to succeed."

I have no idea why this concept is so hard for so many to understand.

Steve Benen 10:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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THE CABLE NEWS NUMBERS ARE IN.... To note that the Republicans' cable news network is out in front of its competitors is an understatement. In 2010, Fox News had more viewers than CNN and MSNBC combined.

But that no longer seems especially interesting. Indeed, it's pretty predictable -- Fox News has cornered the market when it comes to offering misleading, partisan propaganda that leaves its viewers more ignorant than if they received no information at all. It's been this way for quite a while.

Jay Bookman digs a little deeper, though, and finds some interesting related data.

MSNBC beat CNN for the second straight year among viewers 25-54, and for the first time beat CNN among total primetime viewers as well. The numbers for CNN are truly abysmal, not only compared to Fox and MSNBC, but compared to its own numbers of a year ago. Total primetime viewers of CNN fell by 34 percent compared to 2009.

However, Fox viewership fell as well, declining 7 percent in primetime and 8 percent among primetime viewers in the 25-54 demographic. And to put things in some perspective, "The O'Reilly Factor" drew an average of 3.2 million viewers a night. That makes him the king of cable news talk, but well behind network news shows. With roughly 1 percent of America watching, his numbers also put him well behind cable competitors such as his show's spiritual cousin, World Wrestling Entertainment, and Spongebob Squarepants on Nickelodeon, both of which often pull 5 million or more viewers.

In addition, "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart and "The Colbert Report" with Stephen Colbert both regularly outdraw O'Reilly among the younger demographic sought by advertisers. In fact, it's striking how old the O'Reilly audience skews (3.2 million average audience, just 781,000 of them between 25 and 54.)

CNN has to realize that its status quo is untenable. It has some credible programming -- Anderson Cooper really isn't bad -- but if there was ever a line-up in need of a major overhaul, this is it.

As for O'Reilly, I knew his audience was older, but I didn't realize just how skewed his audience really is. Long term, that's not really a recipe for success, either.

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

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A MISGUIDED SENSE OF VICTIMHOOD, CONT'D.... Maybe it's the season that brings out the worst in far-right Christians feeling sorry for themselves.

A couple of weeks ago, Fox News' Gretchen Carlson whined that in American society, it's Christianity that "always seems" to "take the boot." Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), arguably the Senate's most spirited culture warrior, added that "they always pick on the Christians." (It wasn't clear who "they" referred to.)

This week, it's religious right activist/politician Gary Bauer insisting in print that "in a variety of contexts, American Muslims are treated better than American Christians." (via BooMan)

By all indications, Bauer wasn't kidding. To "prove" his case, he listed a series of perceived slights -- the National Endowment for the Arts apparently funds anti-Christian art; Six Flags hosted a "Muslim Family Day"; and late-night comics hurt Christians' feelings -- most of which came across as lazy, trying-too-hard whining.

But there were a couple of Bauer's points that stood out for me. Take this one, for example:

If Christianity were treated like Islam, Christmas and Easter would be publicly celebrated for what they are -- the signature events of Christianity, marking the birth and the death and Resurrection of Christ -- not stripped of all their theological meaning and transformed into secular holidays devoted to crass consumerism.

Bauer's confused. It wasn't non-Christians who stripped these holidays of their theological meaning; it was Christians themselves who stripped these holidays of their theological meaning. Does Bauer really think Jews and atheists got together to ensure that Santa Claus and the Easter bunny replaced J.C. as cultural touchstone of the holidays? That it was non-Christians who made it so that Christmas is celebrated in malls, rather than in churches?

Guess again. Christians did this all on their own. Indeed, part of the drive to secularize Christian holidays came, ironically enough, from those who share Bauer's worldview -- to make it easier for adherents to push these holidays into the American mainstream and grant them official support, Christians had to argue that the holidays weren't especially religious.

Bauer then concluded:

At a time of the year when intolerance for public displays of Christianity is most acute, it is my Christmas wish that Muslims and Christians would be treated equally.

Bauer really needs to get out more. Take a drive around a typical American neighborhood, and count the Christmas trees, wreaths, and Nativity scenes on front lawns. Then go to a public place and count the folks with crosses around their necks. Then turn on television and count the Christmas specials, or athletes praising God during a game, or entertainers thanking God at an awards ceremony, or TV preachers begging for cash.

If there's "intolerance for public displays of Christianity," it's hiding extremely well.

As for the notion of ensuring that Muslims and Christians are "treated equally," when Bauer can point to a national controversy over converting a closed clothing store into a Christian community center, I'll be very impressed.

I continue to marvel at why folks like Bauer wallow in self pity. It's become part of their religio-political identity, but it's as absurd as it is paranoid. Christians dominate American society, in large part because they're a huge majority. The misguided sense of victimhood is getting tiresome.

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

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WHITE HOUSE RESPONDS TO OBSTRUCTIONISM WITH SIX RECESS APPOINTMENTS.... James Cole spent 13 years as Justice Department official, and is an accomplished attorney. When President Obama nominated him to be the deputy attorney general -- the second highest-ranking position in the department, effectively Justice's chief operating officer -- few questioned Cole's qualifications or abilities.

But conservative Republicans didn't like him. In particular, Cole had criticized Bush/Cheney's dubious national security tactics after 9/11, which drew GOP ire. Cole earned the support of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but his nomination languished, waiting for a floor vote since July, the longest delay in history for a deputy AG nominee. The GOP decided it wasn't enough to oppose Cole; it had to stop the Senate from voting at all.

Yesterday, the White House got tired of waiting.

President Obama said Wednesday that he intended to install six appointees -- including James Cole, his controversial pick for the No. 2 spot at the Justice Department -- while Congress is in recess. The move will allow them to serve without confirmation by the Senate, where their prospects will only grow dimmer once Republicans gain strength in January.

Mr. Obama, who is vacationing here on the island of Oahu with his family, made the announcement via news release, without any explanation or comment, other than to say that the posts have "been left vacant for an extended period of time."

All six nominees -- Cole, four ambassadors, and the official who runs the Government Printing Office -- had the support of a Senate majority, but were blocked from receiving up-or-down votes.

Also of note is the president's decision to appoint Robert Ford, a career diplomat, as the U.S. ambassador to Syria, a position that has been vacant since 2005. Republicans didn't object to Ford, per se, but didn't want the post filled at all. The administration insisted that having an ambassador to Syria was integral to U.S. diplomacy in the region.

In the larger context, Obama has shown considerable, almost frustrating, restraint when it comes to recess appointments -- these six bring his total to 28 -- in the face of a nominating process that has become paralyzed by unprecedented obstructionism. Indeed, the president could have been even more ambitious in this new announcement -- there were 73 other administration nominees waiting for Senate floor votes who were denied confirmation and will have to be re-nominated.

I mention this, of course, because Senate Republicans are likely to throw a fit over these six appointments. It's important that they realize that they broke this system, and left the White House with very little choice. The confirmation process wasn't designed to work this way; it didn't use to work this way; and it's simply can't work this way. The executive branch needs to function, and it can't if key, high-ranking posts remain vacant because Republicans are unhappy about losing an election.

As is always the case with recess appointments, these six officials will be able to serve for one year, at which point they'll either have to step down or go through the Senate confirmation process again.

Either way, I'm glad to see Obama use this power available to him. I've generally frowned on recess appointments, in part because the process is too easily abused, but under the circumstances, it's become a necessary response to a very different kind of abuse at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

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

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December 29, 2010

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

* U.S. Army Col. Viet Luong conceded today that "it has become practically impossible to stop insurgents from slipping across Afghanistan's vast border with Pakistan." If that's true, doesn't that make military success in Afghanistan almost impossible?

* Mosul police commander Lt. Col. Shamil al-Jabouri was a relentless terrorist foe, and was an al Qaeda target for assassination five times, all of them unsuccessful. Today, three suicide bombers wearing police uniforms over vests laden with explosives managed to kill him.

* No, conservatives, snow storms do not cast doubts on the veracity of climate change data.

* On a related note, I tend to think the blizzard in the Northeast is getting far too much attention, but it's probably worth noting that the storm likely delayed $1 billion worth of retail shopping.

* It seems likely that WikiLeaks revelations have severely undermined democratic reforms in Zimbabwe.

* Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Tex.), reflecting on the BP oil spill disaster: "As we saw that thing bubbling out, blossoming out -- all that energy, every minute of every hour of every day of every week -- that was tremendous to me. That we could deliver that kind of energy out there -- even on an explosion." Did I mention that Hall will be the new chairman of the House science committee?

* Remember Judith Miller? Her ignominious career trajectory has managed to take her from the New York Times to Fox News to a fringe, extremist website called Newsmax. Wow.

* The problem with higher-ed in the U.S. isn't more students going to college; it's students and their families having to pay for most of that education themselves, plus interest.

* Congrats to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland, who's poised to become the longest serving female senator in American history.

* How many times has Politico run a story purporting to show hostilities between the Obama White House and the business community? Would you believe 28 times?

* And Michael Vick's dog-related crimes were awful and he clearly deserved to be punished. But Tucker Carlson thinks the quarterback deserved the death penalty and that strikes me as insane.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... When Fox News personalities start tackling political correctness on the air, they're bound to get into trouble.

Take today, for example. The Society of Professional Journalists is encouraging media organizations to steer clear of phrases like "illegal aliens" in favor of "undocumented immigrant." Fox News anchor/activist Megyn Kelly hosted a segment on the issue, and headed straight for the slippery slope.

"How far could you take this?" Kelly asked. "You could say that a burglar is an unauthorized visitor. You know, you could say that a rapist is a non-consensual sex partner which, obviously, would be considered offensive to the victims of those crimes."

Obviously.

Yes, in Megyn Kelly's mind, there's a reasonable comparison to be drawn between "alien" immigrants and "non-consensual sex partner" rapists.

And lest anyone think the Fox News personality just got caught up in the moment and said something she didn't mean to say, Kelly then pressed a representative of the Women's Media Center on this point, asking, "What if there was a push by the criminal defense... bar to re-brand the use of the word rapist to nonconsensual sex partner?"

In other words, she clearly considered this a fair rhetorical comparison.

Kelly, one of the Republican network's more cringe-worthy figures, went on to lament political correctness in general: "You know, we did a segment earlier in the year on how little people find the term midget offensive, and so you can't say that anymore. There's so many words that are suddenly becoming hurtful, and part of the group thinks it's hurtful, and the other group doesn't, and you're left as a journalist saying, I don't know what to do."

Here's a tip, Megyn: call people whatever they want to be called. It's really not that complicated; even Fox News personalities should be able to keep it straight.

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

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SOTOMAYOR DOESN'T DISAPPOINT.... There were some concerns last year that Sonia Sotomayor might prove to be a disappointment. David Souter had, thankfully, proven to be one of the Supreme Court's reliable center-left votes, and many feared that Sotomayor might actually move the high court slightly to the right.

It's obviously early in the justice's career, but we can start to appreciate Sotomayor's approach to her position based on what we've seen so far. The NYT's Adam Liptak noted this week that she "has completely dispelled the fear on the left" about her judicial ideology.

[F]or anyone looking for insight into the justices, there was much more information to be gleaned from another genre of judicial writing. In the last three months, the court has turned down thousands of appeals, almost always without comment. On seven occasions, though, at least one justice had something to say about the court's decision not to hear a case.

Such writings are completely discretionary, and they open a window onto the author's passions. They are also a good way to keep track of the divisions on the court.

An ideological fault line ran through those seven opinions. Not a single member of the court's four-member liberal wing joined any of the three opinions written by a conservative justice. And not a single member of the court's four-member conservative wing joined any of the four opinions written by a liberal justice. [...]

Justice Sotomayor wrote three of the opinions, more than any other justice, and all concerned the rights of criminal defendants or prisoners.

The piece is worth reading for the details, but given her brief tenure, there can be no doubt that Sotomayor is one of the high court's more forceful progressive voices.

President Obama appears to have chosen wisely. Here's hoping his chances to nominate others aren't over yet.

Steve Benen 3:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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THE LESSONS OF HIGH-RISK POOLS.... Nine months after the Affordable Care Act became law, all kinds of provisions have already taken effect. Some appear to be working better than others.

On the positive front, small businesses that couldn't afford to cover their employees are now starting to offer affordable insurance in much stronger numbers, thanks to small-business tax breaks offered by the ACA. Because small-business employees tend to be the most likely to go without coverage, progress on this front is very encouraging.

Less encouraging, though, are reports that high-risk pools, intended to help those with pre-existing conditions get coverage right away before more systemic reforms kick in later, aren't working nearly as well. The costs tend to be too high, and those eligible often don't hear about the option.

National Review, not surprisingly, is seizing on this as evidence of flaws with "Obamacare." But that's an overly-narrow look at the larger policy dynamic. After all, the very idea for high-risk pools comes from -- you guessed it -- congressional Republicans. Indeed, go back and check out the McCain/Palin health care plan from 2008, and you'll notice this was one of the centerpieces.

Jon Chait noted seven fairly recent items from the pages of National Review, each of which endorsed the same high-risk pools that were included in the Democratic plan, and which aren't proving to be effective. Jon concluded:

Liberal health care wonks insisted that high risk pools tended to work very badly and were at best a stopgap solution. Democrats included some expanded high risk pools as a carryover, they-can't-hurt palliative until the full reform goes online. Obviously, they haven't done much good. But that hardly tells you that "Obamacare" has failed.

Under the circumstances, doesn't it seem more appropriate for Republicans to explain why one of their signature health care ideas has come up short?

Steve Benen 3:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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GOP TO TARGET LAME-DUCK SESSIONS?.... Before this year, congressional Republicans didn't seem to have much of a problem with lame-duck sessions. You'll recall, for example, that after 1998 midterms, in which Democrats did surprisingly well, GOP leaders quickly rushed through the presidential impeachment process against Bill Clinton before the new Congress could be sworn in.*

But that was then. Now, at least some Republicans prefer a different approach.

Little-noticed over the holiday week: Rep. Lynn Jenkins tweeting this promise: "I will re-introduce the End the Lame Duck Act to prevent power grabs as we've seen at the end of this session."

Jenkins linked to a story by David Farenthold explaining that the 20th amendment was supposed to end lame duck sessions by truncating the life of expired Congresses to January, when they had been returning until March. It didn't end lame duck sessions; it just made them not worth doing in the era before airplanes. And then it got easier to travel to and from Washington and the lame ducks became ways for the exiting Congresses to get work done.

Jenkins' complaint is wrong on multiple levels. Not only are lame-duck sessions legally permissible -- her understanding of the 20th Amendment is pretty silly -- but there were no "power grabs" this month. Democrats successfully passed some important legislation, but they did so with bipartisan support on all of the major initiatives.

I think what seems to confuse much of the right is the length of a lawmaker's term. Voters elect their House representatives to two-year terms -- these representatives get sworn in the January after their election, and serve through January two years later. Critics of lame-duck sessions seem to think voters elected lawmakers to a 24-month term, but only the first 22 months count. The 23rd and 24th should be a work-free period, unless in the event of a national emergency.

Why should duly-elected lawmakers work on legislation for 22 months and then take two months off? Well, it's not quite clear why, but Jenkins and the 20 cosponsors of her "End the Lame Duck Act" seem to feel strongly about it.

What's especially odd about this is the timing of the push -- Republicans will be the new House majority, and presumably they have a lot they intend to do. Why would GOP lawmakers restrict their own ability to govern for the final two months of their term?

* Postscript: To clarify, this has nothing to do with partisanship. I don't care which party is in control; lame-duck lawmaking need not be restricted. My beef with Clinton's impeachment has nothing to do with the lame-duck sessions legitimacy and everything to do with a ridiculous impeachment crusade without cause.

Steve Benen 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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THE PUBLIC-SECTOR DRAG ON THE JOB MARKET.... The New York Times' David Leonhardt noted today that there's some "renewed hope" on the economy, but optimism that existed when 2010 got underway faded over the spring. Growth that appeared to be picking up fell victim to "a combination of the debt troubles in Europe, the fading of stimulus spending and the usual caution by businesses and consumers after a financial crisis."

Of particular interest, though, was this chart, flagged by Ezra Klein, that accompanied the Leonhardt piece.

2010labormarket.png

You'll notice that total job growth obviously hasn't kept up with population growth, and given the hole we fell into in 2008, we'll need to do far better than just that baseline anyway. Also notice, though, that private-sector employment has been the strongest part of the economy, whereas public-sector employment has been undermining the economy by shedding jobs.

As Ezra put it, "If the line for government jobs looked more like the line for private jobs, the labor market would be in much better shape right now."

Quite right. But let's also note that this picture is in keeping with the Republican economic model. Indeed, one of the great ironies of 2010 is that Democrats haven't been able to pursue their economic agenda, despite congressional majorities, but they've been blamed for the slow and fragile recovery.

Put it this way: if the GOP had its way in 2010, what would the party's preferred economic agenda look like? Republicans would want Bush-era tax rates, cuts to public-sector employment, no additional aid to states and municipalities, no additional stimulus, and relying on the private-sector exclusively to generate job opportunities.

If this sounds familiar, it's because Republicans have largely gotten their way for much of 2010, blocking Democratic efforts to do more of what works. Consider how much worse the above chart would have looked, for example, had it not been for the Recovery Act.

I mention this because, to hear GOP officials tell it, the nation has endured a failed experiment in Keynesian economics. That's silly -- we've had some progressive policies at the federal level, which proved effective, but have been counteracted by conservative, Hoover-like policies at the state and local level. It's quite a racket -- Republicans could have allowed Democrats to save public-sector jobs and improve the economy, but refused, and then complained about the weak job numbers.

Adding insult to injury, we see hacks like Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-Minn.) running around blatantly and shamelessly lying about all of this, arguing to voters that the private sector is losing jobs while public-sector jobs are "booming" -- which is the exact opposite of reality.

Steve Benen 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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IT WAS 'THAT BAD'.... The controversy surrounding Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's (R) affinity for white supremacists in the 1950s and 1960s appears to have largely died down, though it's the kind of flap that's likely to leave a scar. What's more, there are also some additional revelations worth considering.

Initially, Barbour told the Weekly Standard that, looking back at the civil rights era in Mississippi when he was growing up, "I just don't remember it as being that bad." He went on to note that the local Citizens Council was responsible for keeping his community of Yazoo City free of violence. (Citizens Councils were known for touting "racial integrity" and fighting for segregation through economic coercion.)

Steve Mangold, who grew up with Barbour in Yazoo City in the 1950s and 1960s, spoke to Salon this week to help set the record straight. Barbour may not remember the era as "being that bad," but that's only because he wasn't paying attention.

In the Weekly Standard profile, Barbour marvelled at the fact that Yazoo City's schools were desegregated without violence, unlike in many other towns in Mississippi. But for Mangold, whose parents were both physicians in Yazoo City, another local institution is in the forefront of his memory of that era: the hospital.

Built in the mid 1950s with federal assistance, the Yazoo City hospital was, at the insistence of the local White Citizens Council, a whites-only facility, Mangold says. As a child, he had the nighttime assignment of answering the back door at his parents' home, where they had their medical practice (whites came to the front door, blacks to the back). He would often see black residents with grievous injuries requiring emergency care -- but they had nowhere to go.

"There was no hospital in town where blacks could go. They would have to go to Jackson 40 or 50 miles away and many died on the way," he says, adding that this state of affairs lasted for years.

Further, his parents became pariahs in town and their business was damaged because they had resisted the White Citizens Council petition that the hospital be whites-only.

"Threatening phone calls, dead cats on the lawn and other acts of intimidation combined to run my father out of town for two years," Mangold wrote in his letter to the Clarion-Ledger.

Mangold added that Barbour "grew up and everything was hunky-dory because he wasn't involved with any of this."

And that seems to be one of the persistent themes when it comes to Barbour. There are examples of him being flagrantly racist, but there are even more examples of him being strikingly oblivious.

After all, Barbour has said he "never thought twice" about racial integration. But therein lies the point -- he never thought about it because he attended all-white, segregated schools, and never troubled himself to consider the plight of black families in his area.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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

* I'm noticing a pattern: Alaska's Joe Miller (R) keeps bringing pointless lawsuits to court, and judges keep ruling against him. Yesterday, a federal district court judge became the latest to smack down the failed right-wing candidate.

* Though Miller has obviously lost to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), he has not yet decided whether to concede, or keep pushing on, appealing to the 9th Circuit.

* Public Policy Polling released an interesting report yesterday, noting the approval ratings of several senators, including most of the 2012 field. The most popular incumbent seeking re-election appears to be Minnesota's Amy Klobuchar (D), with a 59% approval rating. The least popular is Connecticut's Joe Lieberman (I), with 33% support.

* With West Virginia's Joe Manchin (D) making the transition from the governor's office to the U.S. Senate, there's still some question about how and when to hold the race to permanently replace him. State Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin (D), who became acting governor last month, expects to serve through the end of 2012. State House Speaker Rick Thompson (D), who's interested in running for the post, wants to see a special election in 2011.

* In what's become a cyclical exercise, officials in Iowa and New Hampshire are once again talking about moving up their presidential nominating contests on the 2012 calendar in order to preserve their "unique" status. Nevada is planning a Feb. 18 caucus, for example, which New Hampshire insists is too close to its Feb. 14 primary. If New Hampshire moves up its date, then Iowa will feel compelled to do the same.

* Speaking of the 2012 Republican nomination, don't be surprised if former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain, a favorite personality of the Tea Party crowd, also runs for president. Cain's only political experience is a failed U.S. Senate campaign in Georgia in 2004, when he lost in a primary.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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ABOUT THAT PRIVATIZATION SCHEME.... Remember all that rhetoric from congressional Republicans about privatizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as soon as humanly possible? Well, forget it.

Earlier this year, leading House Republicans proposed privatizing mortgage giants Fannie Mae (FNMA) and Freddie Mac (FMCC) or placing them in receivership starting in two years.

Now, as Republicans prepare to assume control of the House next week, they are offering a more nuanced message: Any retreat of government support in the housing market should be gradual.

"We recognize that some things can be done overnight and other things can't be," said Rep. Scott Garrett, (R., N.J.), incoming chairman of the House Financial Services subcommittee that oversees Fannie and Freddie. "You have to recognize what the impact would be on the fragile housing market as it stands right now."

Cautious statements from key Republicans on the House Financial Services Committee are a shift from the debate over the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul during the spring and summer, when Republicans blasted the Obama administration for leaving Fannie and Freddie out of that legislation.

It was just nine months ago when House Republicans were rallying behind a bill to cut off federal backing for the mortgage giants altogether. Indeed, the GOP insisted that this was entirely necessary.

Now that they're poised to retake the House majority, these same Republicans have concluded they can't quite do what they said they'd do, at least not yet, without devastating the struggling housing market and making matters much worse.

This isn't necessarily surprising -- officials sometimes have to rethink their policies once they're actually in a position to implement them -- but it should make for an interesting parlor game in 2011. What Republican policy prescriptions will the House GOP be forced to abandon in the next Congress once they realize their original approach was crazy?

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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THE AYN RAND DISCIPLE LEADING THE HOUSE BUDGET COMMITTEE.... In my circle of friends growing up, I can think of quite a few folks who, between the ages of 16 and 22, briefly fell under the spell of Ayn Rand. Someone loaned them a copy of Atlas Shrugged; they were convinced it was brilliant; and for a while, they were evangelists for the Randian cause.

Fortunately, this is just a phase some folks go through, and most of them feel embarrassed later.

Some, however, never really grow out of it. Take Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), for example, who'll become chairman of the House Budget Committee next month. Ryan, Christopher Beam notes in an interesting new article, "requires staffers to read Atlas Shrugged, describes Obama's economic policies as 'something right out of an Ayn Rand novel,' and calls Rand 'the reason I got involved in public service.'"

It prompted Jon Chait to flag a piece he wrote in March about Ryan and his borderline-creepy devotion to the philosophy of Rand.

Ryan would retain some bare-bones subsidies for the poorest, but the overwhelming thrust in every way is to liberate the lucky and successful to enjoy their good fortune without burdening them with any responsibility for the welfare of their fellow citizens. This is the core of Ryan's moral philosophy:

"The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand," Ryan said at a D.C. gathering four years ago honoring the author of "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Fountainhead." ...

At the Rand celebration he spoke at in 2005, Ryan invoked the central theme of Rand's writings when he told his audience that, "Almost every fight we are involved in here on Capitol Hill ... is a fight that usually comes down to one conflict -- individualism versus collectivism."

The core of the Randian worldview, as absorbed by the modern GOP, is a belief that the natural market distribution of income is inherently moral, and the central struggle of politics is to free the successful from having the fruits of their superiority redistributed by looters and moochers.

I mention this, not because I find it bizarre that the House Budget Committee chairman forces his aides to read bad fiction, but because there's a larger takeaway about how the parties will get along in the next Congress -- or in this case, won't.

Talking to various aides on the Hill, I get the sense that Democrats tend to look at Paul Ryan as the kind of Republican they can at least talk to. Unlike so many GOP leaders, the far-right Wisconsinite appears to have read a book and learned how to use a calculator. When he speaks, Ryan tends to use complete sentences, and tends to resist at least some partisan bomb-throwing.

But there's a catch: the guy is a crackpot. A polite crackpot who, by contemporary Republican standards, takes his beliefs seriously, but a crackpot nevertheless.

Ryan doesn't want to search for common ground with Democrats; he's hopelessly convinced that Democrats are radicals intent on destroying modern capitalism. He considers the very ideas of charity and sacrifice deeply offensive. His entire worldview is so bizarre, it has no meaningful place in the American mainstream.

Matt Yglesias recently noted that Ryan "is a dangerous madman," and the description doesn't seem especially hyperbolic.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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MAYBE SHE SHOULDN'T HAVE QUIT AFTER HALF A TERM.... There's ample evidence to show that Sarah Palin is not a well-liked political figure nationwide. It's slightly more interesting, though, to see how unpopular she is in her home state.

In Alaska just 33% of voters have a favorable opinion of her to 58% with a negative one. The only place where fewer voters see her positively than her own home state is dark blue Massachusetts.

Democrats hate Palin in Alaska but they hate her everywhere so there's nothing newsworthy about that. What makes her home state numbers unusually bad is that Republicans see her favorably by only a 60/30 margin. In most places she's closer to 80% favorability within her own party. Also while independents don't like her anywhere their level of animosity in Alaska is unusually large -- 65% unfavorable to only 25% with a favorable opinion.

Some of this, of course, is the result of Palin being a national embarrassment, which makes her unpopular everywhere. But Dave Weigel notes why Alaskans' attitudes are of particular interest.

I visited Alaska in July, and spent half a day in Wasilla, where one used book store put Going Rogue in the Alaska Fiction section. There are simple psychological reasons for all of this. People come to Alaska to strike out and get rich -- in gold, on the oil pipeline, on fishing boats. But Alaskans don't bail on the state to get rich elsewhere, and that's obviously what Palin did in July 2009. She kept her home base in the state while making money as a political pundit Outside.

As she did this, Alaskans visiting other states, who were once asked about bears or Deadliest Catch, were asked some variation of the question "ooh, ooh, can you see Russia from your house?" So this is a very specific, provincial kind of popularity plunge.

This, by the way, comes on the heels of another survey from Public Policy Polling that asked Alaska Republicans who they favored for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. Palin was third in the poll, with a measly 15%.

In the context of the presidential campaign, I continue to think this matters. Some political figures weighing national bids enjoy considerable support from those who presumably know them best -- their home state's voters. But as Republicans get set to announce, we see a field in which several prominent candidates -- Palin, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney -- have effectively been told by their former constituents, "Don't bother."

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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CONSERVATIVES FEAR GAY COOTIES AT CPAC.... In February, the Conservative Political Action Conference will get underway in D.C., and because CPAC has become the right-wing event of the year, heavy hitters from the conservative movement and the Republican Party are anxious to be a part of it.

Indeed, 2011 should be an especially big year for CPAC -- emboldened GOP leaders will be on hand to boast about their right-wing agenda, and a legion of likely presidential candidates will be on hand to kiss the base's ring. The turnout should be huge.

Some major religious right groups, however, will boycott this year's conference. Apparently, if gay conservatives are allowed to participate at CPAC, religious right groups feel compelled to stay away.

Two of the nation's premier moral issues organizations, the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America, are refusing to attend the Conservative Political Action Conference in February because a homosexual activist group, GOProud, has been invited.

"We've been very involved in CPAC for over a decade and have managed a couple of popular sessions. However, we will no longer be involved with CPAC because of the organization's financial mismanagement and movement away from conservative principles," said Tom McClusky, senior vice president for FRCAction.

"CWA has decided not to participate in part because of GOProud," CWA President Penny Nance told WND.

FRC and CWA join the American Principles Project, American Values, Capital Research Center, the Center for Military Readiness, Liberty Counsel, and the National Organization for Marriage in withdrawing from CPAC.

If this seems vaguely familiar, there was a minor dust-up last year, when GOProud participated in CPAC for the first time, but the anti-gay pushback didn't go very far.

But the boycott of the 2011 event is obviously much larger and encompasses far more organizations. What's more, some of these right-wing groups are pretty notable -- no one much cares if something called the "American Principles Project," which few have ever heard of, skips CPAC, but entities like the Family Research Council and the National Organization for Marriage actually matter in conservative politics.

And as far as they're concerned, they find gay conservatives so offensive, they can't stand the thought of even being at the same conference with them.

There's long been an ideological spectrum of modern conservative thought, including subsets like libertarians, neocons, paleocons, Birchers, and theocrats. But for these religious right groups boycotting CPAC, there's apparently a rule: if you're gay, you can't be conservative.

Postscript: As long as we're on the subject, some of you might be wondering why a group like GOProud even exists, and what its policy agenda might look like. Apparently, GOProud considers the estate tax "a gay tax," and would prefer to combat hate crimes by expanding gun ownership.

No, I really can't relate to the conservative worldview, either.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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MORE REPUBLICAN REGRESS ON GLOBAL WARMING.... It's disheartening enough that rejection of climate science has become a benchmark of Republicans' ideology. It adds insult to injury to see how quickly the party's perspective is regressing.

It was, after all, literally just a few years ago that plenty of Republicans were willing to take the threat and the science seriously. GOP presidential candidates like John McCain and Mike Huckabee not only acknowledged climate change, they both endorsed cap-and-trade plans. Rank-and-file Republican voters, by and large, believed what the mainstream believed when it came to climate science.

Rep. Fred Upton (R) of Michigan not only publicly characterized global warming as "a serious problem," he also endorsed reducing carbon emissions so we'd all be "better off." But has his party has shifted even further to the hard-right, Upton has, too. Brad Johnson has the latest:

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, incoming energy chair Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) joined Americans For Prosperity (AFP) president Tim Phillips, a global warming denier, to support the lawsuits by global warming polluters against climate rules. One of the companies leading the charge against the Environmental Protection Agency's greenhouse gas endangerment finding is Koch Industries, the private pollution giant whose billionaire owners have been directing the Tea Party movement through its AFP front group.

Upton once considered a "moderate on environmental issues," but has worked hard to refashion himself as a hard-right defender of pollution in recent months. Some Tea Party groups tried to block Upton from taking the gavel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, attacking his past support for energy-efficient light bulbs. Upton previously claimed that "climate change is a serious problem" and that "the world will be better off" if we reduced carbon emissions. However, in the course of the past two years -- as he received $20,000 from Koch Industries -- Upton has shifted to oppose not only cap-and-trade legislation but any form of limits on climate pollution whatsoever, instead supporting investigations against climate scientists and lawsuits against the EPA and its supposed "unconstitutional power grab that will kill millions of jobs."

This is what it takes to get ahead in Republican politics in 2010. Here's a politician who clearly knew better, and was well aware of the climate crisis, but then Upton decided he wanted to advance his career. So, he abandoned his previous positions, rejected the science he knew to be true, sold out our collective future, and was rewarded with the chairmanship of the House energy committee.

We've clearly reached a remarkable point: to be a contemporary Republican in good standing is to reject every shred of overwhelming evidence pointing to climate change.

But it's the speed with which the right-wing shift occurred that's truly impressive. It was, after all, April 2009 when Upton characterized climate change as "a serious problem that necessitates serious solutions." That was last year. It was 2007 when leading Republican presidential candidates not only acknowledged global warming, but endorsed credible proposals to combat the crisis.

And as 2010 comes to a close, we see that the party is now completely dominated, at every level, by climate deniers, cranks, and fools. Even those who knew better have been cowed into submission by the radicals in their midst.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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December 28, 2010

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

* Problems in the housing sector aren't going away: "Home prices fell in the nation's major metropolitan areas from September to October, with six regions hitting new lows, and they're not expected to rebound anytime soon."

* Back-to-back suicide bombings in western Iraq yesterday killed 19 and wounded 45. The second attacker waited for emergency workers to arrive at the scene of the first to maximize the carnage during the rescue efforts.

* Speaking of Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki "ruled out the presence of any U.S. troops in Iraq after the end of 2011, saying his new government and the country's security forces were capable of confronting any remaining threats to Iraq's security, sovereignty and unity."

* Preliminary reports point to strong economic activity in the lead up to Christmas. MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse, which tracks retail spending, found results that exceeded even the more optimistic forecasts.

* Big corporations have plenty of money, but they're using their cash to buy other companies, not to expand their own workforces: "They have been hesitant to use these massive piles of funds to hire as they wait to see whether the economic recovery picks up more speed. Instead, this year they've been making safer bets: buying back stocks to help boost their share prices and spending money on modestly sized mergers."

* David Shuster was a mainstay at MSNBC for many years. He's now done with the network.

* Grade inflation appears to be an actual phenomenon in American higher ed. Cracking down on it, however, is a little tricky.

* And the latest hysterical right-wing freak-out is a doozy: "The good news is that the right-wing isn't talking about President Obama being a secret Muslim right now. The bad news is that they're now concerned that he's going to use his honorary status as a Crow Tribe Indian to return the United States to Native Americans."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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WALL STREET'S MISPLACED WHINING.... All things being equal, Wall Street should be pretty happy about how things have gone over the last few years. The financial industry's recklessness, mismanagement, and fraudulent business practices nearly destroyed the global economy, but Wall Street received a pretty generous bailout package to help stop the bleeding.

The darn Obama administration insisted that the industry had to pay back the money we lent them, but Wall Street isn't exactly in position to complain -- big government rescued their asses. Indeed, over the last two years, the financial industry has seen bluer skies than most -- massive bonuses have returned to bailed out banks, corporate profits have soared, the private sector is where nearly all of the new jobs are being created, and all of the major investment indexes are way up. Voters were even kind enough to reward right-wing House Republicans, who make no effort to hide the fact that they intend to "serve" the banks, Wall Street executives, and hedge fund elites.

And yet, they keep complaining anyway.

On the mental list of slights and outrages that just about every major figure on Wall Street is believed to keep on President Barack Obama, add this one: When he met recently with a group of CEOs at Blair House, there was no representative from any of the six biggest banks in America.

Not one!

"If they don't hate us anymore, why weren't any of us there?" a senior executive at one of the Big Six banks said recently in trying to explain his hostility toward the president.

Politico reported that Wall Street hates President Obama and his team with "an almost irrational passion," as bankers and their lobbyists regard the administration "with a disdain so thick it often blurs to naked loathing."

Why? There are a variety of reasons, including the fact that the president has dared to blame Wall Street publicly for Wall Street's extraordinary mistakes. But much of it seems boil down to the industry's feelings being hurt.

[D]espite recent White House efforts to reach out to Wall Street, bankers believe Obama is much more worried about perceptions on the left.

As evidence, bankers point to recent White House meetings with labor leaders, Geithner's dinner with the heads of progressive groups and Vice President Joe Biden's recent pledge to fight the top-rate tax cuts again in two years.

And it is this, as much as anything, that gets under Wall Street's collective skin.

"All that people in this White House seem to worry about is what The Huffington Post is going to say if they do something, anything, remotely pro-business," one financial executive said. "They really don't care what we think at all."

Remember, Wall Street screwed up so royally, it nearly destroyed global capitalism, and very nearly caused a catastrophic meltdown of international markets.

And now this gang is stomping its feet because they're not invited for White House chats, and the president occasionally calls them out, refusing to take the industry's orders the way Republicans do.

Down the rabbit hole we go.

Steve Benen 4:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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DADT DEAD-ENDERS LATCH ONTO 'SHOWER ISSUE'.... With Congress already having passed a repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, and President Obama gladly putting his signature on the repeal legislation, I'm not sure what more conservatives hope to accomplish.

There was a political fight, and they lost. None of the leading anti-gay Republicans, not even John McCain, has any intention of trying to bring the DADT policy back. The right had a good run -- DADT survived 17 years -- but as of last week, it's over.

At least, it should be. Some dead-enders are not only still fighting, they're latching onto one angle in particular.

Groups opposed to the open service of gay and lesbian members of the military will continue to fear-monger about gay and straight service members showering together to sexualize the open service issue, Jarrod Chlapowski of Servicemembers United told TPM in an interview.

"I see that as being a talking point to just raise fears and draw attention to their general opposition to the issue and that's not something that I think will go away anytime soon," Chlapowski said.

Again, even if this were a good argument -- it's not, but if it were -- the talking point seems entirely too late. The fight is over and the good guys won.

But then there's the problem with the argument itself. It's likely some conservative pollster found that the "shower issue" was the most effective in some focus groups -- one anti-gay crusader called it a "huge issue" the other day -- but it's still awfully weak. Indeed, it's easily dismissed with one obvious-but-overlooked observation: straight servicemen and women have already been showering with gay and lesbian colleagues. DADT didn't forbid gays from joining the military; it forbid them from acknowledging their sexual orientation.

Gay troops have been showering alongside straight troops for quite a while. The same is true of professional athletes, students at dorms with communal showers, and gyms across the country.

It's a non-issue, and a pointless conservative effort.

Steve Benen 3:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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GET TO KNOW 'CUTGO'.... The "pay as you go" budget policy -- aka "Paygo" -- was a basic and effective approach. In a nutshell, if policymakers want to increase spending or cut taxes, they have to figure out a way to pay for it. The point is to prevent increases to the deficit by telling officials to "pay as you go." It helped Clinton eliminate the deficit altogether and deliver some of the largest surpluses ever.

This past decade, Republicans decided Paygo was inconvenient, since they wanted to slash taxes, fight two wars, expand Medicare, and implement No Child Left Behind without paying for any of it. So, they scrapped Paygo and added $5 trillion to the debt.

Democrats brought the idea back last year, and were careful to make sure literally every major Democratic initiative considered since Obama took office, other than the Recovery Act, was fully paid for.

With an incoming House Republican majority, Paygo is once again being eliminated. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities walks us through the new GOP rules, quietly approved last week. (via Paul Krugman)

House Republican leaders [Wednesday] unveiled major changes to House procedural rules that are clearly designed to pave the way for more deficit-increasing tax cuts in the next two years. These rules stand in sharp contrast to the strong anti-deficit rhetoric that many Republicans used on the campaign trail this fall. While changes in congressional rules rarely get much public attention, these new rules -- which are expected to be adopted by party-line vote when the 112th Congress convenes on January 5 -- could have a substantial impact and risk making the nation's fiscal problems significantly worse. [...]

The new rules would stand the reconciliation process on its head , by allowing the House to use reconciliation to push through bills that greatly increase deficits as long as the deficit increases result from tax cuts, while barring the use of reconciliation in the House for legislation that reduces the deficit if that legislation contains a net increase in spending (no matter how small) that is more than offset by revenue-raising provisions.

This may sound a little confusing, but it's pretty simple. Indeed, before the midterm elections, GOP leaders were already outlining the policy they labeled "Cutgo."

Under Paygo, new spending had to be paid for. Under Cutgo, new spending necessarily has to be offset by cuts to existing spending. That may not sound especially outrageous, but it clears the way for Republicans to keep cutting taxes -- which would fall outside Cutgo restrictions -- to their hearts' content, raising the deficit in the process.

It also deliberately shifts the focus. New spending can't be offset by, say, closing tax loopholes or creating new sources of revenue. Congress would have to offset the costs by cutting spending.

It's about limiting policymakers' options to those Republicans consider acceptable -- and nothing else. Deficit-raising tax cuts would be fine; deficit-reducing tax increases to pay for programs would be verboten. Tax cuts wouldn't need to be paid for; spending would need to be paid for.

Reviewing the move, Krugman described GOP leaders: "Yes, they're frauds." To disagree is to deny reality.

Steve Benen 2:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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HOW NOT TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY ON BUDGET ISSUES.... At face value, the pledge from congressional Republicans to slash $100 billion from the federal budget is itself superficial and shallow. It's not as if GOP leaders identified $100 billion in unnecessary spending and vowed to eliminate it, or identified some specific policy benefit associated with these cuts.

Rather, Republicans picked $100 billion as an arbitrary figure -- apparently chosen because it's a round number -- and then started working backwards to reach their capricious goal.

Yesterday, CNN reported on how party leaders intend to reach their target.

Republicans view their midterm electoral victory as a mandate to cut spending, and cutting $100 billion from a $3 trillion federal budget sounds like a reasonable goal.

But GOP leaders say they will focus only on non-security discretionary spending, and won't slash funding for defense, Social Security or Medicare.

That makes their task a lot harder.

Cutting non-security discretionary funds by $100 billion means a 21% annual reduction in the part of the budget that includes funding for education, health and human services and housing and urban development, among other things, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank.

So, let me get this straight. Republicans started by prioritizing deficit reduction over economic growth, itself a ridiculous proposition. GOP leaders then decided, despite their top priority, that they wouldn't touch the Pentagon budget, Social Security, or Medicare -- the three things we happen to spend the most on. They also decided that taxes can't go up a penny on anyone.

And to top things off, Republicans are demanding $100 billion in spending cuts, mostly to education and health care, in large part because they think the number sounds good.

Remind me, why should anyone take the GOP seriously on budget issues?

The fact that Republican leaders are prepared to leave defense spending intact is especially hard to defend. Indeed, it comes as something of a surprise -- in recent months, Republican Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Rand Paul (Ky.), Pat Toomey (Pa.), Bob Corker (Tenn.), and Johnny Isakson (Ga.) have all said Pentagon spending has to be on the table. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the incoming chairman of the House Budget Committee, has said the same thing. Even Pentagon leaders themselves have said the defense budget is unsustainable.

This shouldn't even be controversial. Defense spending will top $700 billion in the next fiscal year. For Republicans to insist that we cut spending, but deliberately ignore the largest discretionary portion of the budget, is absurd.

The United States now spends about as much on defense as every other country on the planet combined. Every penny has been deemed entirely necessary by the Republican leadership?

It's the first hurdle that has to be cleared for the rest of the fiscal discussion to even get underway. Those who claim credibility on the subject, but believe a bloated Pentagon budget is untouchable, shouldn't even be part of the conversation.

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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A PUBLISHING MYSTERY.... I don't mind admitting when I'm wrong. Last year, for example, I predicted that George W. Bush's post-presidency memoir would be a flop. Just the opposite is true -- "Decision Points" has sat atop the Times Best Sellers list for the last six weeks, and yesterday, the publisher boasted that the book has sold more than 2 million copies.

That's pretty impressive, and far ahead of what I could have predicted. The next question, though, is how on earth sales have been this good. Or put another way, who's actually buying the poorly-reviewed book of a failed former president?

Alex Pareene explores the subject today, floating a variety of possibilities. Maybe it's a popular "gag gift" for the holidays; maybe there's some lingering "Bush nostalgia" in some misguided Republican circles; maybe the publisher is blatantly lying and the book hasn't actually sold nearly that many copies. But of all the possibilities, this one strikes me as the most plausible.

Conservative book clubs

The sales of books by awful right-wing authors like Jonah Goldberg are boosted by an entire industry dedicated to ... boosting the sales of books by awful right-wing authors. Conservative book clubs purchase tens of thousands of copies and right-wing think tanks order right-wing books in bulk. There's probably a bit more genuine demand for George W. Bush's wisdom than, say, Laura Ingraham's wit, but every little bit helps.

This is a long-running phenomenon -- conservative books nearly always outsell liberal books in large part because of bulk orders. A couple of months ago, for example, Mitt Romney boosted sales of his book by requiring various schools, think tanks, and institutions to buy thousands of copies in exchange for his speeches. Various conferences and Republican outlets do this all the time.

Without access to the data, it's impossible to say just how much of this may have inflated "Decision Points" sales, but it seems like the most credible explanation. How else could it have sold so many copies?

If there are better explanations, I'm open to suggestion.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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

* The process in Alaska continues to get just a little more farcical. Joe Miller (R) announced last Sunday that he would no longer fight certification of Sen. Lisa Murkowski's (R) write-in re-election victory, but yesterday morning, he took his case to federal court, after having struck out in multiple state courts. Miller also told a local CBS affiliate he's considering asking for another recount.

* Sen. Jim Webb (D) hasn't announced whether he'll seek re-election in Virginia in 2012, but he already has his first challenger: right-wing activist Jamie Radtke filed the paperwork yesterday to be part of the Republican primary.

* On a related note, a surprising number of Virginia's Tea Party zealots have convinced themselves that former Sen. George Allen (R), who's likely to try a comeback in 2012, just isn't right-wing enough anymore. Allen's lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is 92.3%.

* Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) caused a stir earlier this year when he called for a "truce" on social issues, which drew widespread complaints from social conservatives. This week, Daniels started walking back his remarks, arguing that the "truce" was directed at liberals who are "very aggressively trying to change the definition of marriage." (I think this means he's running for president.)

* Republican National Committee members will elect their party chair next month, and at this point, current Chairman Michael Steele is bleeding support. California RNC committeeman Shawn Steel, a former ally of Steele, has thrown his support to one of the chairman's rivals.

* If Florida Republicans had their choice, they'd have former Gov. Jeb Bush (R) take on Sen. Bill Nelson (D) in 2012. A new survey from Public Policy Polling shows Bush as the preferred candidate of 72% of GOP Floridians. Outgoing appointed Sen. George LeMieux (R), who clearly intends to run, received only 11% in the poll.

* Disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's (R-Ga.) daughter says her father is "much more serious than he ever has been" about running for president.

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

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THE NEED FOR SENATE REFORM -- IN VISUAL CONTEXT.... Perhaps the best comparison I've seen when it comes abuse of the Senate's rules came from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) earlier this year.

"In baseball," Reid said March, "they used to have the spitball. It originally was used with discretion. But then the ball got wetter and wetter and wetter. So soon, they outlawed the spitball."

Right. What was once an occasional, easy-to-overlook nuisance became a major problem. Minor mischief started affecting the game on a systemic level as abuse ran rampant, necessitating action that returned some integrity to the game.

Republican abuse of institutional rules is extremely similar. The filibuster isn't exactly new, but widespread abuse of the rules is a fairly recent development. For example, there were more filibusters in the last two years than there were in the 1950s and 1960s combined. Think about that -- what once took two decades now takes two years. And it's not as if there weren't important pieces of legislation being considered in '50s and '60s.

The Senate has kept an updated table online, charting cloture votes by Congress over the last 90 years, and using three metrics: (1) cloture motions filed (when the majority begins to end a filibuster); (2) votes on cloture (when the majority tries to end a filibuster); and (3) the number of times cloture was invoked (when the majority succeeds in ending a filibuster). I'd planned to put together a killer chart on this, but last week, Brian Beutler beat me to it.

filibuster-chart.jpg

You'll notice that the Congress that ended last week did not break the record in every category -- it helped that the Democratic majority was so enormous -- but there was a record in the number of times cloture was invoked. To put the data in some perspective, cloture was invoked 63 times in the last two years, which isn't just the most ever, it's more than the sum total of instances from 1919 through 1982.

That's not a typo.

The upward trend in all three categories is just astounding, and a reminder of how far the Senate has strayed from the ways in which it was designed to work and used to work. There are still some in the political world, including many reporters, who think that the status quo is just normal operating procedure for the institution. That's not even close to being accurate.

What's more, also note that the chart doesn't tell the whole story. As Ezra Klein noted the other day, "[T]his doesn't even count all of them. It only counts those filibusters that the majority actually tried to do something about. Plenty more filibusters get threatened, but cloture doesn't get filed because the issue isn't important enough or the votes aren't present."

As interest in reforming this broken, dysfunctional system intensifies, expect to see this chart again.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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SCOTT BROWN TARGETED BY HIS OWN SUPPORTERS.... Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) narrowly won a special election in January in a reliably "blue" state, and it hasn't exactly been smooth sailing this year. Brown has struggled badly to understand the basics of public policy, and many of his colleagues have come to see him as little more than an empty suit with a pretty face who's in way over his head.

Still, Brown remains popular with his constituents and, thanks to a relatively moderate voting record, is well positioned in advance of the 2012 cycle, when he'll seek a full term.

One of the senator's more notable problems, at this point, is the activist Tea Party base that helped him win in the first place.

Senator Scott Brown's decision to buck his party leadership in recent days on the "don't ask, don't tell'' military policy and on a nuclear arms treaty has set off a new wave of anger among some of the activists who helped elect him -- and renewed talk among conservatives that he might face a primary challenge. [...]

[T]he threat of a primary challenge from conservatives -- as well as the potential that national Tea Party groups will withhold financial support -- appears to have grown, according to the movement's activists. Brown's votes in the past week follow his crucial support for the overhaul of financial regulations, which remains a particular sore point with conservatives.

"I think that there will be a primary challenge,'' said Christen Varley, president of the Greater Boston Tea Party. "There's enough of an underground movement in the Tea Party movement as seeing him as not being conservative enough. There probably will be multiple people who attempt to run against him.''

The Massachusetts director of the far-right FreedomWorks organization added, "We're going to watch very closely over the next year and a half ... and see if he's going to be the ally that everyone had hoped it was going to be."

It's as if the right really did think it was electing a Massachusetts version of Jim DeMint.

I can see why the GOP's hysterical base would feel some disappointment. Brown voted for DADT repeal, Wall Street reform, and New START ratification, and far-right activists were on the other side on each of these measures.

But Brown is running for a full term in Massachusetts. What's more, he'll be doing so in 2012 -- when President Obama will be at the top of the ballot and Democratic voters will be turning out in greater numbers.

The very idea of the right launching a primary challenge seems bizarre, especially given the fact that there's a weak GOP bench in the Bay State and Brown already has nearly $7 million in the bank. If the party's priority is keeping the seat in Republican hands, Brown appears to be the obvious choice.

But as 2010 helps make clear, the GOP base doesn't necessarily care about such calculations. As, say, the Senate race in Delaware helps make clear, right-wing activists aren't necessarily concerned with who can win, or whose moderate temperament can work in a traditionally "blue" state. What matters is who meets the base's ideological litmus tests.

Throwing some underfunded no-name at Brown would seem to be about as sensible as throwing some underfunded no-name at Mike Castle and Lisa Murkowski. But Tea Party zealots did just that in 2010, and may not have learned any lessons in advance of 2012.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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LOOKING FOR LOOPHOLES IN THE GOP'S EARMARK BAN.... Congressional Republicans have managed to convince their base -- and much of the mainstream, for that matter -- that earmarks are an evil, easily-abused tool, responsible for wasteful spending and political corruption. It was with great pride that the GOP caucuses in both chambers imposed voluntary moratoriums on themselves, prohibiting the use of earmarks.

For their next trick, watch as these same Republicans scramble to find work-around solutions to the problems they created. In this case, that means earmarking without actually earmarking.

No one was more critical than Representative Mark Steven Kirk when President Obama and the Democratic majority in the Congress sought passage last year of a $787 billion spending bill intended to stimulate the economy. And during his campaign for the Illinois Senate seat once held by Mr. Obama, Mr. Kirk, a Republican, boasted of his vote against "Speaker Pelosi's trillion-dollar stimulus plan."

Though Mr. Kirk and other Republicans thundered against pork-barrel spending and lawmakers' practice of designating money for special projects through earmarks, they have not shied from using a less-well-known process called lettermarking to try to direct money to projects in their home districts.

Mr. Kirk, for example, sent a letter to the Department of Education dated Sept. 10, 2009, asking it to release money "needed to support students and educational programs" in a local school district. The letter was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the group Citizens Against Government Waste, which shared it with The New York Times.

The district, Woodland School District 50, said it later received about $1.1 million in stimulus money.

As far as Kirk is concerned, this isn't an earmark -- it's just a member of Congress asking that a portion of a larger spending bill go directly to a specific project that benefits his/her constituents. Got that?

The point for Republicans is to find loopholes to their own self-imposed restrictions. The solution appears to be in the timing -- actual earmarks happen on Capitol Hill before spending measures become law. These new tactics are identical, except they happen after the spending measures pass Congress.

The result is a whole new set of gerunds to get used to.

Lettermarking, which takes place outside the Congressional appropriations process, is one of the many ways that legislators who support a ban on earmarks try to direct money back home.

In phonemarking, a lawmaker calls an agency to request financing for a project. More indirectly, members of Congress make use of what are known as soft earmarks, which involve making suggestions about where money should be directed, instead of explicitly instructing agencies to finance a project. Members also push for increases in financing of certain accounts in a federal agency's budget and then forcefully request that the agency spend the money on the members' pet project.

Most of the time, even leading anti-earmark crusaders will concede that earmarks are a "symbol" of an ugly process, and that may very well be true. The problem, though, with addressing a problem that doesn't really exist is that the solutions tend to be pretty silly.

As a consequence, we're going to see Republicans, working through a straightjacket they're wearing for "symbolic" reasons, struggling to figure out how to keep doing what they've been doing.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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MAYBE CHRISTIE CAN SEND A POSTCARD.... Following up on an item from yesterday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and his lieutenant governor were told Sunday about the blizzard barreling down on the Garden State. Soon after, they left town at the same time, with Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (R) and her family flying to Mexico, and Christie and his family going to Disney World in Florida.

It left state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D) in charge as the acting governor, and by all appearances, he's handling everything fine -- he declared a state of emergency, dispatched road crews, coordinated with state agencies, and activated the National Guard. The response seems to have gone fairly well, and Sweeney lifted the state of emergency this morning.

But there's still the political fallout to consider. Many are questioning why the Christie administration allowed both the governor and lieutenant governor to go on vacation at the same time, despite warnings about the impending storm. Others have noted that the governor isn't bothering to rush home to deal with the situation.

Sweeny was almost immediately immersed in storm-related issues as the blizzard approached Sunday since Governor Chris Christie and his family left for a Disney vacation in Florida at the same time Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno left on a vacation of her own. Christie plans to return to Trenton Thursday. [emphasis added]

No need to cut short the Disney vacation; the Democrat seems to have everything under control.

Perhaps even more interesting was how Cory Booker spent his day. Booker, the Democratic mayor of Newark and likely gubernatorial candidate in 2013, grabbed a shovel to help seniors and the disabled, delivered diapers to a housebound mother, helped dig out a stuck police car, and tended to a woman in labor who was waiting on an EMS team to arrive.

Again, just to clarify, some of this is just unfortunate timing for Christie. The governor and lieutenant governor deserve vacations just like everyone else, and by all appearances, the state response was unaffected by Christie's and Guadagno's absence.

But when it comes to keeping up appearances, this doesn't look great for the New Jersey governor. The vacation scheduling was clearly a mistake; Christie bolted even after being told about the impending blizzard; he's making no effort to cut short his trip; and Democratic officials are doing all the heavy lifting (sometimes literally) while the governor enjoys some fun in the sun.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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AN IGNOBLE MILESTONE FOR THE UNINSURED.... In case anyone needed a reminder on why health care reform was so absolutely necessary, the Huffington Post's Amy Lee reports this morning on the latest Kaiser Foundation study on America's uninsured.

As the Great Recession has sown unemployment and downgraded work even for those people who have held on to their jobs, the number of Americans lacking healthcare has swelled beyond 50 million, according to a sobering new report from the Kaiser Foundation.

Among the report's most troubling findings: The number of Americans without any health care coverage grew by more than four million in 2009. That left almost one-fifth of non-elderly people uninsured. Among those between 19 and 29 years old, nearly one-third lacked coverage.

The study underscores the degree to which the recession has accelerated the loss of basic elements once viewed as inextricable pieces of a middle class life. The number of Americans lacking medical coverage now exceeds the population of Spain. [...]

As those lacking health insurance grow in number, so do those missing out on necessary medical attention. About one-in-four uninsured adults have forgone care in the past year because of costs, compared to only 4 percent of those who have private coverage, according to the report.

It's against this backdrop that congressional Republicans, eyeing an ambitious agenda in 2011, insist that what we really need to do is gut the health care system, repeal the Affordable Care Act, and stop even trying to bring coverage to those families who need it, want it, but can't afford it.

The message to those 50 million, in a nutshell, is: Don't worry; you can always go to the emergency room.

If these tens of millions of uninsured Americans registered and voted against those who are adding to their hardship, Republicans wouldn't win another election at the federal level for quite a long while.

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

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December 27, 2010

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

* Over the weekend, a suicide bomber struck a food distribution center in Pakistan's restive tribal belt, killing at least 42 people and injuring dozens: "The attack occurred in the main city in the Bajaur area as hundreds of members of the Salarzai tribe, which had been displaced by fighting between militants and the Pakistani army, lined up to collect World Food Program rations at a government center, a local official said."

* Confidential maps put together by U.N. officials "show a clear deterioration in security in parts of Afghanistan over the course of this year."

* With the New START ratification process nearly complete, President Obama will turn his attention to the next phase: negotiating with Russia to establish, for the first time, legal limits on "smaller, battlefield nuclear weapons viewed as most vulnerable to theft or diversion."

* The very idea of U.S. troops coming home from fighting a foreign war, only to end up homeless, is a national embarrassment.

* Republicans may not like the EPA acting to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, but it doesn't mean the EPA is acting "unilaterally."

* Jon Stewart continues to receive well-deserved praise for shining a light on the Zadroga 9/11 health bill. Today, the New York Times ponders whether the efforts of "The Daily Show" host make him "the modern-day equivalent of Edward R. Murrow."

* On a related note, John Culhane scrutinized the 9/11 health bill in more detail, and concluded it could be better, but it's "fair enough."

* For-profit colleges are stacking up on lobbyists for the 112th Congress, including a legion of former members of Congress, led by former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.).

* Good advice from E.J. Dionne Jr: "The Civil War is about to loom very large in the popular memory. We would do well to be candid about its causes and not allow the distortions of contemporary politics or long-standing myths to cloud our understanding of why the nation fell apart."

* President Bush's Director of National Intelligence, Vice Admiral Mike McConnell (ret.), told CNN yesterday that President Obama has been "as aggressive, if not more aggressive" in pursuing terror threats.

* Here's hoping he succeeds: "Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie vowed to end the 'birther' controversy surrounding President Obama's nationality once and for all."

* Was "refudiate" just an innocent typo? No, not really -- the former half-term governor had used the word before, on the air, suggesting she thought it was an actual word.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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HOUSE GOP EYES FOOD SAFETY FOR THE CHOPPING BLOCK.... A week ago, Americans who eat food received some very good news. A sweeping overhaul of the nation's food-safety system, approved by both chambers with large, bipartisan majorities, cleared Congress. That's the good news. The bad news is, the incoming House Republican majority may try to gut the new law.

The bill that passed Congress expands the FDA's ability to recall tainted foods, increase inspections, demand accountability from food companies, and oversee farming -- all in the hopes of cracking down on unsafe food before consumers get sick. This is the first time Congress has approved an overhaul of food-safety laws in more than 70 years.

Implementation shouldn't be that difficult, and wouldn't be were it not for a certain House majority party.

The massive overhaul of food safety laws approved by Congress this week will take years to implement and could be undercut by Republicans who don't want to fund an expansion of the Food and Drug Administration.

Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, the ranking GOP member on the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the FDA , said the number of cases of food-borne illnesses in the country does not justify the $1.4 billion the new law is estimated to cost over the first five years.

"I would not identify it as something that will necessarily be zeroed out, but it is quite possible it will be scaled back if it is significant overreach," said Kingston, who is likely to become chairman of the subcommittee when Republicans assume control of the House in January.

"We still have a food supply that's 99.99 percent safe," Kingston said in an interview. "No one wants anybody to get sick, and we should always strive to make sure food is safe. But the case for a $1.4 billion expenditure isn't there."

Anytime the member of Congress with principal oversight authority over the FDA says, "No one wants anybody to get sick, but..." the sentence probably isn't going to end well.

Also keep in mind, the $1.4 billion price tag covers implementation over the course of five years -- or $280 million a year for a revamped food-safety system that will prevent more Americans from getting sick.

The Consumer Federation of America was among several consumer groups and public health organizations that joined with the food industry to lobby for the bill's passage. On Wednesday, members of the coalition said they would keep the group together to press lawmakers for funding.

"It's critically important that FDA gets sufficient resources to do its job under the next Congress, or the full promise of the legislation won't be achieved," said Erik Olson of the Pew Health Group, which organized the coalition.

Given Republican priorities, I suspect that's the idea.

Steve Benen 4:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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NEW JERSEY'S ACTING GOVERNOR.... I'm generally uninterested in coverage of the snowfall in the northeast, but I noticed several reports noting that New Jersey's acting governor is using every available resource to address the snow-related problems.

And then it occurred to me to question why on earth an "acting governor" is making these decisions.

New Jersey will remain in a state of emergency throughout rush hour Monday as crews try to clean up still-treacherous roads, acting Gov. Stephen Sweeney said.

"We really want people to stay off the roads and give us a chance to clean them up," he said from Gloucester County, in a part of southern New Jersey which wasn't hit as hard as the northern side of the state. "We were hammered ... This was a very difficult storm to deal with."

Sweeney, a Democrat and president of the state Senate, declared a state of emergency Sunday evening and activated the National Guard. While Gov. Chris Christie and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno are out of state, Sweeney is filling in as the state's chief executive.

Apparently, New Jersey's lieutenant governor left for Mexico last week. Gov. Christie was told yesterday that the state was likely to get slammed by a blizzard, but he nevertheless got on a plane and headed to Disney World in Florida.

Ironically, state officials only recently added the office of the lieutenant governor, so New Jersey wouldn't be without a chief executive in the event of an emergency during a gubernatorial absence. That apparently didn't work out well -- both Christie and Guadagno took off at the same time.

I don't want to be too harsh towards Christie here. The governor and lieutenant governor deserve vacations just like everyone else, and it's not at all unusual for folks in the Northeast to take some time off in warmer climates this time of year. For that matter, as far as I can tell, the acting governor is doing everything right, so it's not as if New Jersey is suffering because Christie and Guadagno left town before trouble hit. Had either or both of them stuck around, the state response to the storm would likely have been identical.

But there are political appearances to consider -- Christie was told about the impending blizzard, and bolted for Florida anyway -- and it's hard to predict how the public will react. At a minimum, the image of Christie as a hands-on, take-charge chief executive will probably take a hit.

Steve Benen 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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IF ONLY THOSE 'LUCKY DUCKIES' HAD SOME 'SKIN IN THE GAME'.... It's been about eight years since the far-right Wall Street Journal editorial page came up with the notion of "lucky duckies." The label was used to describe the millions of Americans who don't pay federal income taxes because they don't earn enough money.

Conservatives, it seems, still aren't quite comfortable with these folks' "luck." George Will chatted with incoming House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), who intends to make things deliberately harder on those at the bottom end of the income scale. (via Harold Pollack)

Many conservatives, including Camp, believe that although most Americans should be paying lower taxes, more Americans should be paying taxes. The fact that 46.7 million earners pay no income tax creates moral hazard -- incentives for perverse behavior: Free-riding people have scant incentive to restrain the growth of government they are not paying for with income taxes.

"I believe," Camp says, "you've got to have some responsibility for the government you have." People have co-payments under Medicare, and everyone should similarly have some "skin in the game" under the income tax system.

Let's set the record straight here. When conservatives talk about nearly 47% of the country paying no income taxes, the argument tends to overlook relevant details -- such as the fact that these same middle- and lower-class families still pay sales taxes, state taxes, local taxes, Social Security taxes, Medicare/Medicaid taxes, and in many instances, property taxes.

In other words, they already have some "skin in the game." It's not as if these folks are getting away with something -- the existing tax structure leaves them out of the income tax system because they don't make enough money to qualify.

But even if we put all of this aside, let's appreciate the underlying point of the conservatives' concern -- for all the talk on the right about cutting taxes at every available opportunity, there's also a drive to raise taxes on those who can least afford it. The GOP has a natural revulsion to any tax system, but there's an eerie comfort with a regressive agenda that showers additional wealth on the rich while asking for more from lower-income workers.

In fact, the drive on the right to increase the burdens on these middle- and lower-class families is getting kind of creepy. Some on the far-right have begun calling these Americans "parasites." Earlier this year, Fox News' Steve Doocy went so far as to ask whether those who don't make enough to qualify for income taxes should even be allowed to vote.

To be sure, most congressional Republicans won't go quite this far, at least in their rhetoric, but the GOP's drive to raise taxes on these lower-income workers is pretty transparent, as Dave Camp's comments to George Will help demonstrate. If Republicans seriously pursue this approach in the next Congress, it should set up a pretty fascinating debate.

Steve Benen 1:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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37% IS NOT A MAJORITY.... CNN released a new national poll (pdf) this morning, gauging public attitudes on the Affordable Care Act. Not surprisingly, the health care law still isn't popular, but the details matter.

The poll asked respondents a fairly straightforward question: "As you may know, a bill that makes major changes to the country's health care system became law earlier this year. Based on what you have read or heard about that legislation, do you generally favor or generally oppose it?"

Though support has gone up a bit over the course of the year, while opposition has declined, we're still left with 43% favoring the new law, as compared to 54% who disapprove. Steady improvements in the numbers don't change the fact that opponents still outnumber supporters.

But to its credit, CNN asked the much-needed follow-up question:

"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?"

Favor: 43%
Oppose, too liberal: 37%
Oppose, not liberal enough 13%

Looking back over the results since March, support has gone up four points, while those thinking the law is too liberal has dropped six points, but that's really only a small part of the story here.

The more important element is that the conventional wisdom, driven in large part by Republican talking points, is deeply flawed. We've been told repeatedly that Americans just don't like the Affordable Care Act because they consider it excessive government overreach and some kind of liberal boondoggle.

But for months we've seen results like those from the CNN poll -- opponents of the health care law don't all agree with the conservative Republican line. On the contrary, only 37% of the country actually endorses the right's line and sees the Affordable Care Act as being "too liberal."

So, when you see the top-line results and see that 54% oppose the law, this is not to say that 54% 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 56% majority either support the law or want it to be even more ambitious in a liberal direction.

When Republicans try to gut the Affordable Care Act next year, insisting that the country is with them, it's worth remembering a pesky detail: they're wrong.

Postscript: The same CNN poll, by the way, shows the public souring quickly on the individual mandate. Whereas a year ago half the country was fine with the idea, support has dropped to just 38%, which isn't entirely surprising given that the right has targeted much of its attacks at this one provision. But the same poll shows that a 64% majority supports the law protecting consumers with pre-existing conditions from discrimination.

A big chunk of that 64% oppose the mandate, but they almost certainly don't understand how the two policies are related.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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THE GOP PLAN TO GO EASY ON WALL STREET.... After Democrats successfully passed Wall Street reform earlier this year, it's time for the next step: implementing financial regulatory changes, adding stability to the system. Emboldened congressional Republicans, who made no secret of their fealty to Wall Street lobbyists, hope to block all progress.

The legislation requires regulators to write hundreds of rules to put the law into effect. To their credit, regulatory agencies have begun that process with a sense of mission and depth of expertise that was missing in the years before the financial crisis.

In particular, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission -- which share the all-important regulation of the multitrillion-dollar derivatives market -- have proposed rules that are tough and sophisticated. The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is ramping up. The Financial Stability Oversight Council, led by the Treasury secretary, will report in January on how to implement the "Volcker rule" to restrict proprietary trading by banks.

The process is painstaking, and the outcome is uncertain. But progress is being made -- and the House Republican leaders want none of that.

The incoming GOP chairman of the House Financial Services Committee believes federal policymakers and regulators exist "to serve the banks." The incoming House Majority Whip has told the Securities and Exchange Commission implementing safeguards would be bad for the economy. An incoming committee chairman with jurisdiction over derivatives has warned officials not to be too strict when it comes to rules on derivatives speculation. The entire caucus is committed to weakening the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which exists to protect consumers.

There's also talk of House Republicans cutting funding to the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which are responsible for putting many new regulations in place, unless the agencies agree to go easy on the industry, the way the GOP demands.

And as if the party's intentions weren't quite obvious enough, this should eliminate any ambiguities: "A few days ago, incoming Agriculture Chairman Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) announced the hire of Ryan McKee as the senior staffer to oversee the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. McKee is currently a lobbyist working for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's division dedicated to deregulating complex derivatives products."

The New York Times' editorial added, "In a recent interview on CNBC, the next House majority leader, Eric Cantor of Virginia, said the American people want and expect Republicans to cut off financing for Dodd-Frank, adding that the law is a job killer. Could he be more wrong? Americans' concern about financial reform is that it is too weak, not too strong. They are furious at the banks, whose recklessness has led to crisis and recession -- and high unemployment."

Yes, but those same Americans just elected a new House majority practically desperate to do the bidding of the same bankers, bailed out Wall Street executives, and hedge fund managers that caused a global financial meltdown.

The public says they're disgusted with the industry and want stricter safeguards to protect consumers, but nevertheless backed candidates who have every intention of doing the exact opposite.

Nice job, midterm voters.

Steve Benen 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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

* It's not quite a concession, but Alaska's Joe Miller (R) announced last night he will not oppose certification of Sen. Lisa Murkowski's (R) write-in re-election win. Miller will, however, take his pointless fight to the federal courts, after striking out in state courts.

* Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R), who hasn't gone out of his way to hide his presidential ambitions, explained over the weekend that his 2012 plans will depend on "who the field is" and "their depth of conviction and specificity of prescription" in addressing the national debt. That would be the same national debt, of course, that got much worse after Daniels became George W. Bush's budget director.

* While Daniels moves closer to a presidential campaign, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) is moving in the other direction. Pressed on his national plans the other day, the governor described himself as "a definite no."

* There was isolated talk a couple of weeks ago about Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) challenging President Obama in 2012 from the left. Over the weekend, the senator insisted it "ain't gonna" happen.

* Late last week, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners ruled that Rahm Emanuel (D) is eligible to run for mayor. His opponents will now take their case challenging Emanuel's residency to the Cook County Circuit Court.

* Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) was just re-elected last month by a very wide margin, but he has no plans on seeking another term in six years. On Fox News yesterday, the right-wing senator said of his 2016 plans, "No way, no how. I will be through at the end of this term."

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

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BARBOUR'S LEAVING, ON A JET PLANE.... As if Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) didn't have enough trouble explaining his affinity for white supremacists in the 1950s and 1960s, his national ambitions suffered another major setback this morning. When it comes to travel accommodations, it appears the right-wing lobbyist-turned-politician isn't exactly a man of the people.

The Mississippi state plane, a zippy Cessna Citation with a capacity of 12, is a favorite of corporate executives and the wealthy, and its principal passenger, Gov. Haley Barbour, might easily be mistaken for one of them when he arrives with a small entourage at airports in Washington, Las Vegas or New York, a car and driver waiting there at their disposal.

Barbour has traveled extensively on the jet, brushing off suggestions from Mississippi Democrats that he give it up in favor of a more modest propeller plane for his travel. The trips, according to a POLITICO review of the Cessna's flight manifest since 2007, have mixed state business with both pleasure and national politics.

Some of Barbour's travel may well have been worth it to Mississippi, a state that is heavily dependent on federal funds. But much of the time, he has used the plane to go to fundraisers for himself and other Republican candidates and committees, to football games and to at least one boxing match -- travel that has a less obvious connection to what Barbour, a former top lobbyist in Washington, has cast as his lobbying on behalf of his state.

In fairness to Barbour, it appears the governor has reimbursed state taxpayers for some of the flights, but only a handful. The result is a picture of a poor state's chief executive, gallivanting around the country at his constituents' expense, to the tune of over $500,000, living like the high-priced corporate lobbyist he was for many years -- all while slashing funding for services low-income families in Mississippi rely on.

I suppose it's one of those "austerity for thee, but not for me" kind of moments.

It especially won't help if/when Barbour tries to seek national office.

Indeed, other governors eying a run for president have been careful to limit their use of state aircraft. As Alaska governor, Sarah Palin famously bragged about selling the Alaska state jet on eBay. Daniels himself has scaled back out-of-state travel for all Indiana state employees. And Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, active on the presidential circuit and vice chairman of the Republican Governors Association, typically flies commercial, an aide said.

I'm fairly comfortable characterizing Boss Hogg's presidential ambitions as being over before they start.

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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MARK KIRK'S ONGOING IGNORANCE ON DETAINEE POLICY.... For nearly two years, there's been a debate about transferring detainees from Guantanamo Bay to a maximum-security prison in Thomson, Illinois. Much of the local community wants it to happen, recognizing the enormous economic benefits. A Republican state representative from the area said last year his GOP colleagues in Congress would be "idiots" to block the move.

Right on cue....

"We should not bring Guantanamo terrorists to the heartland. It would make us a new mecca for terrorists, for Al Jazeera and other network attention and I think would lower the security of the entire United States," -- Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL), asked about the possibility of a detainee transfer to a prison in Illinois.

Now, Mark Kirk has been working on this issue for quite a while, and has no excuse for idiotic rhetoric on the subject. In other words, he's had plenty of time to read up on detainee policy, move beyond irrational hysteria, and appreciate the not-that-complicated details here.

But the man still has no idea what he's talking about.

Honestly, I have to wonder if Mark Kirk can even hear himself speak. Locking up bad guys in a state-of-the-art, maximum-security facility "would lower the security of the entire United States"? In what universe does that make sense?

For that matter, what makes Kirk think detention facilities for terrorists somehow become magnets for other terrorists? Let's try to put this in a way that even Kirk could understand: the United States has already tried and convicted literally hundreds of terrorists. They're held in federal detention on American soil. The prisons have not become magnets for terrorism; there have been no escapes; there have been no attempted escapes; and there have been no efforts at breaking anyone out of any of the facilities. It's not an academic exercise -- it's reality.

Kirk is easily confused, but I'd love for him to address a simple point: 33 international terrorists, many with ties to al Qaeda, currently sit in a single federal prison in Florence, Colo. No one really notices or cares; it hasn't become "a new mecca for terrorists"; it certain hasn't undermined national security. So what's the problem?

According to data provided by Traci L. Billingsley, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, "federal facilities on American soil currently house 216 international terrorists and 139 domestic terrorists. Some of these miscreants have been locked up here since the early 1990s. None of them has escaped."

A certain amount of political cowardice is to be expected, but Kirk is just embarrassing himself.

Or at least, he would be, if he weren't winning: "On Friday, the Chicago Sun-Times' Lynn Sweet reported that the Illinois Republican delegation successfully stripped a provision of the National Defense Authorization Act that would have allowed a transfer of Guantanamo detainees."

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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ROBIN ASHTON GETS JUSTICE AT JUSTICE.... Looking back, it's still almost hard to believe what went on in Bush's Justice Department. Monica Goodling, a young graduate of a radical TV preacher's college, made the transition from being an opposition researcher for the Republican National Committee to scrutinizing applicants seeking positions at the Justice Department.

One of the more striking examples came with Robin Ashton, a seasoned criminal prosecutor, who'd been promised a promotion she'd clearly earned. In 2005, however, Ashton was told she had "a Monica problem" -- Goodling suspected Ashton might be a Democrat, which meant Ashton couldn't be trusted, which meant there would be no promotion.

Ashton, a victim of obvious employment discrimination, saw her position go to someone else. Goodling went on to lead partisan witch hunts, reviewing resumes and rejecting anyone who she suspected of partisan or ideological disloyalty, even for nonpartisan jobs. In March 2006, then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales quietly assigned Goodling the authority to appoint or fire all department political appointees in the Justice Department other than the United States attorneys.

Fortunately, grown-ups are back in charge at the DoJ. Goodling is a disgrace, while Ashton was re-hired by the department last week.

Robin C. Ashton, the woman Attorney General Eric Holder just named to head of the Justice Department's internal ethics office, was reportedly herself a victim of improper politicization during the Bush administration at the hands of Regent University graduate Monica Goodling.

"As a veteran career prosecutor, Robin is uniquely qualified to serve as Counsel for Professional Responsibility, and I am confident she will lead the office with the highest standards of professionalism, integrity and dedication," Holder said in a statement.

If this seems vaguely familiar, it's because this isn't the first time the Obama administration's Justice Department did right by officials screwed over by Bush's Justice Department.

In 2006, career prosecutor William Hochul was poised to be appointed to a top counterterrorism detail, but Goodling vetoed the decision -- Goodling discovered that Hochul's wife had supported Democratic congressional candidates, so she refused to allow him to get a promotion. In 2009, Obama nominated Hochul to be a U.S. Attorney.

There was also Daniel Bogden, a highly regarded U.S. Attorney, who was forced out of his job for refusing to politicize his office. Last year, Obama brought Bodgen back as a U.S. attorney.

And then there's Leslie Hagen -- a respected lawyer, with impeccable credentials as a Republican, and sterling performance evaluations at the Justice Department. Goodling, however, had heard a rumor that Hagen was a lesbian, so Goodling blocked Hagen from being considered for any position, at any level, in the entire department. Last year, Obama brought her back to the DoJ, too.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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COMBATING OBESITY NEED NOT BE PARTISAN.... Of all the things for the right to complain about, First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative, combating childhood obesity, seems like it should be fairly low on the list.

There's a genuine public health emergency surrounding the obesity epidemic, with far reaching societal implications. As part of Michelle Obama's campaign, there's a renewed push on cutting back on sugar, advocating sports and exercise, and encouraging families and schools to adopt a healthy approach to nutrition. This isn't exactly controversial stuff.

At least, it shouldn't be. Former half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) and deranged media personality Glenn Beck have blasted the effort, suggesting the First Lady is heading up a nefarious, anti-dessert campaign. Fred Hiatt digs a little deeper in a good piece today.

[I]t's not surprising that a crusade seemingly beyond questioning would become a political battle. Interests that might feel threatened by Let's Move include the fast-food industry, agribusiness, soft-drink manufacturers, real estate developers (because suburban sprawl is implicated), broadcasters and their advertisers (of sugary cereals and the like), and the oil-and-gas and automotive sectors (because people ought to walk more and drive less).

Throw in connections to the health-care debate (because preventive services will be key to controlling the epidemic), race (because of differential patterns of obesity) and red state-blue state hostilities (the reddest states tend to be the fattest), and it turns out there are few landmines that Michelle Obama didn't trip by asking us all to shed a few pounds.

Insinuations from her critics notwithstanding, Obama has not endorsed nanny-state or controversial remedies such as ending sugar subsidies, imposing soda-pop taxes or zoning McDonald's out of certain neighborhoods. Instead, she is pushing for positive, voluntary change: more recess and physical activity, more playgrounds, more vegetable gardens, fresher food in schools and grocery stores, better education on the issue for parents and children.

All of this makes total sense, and historians will marvel (much as they will at climate-change deniers) that anyone could doubt it.... [O]besity is not a Democratic or Republican issue. Obama has merely extended and amplified a campaign that began under President George W. Bush.

The farcical qualities of this are hard to overlook. Michelle Obama's efforts are so obviously worthwhile, conspicuously unintelligent personalities like Palin and Beck are reduced to, in all seriousness, whining incessantly about child nutrition and public awareness about obesity. And because we've grown so inured to idiocy in the discourse, this seems depressingly routine.

But there is, of course, another alternative. While the various corporate interests concerned about "Let's Move" have a bottom line to protect, it's also possible that these hysterical far-right media personalities don't mean a word of what they're saying, and they're pretending to be outraged because it's their default position for anything coming out of the White House.

Either way, here's hoping the First Lady and her team don't back down an inch.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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ONCE MORE INTO THE END-OF-LIFE BREACH.... The idea was once so obvious and uncontroversial that it enjoyed broad bipartisan support. As the proposal goes, doctors would be reimbursed for voluntarily speaking to Medicare patients about end-of-life care*.

The whole point of the idea was to ensure that these decisions are made by individuals in consultation with their doctors. As Sen. Johnny Isakson, a conservative Republican from Georgia, explained last year, having end-of-life directives or a living will "empowers you to be able to make decisions at a difficult time rather than having the government making them for you."

But professional liars didn't quite see it that way. This basic concept was inexplicably twisted into "death panels" -- one of the single most idiotic policy arguments ever presented -- and the reimbursement plans were scrapped from the health care reform proposal.

The problem, of course, is that the idea continues to have merit, and seniors and their families would still benefit. Americans shouldn't suffer because unhinged conservatives successfully smeared a modest, sensible proposal.

So, the Obama administration is reviving the idea, achieving the same ends though regulatory means.

Under the new policy, outlined in a Medicare regulation, the government will pay doctors who advise patients on options for end-of-life care, which may include advance directives to forgo aggressive life-sustaining treatment. [...]

The final version of the health care legislation, signed into law by President Obama in March, authorized Medicare coverage of yearly physical examinations, or wellness visits. The new rule says Medicare will cover "voluntary advance care planning," to discuss end-of-life treatment, as part of the annual visit.

Under the rule, doctors can provide information to patients on how to prepare an "advance directive," stating how aggressively they wish to be treated if they are so sick that they cannot make health care decisions for themselves.

While the new law does not mention advance care planning, the Obama administration has been able to achieve its policy goal through the regulation-writing process, a strategy that could become more prevalent in the next two years as the president deals with a strengthened Republican opposition in Congress.

The discouraging angle to this is that those who understand the policy are delighted to see the Obama administration do the right thing, but they're reluctant to say so.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) said the regulatory policy will "give people more control over the care they receive," but urged policy advocates to celebrate "a quiet victory." Why? Because congressional Republicans might "try to use this small provision to perpetuate the 'death panel' myth."

Indeed, in an email last month to people working on end-of-life care, Blumenauer specifically said, "We would ask that you not broadcast this accomplishment out to any of your lists, even if they are 'supporters' -- e-mails can too easily be forwarded."

I don't blame Blumenauer at all, but his concerns are a reminder about how truly ridiculous our discourse has become. When positive developments occur, we're not supposed to talk about it, because radical ideologues might seize the opportunity to lie to the country again.

* edited for clarity

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

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FROM THE HOLIDAY WEEKEND.... We covered a fair amount of ground over the holiday weekend. Here's a quick overview of you may have missed.

On Sunday, we talked about:

* When it comes to economic policy, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has some strong opinions. Too bad they're gibberish.

* John Kerry lost the 2004 presidential race and John McCain lost the 2008 presidential race, and both returned to the Senate in the wake of their defeats. How they've conducted themselves since says a great deal about their respective characters.

* Florida Gov.-elect Rick Scott's (R) policy agenda is so extreme, one might even call it "extraordinary."

* President Obama remains committed to the DREAM Act. Congressional Republicans aren't even open to the possibility.

* Since the midterms, the White House has been on a foreign policy winning streak.

* House Republicans will kick off the next Congress by reading the Constitution out loud. Of course, reading the document is one thing; honoring it is another.

And on Friday we talked about:

* Charles Krauthammer, of all people, believes President Obama is "back with a vengeance."

* Vice President Biden suggests marriage equality is "inevitable."

* The word "triangulation" is verboten in the White House. That's a good thing.

* Peter Diamond's Fed nomination couldn't get a vote in the Senate. That's nothing short of absurd, but we can expect the administration to try again next year.

* Time will tell is the confidence is warranted or not, but there's a growing number of economists who are optimistic about 2011.

Steve Benen 7:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (2)

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December 26, 2010

QUOTE OF THE DAY.... Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) can be difficult to understand -- his version of reality can be, shall we say, unique -- but this morning's anti-spending rant on Fox News was especially inscrutable.

"[I]f we didn't take some pain now, we're going to experience apocalyptic pain. And it's going to be out of control. The idea should be we should control it," Coburn told Chris Wallace of "Fox News Sunday." "We're not taking seriously the very real and urgent threat that will undermine the standard of living in this country."

Coburn, who said throughout the interview he was not trying to "scare" Americans with his rhetoric on the deficit, was then asked to give his worst-case scenario outlook for the American economy.

"I think you'll see 15 to 18 percent unemployment rate. I think you'll see a 8 to 9 percent decline in GDP. I think you'll see the middle class destroyed," Coburn said.

"The people it will harm the most will be the poorest of the poor," adding that he believed hyper-inflation could contribute to the degradation of the American way of life.

Apparently, as Coburn sees it, spending will lead to inflation, which will lead to "apocalyptic pain," especially for lower-income Americans. The solution, then, is to take capital out of the economy by slashing public spending, much of which benefits lower-income Americans, deliberately slowing already-weak economic growth.

I just don't know what planet Coburn is living on. The right-wing Oklahoman, best known for his recent fight against health benefits for 9/11 first responders, may not realize it, but the inflationary threat -- the one that he thinks would lead to 18% unemployment at a 9% drop in GDP -- doesn't exist. When the most recent economic figures were released, showing GDP growth at a severely underwhelming 2.6%, there was scarcely any inflation at all. Indeed, as of a month ago, core inflation was at its lowest levels since officials starting keeping track over a half-century ago.

Coburn added, "What most of America doesn't understand is that if we don't get our house in order, we're going to look like Greece or Ireland or even Spain and Italy, which are coming."

What Tom Coburn doesn't understand is that he's utterly clueless, rationalizing his preferred agenda -- gutting government, eliminating programs that benefit working families, cutting taxes for the wealthy, cutting economic growth at the knees -- with economic gibberish.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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A TALE OF TWO JOHNS.... It's been about four decades since we last saw two successive, failed presidential candidates serve in the Senate at the same time. We are, however, seeing it right now -- John Kerry lost in 2004, John McCain lost in 2008, and both remain in the chamber.

It's worth taking a moment to note the different paths the two have followed since their unsuccessful national campaigns. Kerry recently wrapped up tireless efforts on New START ratification, which were ultimately a success. McCain recently wrapped up tireless efforts to keep gay servicemen and women in the closet, which were an ignominious failure.

Kay at Balloon Juice did a nice job capturing the bigger picture. (thanks to D.D. for the reminder)

After John Kerry lost to George W. Bush, he returned to the Senate and simply did his job there, and he's continued to do his job there.

Kerry lost, big, on climate change this year and he still rallied and led on START, rather than booking time on cable shows to bitch.

Kerry didn't subject the country to two years of bitter griping, temper tantrums and petulant demands. Kerry didn't pursue purely personal vendettas against whole groups of voters who (allegedly) "betrayed" him. Kerry didn't flip-flop on each and every policy position he has ever held. He voted and votes the same way he always did. John McCain, remarkably, considering what we were told about him, has done all those awful things since his loss in 2008.

In the 2004 Presidential election, political media and pundits portrayed John Kerry as an elitist, foppish, slightly silly "flip-flopper" who lacked character and core convictions. The same political media and pundits lovingly and carefully nurtured the fairy tale that John McCain is a rock-ribbed, Country First, straight-shooter. Events since tell a radically different story.

I've long considered Kerry one of American politics' most underrated figures -- the guy's an exceptional senator and a credible expert on a wide variety of issues. I've also long considered McCain one of American politics' most overrated figures -- the guy's a petulant, hotheaded clown, who lacks a working understanding of public policy at any level. One is the subject of establishment mockery; the other is a media darling who practically lives on television. Regrettably, the rewards go to the wrong senator.

But the last week helped drive home where the two Johns stand -- last weekend, one lost his composure and did significant damage to what's left of his legacy, while on Wednesday, the other saw the culmination of his work on a major international treaty on nuclear arms.

It's quite a pair of bookends.

Steve Benen 11:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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IT DEPENDS ON THE MEANING OF 'EXTRAORDINARY'.... The head of the Republican Party in Palm Beach County, Florida, recently told Time that shameless criminal Gov.-elect Rick Scott (R) "is going to be within six months of taking office one of the most extraordinary national figures we've seen in years."

Depending on how one defines "extraordinary," that might well be true. If one takes it to mean "very unusual" and "far outside the norm," then sure, Scott might well prove to be extraordinary, but not in a good way.

The incoming governor, elected despite massive fraud and corruption allegations, has already caused several stirs. It was Scott and his team, for example, who raised the prospect of privatizing all public education in the Sunshine State, scrapping state support for public hospitals, and cancelling infrastructure investment plans that would create 24,000 jobs for Floridians.

Now we see Scott's economic team targeting unemployed Floridians, insisting the jobless are lazy.

"According to [former U.S. Assistant Treasury Secretary Alan] Krueger's research, the amount of time people on UC spent looking for a job averaged only 20 minutes a day! Within 2 weeks of UC ending, that increased but to only 70 minutes a day," states the document, noting that the median duration of unemployment benefits receipt has increased nationally from 10 weeks to 18.7 weeks.

The team's recommendations: tighten job-search requirements for people getting benefits, cut off assistance for those who don't comply and assign community work for those who don't get a job in 12 weeks. Goals: increase employment and reduce the payout of unemployment benefits, as well as the unemployment compensation tax burden on businesses.

As it turns out, Krueger's research was badly misrepresented by Scott's economic team, and the fact that the incoming governor's aides couldn't understand the research does not bode well for the Scott administration's competency.

Policy ignorance and illiteracy notwithstanding, the fact that the governor-elect and his team are already planning to make it even harder on those struggling to find jobs says a great deal about their priorities.

One might even call it "extraordinary."

Steve Benen 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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GOP ALREADY REJECTING NEXT PUSH ON DREAM ACT.... Shortly before departing for his holiday break, President Obama held a press conference reflecting on the lame-duck session, and spoke at some length about the "disappointment" of the DREAM Act vote.

The president called the status "heartbreaking," adding, "That can't be who we are, to have kids -- our kids, classmates of our children -- who are suddenly under this shadow of fear through no fault of their own. They didn't break a law -- they were kids." He went on to vow to "engage" Republican opponents who, Obama suspects, "in their heart of hearts, know it's the right thing to do."

Right or wrong, it's probably best to keep expectations very low.

Congressional Republicans are pronouncing President Obama's proposal that the next Congress overhaul the country's immigration laws as dead before arrival. [...]

Congressional Republicans said in interviews Thursday that their concerns about the [DREAM Act] measure remain strong, and both House and Senate GOP leaders said they would fight any attempt to legalize any of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country before the administration secured the nation's southern border with Mexico.

"It is pointless to talk about any new immigration bills that grant amnesty until we secure the border, since such bills will only encourage more illegal immigration," incoming House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) said in a statement.

Remember, we're talking about a DREAM Act proposal that was written in large part by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), championed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and co-sponsored by Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) -- all conservative Republicans -- and it's still condemned as a non-started and "amnesty" by far-right congressional Republicans.

As for the "secure the border first" rhetoric, it's occasionally worth reemphasizing how misguided this talk is.

This Arizona Republic piece that ran over the summer continues to resonate, offering a serious, sober look at the political dispute when politicians say they want to "secure the border first," and then talk about immigration reform."

Anyone with a minimal knowledge or understanding about the nearly 2,000-mile swath of land between Mexico and the United States realizes that requiring a secure border establishes an impossible standard. [...]

Here is another way to consider the problem: Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a leader in the anti-immigration movement and acclaimed as America's toughest sheriff, cannot secure his own jails. Every year, despite armed guards, electronic locks and video monitors, inmates smuggle drugs in from the outside and sometimes even escape.

No one would blame Arpaio. All penal institutions, regardless of security measures, have breaches. Yet imagine if America adopted a position that no new laws could be passed regarding prison reform "until the nation's jails are secure."

Tom Barry, director of the Transborder Project at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C., said the demand for a completely secure border is a ploy by those opposed to immigration reform to prevent new policies.

"No matter how much enforcement you have, there will always be people coming through," he said. "Since that is true, opponents to immigration reform will always be able to say the border is still not secure ... and therefore we cannot pass immigration reform."

When the president was speaking on the subject, and noted that many Republicans probably want to support measures like the DREAM Act, but don't because they're afraid of political blowback, "that may mean that we've got to change the politics."

It would be a change for the better.

Steve Benen 9:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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NOT A BAD MONTH ON FOREIGN POLICY, EITHER.... With a successful lame-duck session having wrapped up, and the year coming to an end, there's been plenty of recent talk about President Obama's legislative victories. David Ignatius has a related assessment today, focusing entirely on foreign policy.

Ignatius notes that last month's midterm elections sparked "stage whispers" among world leaders about "the erosion of American power, and of Obama as a weak and inattentive president." There are still concerns, of course, but the column notes the White House's recent moves have "allowed Obama to show some backbone, a quality that Europeans, in particular, feared was missing."

The list begins with the president's trip to India in November, when he was still reeling from the Democrats' midterm defeat. That cast an aura of failure over the trip, but in retrospect it looks a bit more positive: In New Delhi, Obama managed to strengthen ties with India without upsetting Pakistan, a neat trick.

Next came South Korea. Although Obama was drubbed for not getting a free-trade deal before his arrival, his refusal to make last-minute concessions to Seoul made the final deal reached in December much better, and won it bipartisan support. It's arguably the most important free-trade pact since NAFTA.

A third success was the Lisbon summit in late November.... The December Af-Pak review, the fourth item on the list, followed on the Lisbon frame.... Then came the three big theatrical events in December: the formation of an Iraqi government; the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell"; and ratification of the New START treaty with Russia. In all three, Obama succeeded by working closely with his diplomatic and military advisers, especially Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Finally, and least noticed, was the test with North Korea. While saying little in public, the administration mobilized for the possibility of war if North Korea continued its provocations. Obama cautioned Chinese President Hu Jintao in a phone call three weeks ago that because North Korea is a nuclear nation, its recklessness threatens the United States. The White House thinks the Chinese got the message -- and warned Pyongyang.

We talked a bit about this several months ago, but a fascinating dynamic frequently plays out in international affairs: 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 just as much.

There's been a fair amount of scuttlebutt lately about a perceived presidential "comeback," thanks to a string of year-end victories. But while these breakthroughs may give Obama a modest bump in the polls, it also gives him a stronger hand when dealing foreign friends and foes.

When it comes to the administration's foreign policy agenda, that's obviously a good thing.

Steve Benen 9:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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READING IT IS ONE THING, HONORING IT IS ANOTHER.... I can appreciate political theatrics as much as the next guy, but this stunt, as reported by the conservative Washington Times, seems rather pointless.

The Constitution frequently gets lip service in Congress, but House Republicans next year will make sure it gets a lot more than that -- the new rules the incoming majority party proposed this week call for a full reading of the country's founding document on the floor of the House on Jan. 6.

The goal, backers said, is to underscore the limited-government rules the Founders imposed on Congress -- and to try to bring some of those principles back into everyday legislating.

The reading proposal was pushed by far-right Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who apparently got the idea from even-further-right state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R-Va.).

I don't doubt that several members who participate in the exercise will feel better about themselves, but there's no real point to this. Jonathan Bernstein, with an item dripping in sarcasm, noted the other day:

[R]eading the Constitution out loud will guarantee that no new legislation will violate our basic charter. After all, it's well known that the Constitution is clear and unambiguous at all points, and that previous violations of it have been caused by a combination of ignorance and indifference. Once it's read on the House floor, that problem will be solved.

Look, this stuff is proven to work. Younger readers may not realize it, but in the Carter and Reagan years the House was just full of treasonous subversives -- a problem entirely solved by saying the Pledge of Allegiance to open all House sessions since fall 1988.

That's entirely right, but I'd go a little further. The point of the reading, I suspect, is to reinforce a larger argument that right-wing Republicans would like the public to believe: they are the Constitution's true champions. They want to read it out loud as a demonstration of the GOP's love of the document, while sticking it to those rascally liberals and their unconstitutional agenda.

But there's a problem with this: it's crazy. We're talking about a House Republican caucus with leaders who support allowing states to overturn federal laws they don't like.

In recent years, congressional Republicans haven't just endorsed bizarre legal concepts; they've advocated constitutional concepts that were discredited generations ago.

Worse, they have ambitious plans to shuffle the constitutional deck more to their liking. During the campaign, we heard from a variety of bizarre candidates, many of whom won, who talked about scrapping the 17th Amendment, repealing the 16th Amendment, getting rid of at least one part of the 14th Amendment, "restoring" the "original" 13th Amendment, and proposing dozens of new amendments.

Similarly, these same officials intend to radically transform the country as we currently know it, identifying bedrocks of society, and declaring them not just wrong, but literally unconstitutional. Two weeks ago, one of these so-called "Constitutional conservatives" publicly called for "censoring" major media outlets he doesn't like.

For these guys to somehow claim they've cornered the market on constitutional fealty is ridiculous, and arguably, backwards.

Steve Benen 8:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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December 25, 2010

HOUSEKEEPING NOTE.... It's likely to be a pretty slow news day, and I don't imagine too many readers will be stopping by, so expect a very light posting schedule today (which is to say, this will probably be the only post).

I'll be around in case something dramatic and/or unexpected happens, but if the political world is quiet today, "Political Animal" will be, too.

Here, by the way, is the weekly address from the White House, which includes a very worthwhile message about lending a hand to American troops and their families during the holiday season.

Whether you're celebrating Christmas or just enjoying a day off, have a great one.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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December 24, 2010

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

* Expecting a staff shake-up: "President Obama is planning the first major reorganization of his administration, preparing to shuffle several positions in the West Wing as he tries to fortify his political team for the realities of divided government and his own re-election." In particular, there will be more White House lawyers to deal with nuisance requests from the new GOP House majority.

* Terror threat in Mumbai: "India's financial capital was on high alert Friday after authorities said four terrorists had entered the country and were plotting attacks here during the holidays."

* Despite the struggling economy, a lot of folks shop quite a bit this time of year: "For stores, this 11th-hour dash caps the best holiday season since 2007, and possibly the best ever."

* U.S. businesses are prohibited from doing business with Iran. There are, however, exceptions -- thousands of them.

* Just two days after action in the U.S. Senate, Russia's parliament offered preliminary support for New START with a 350-58 vote in the 450-seat State Duma.

* Remember, Congress may not want to combat global warming, so the EPA must: "Stymied in Congress, the Obama administration is moving unilaterally to clamp down on power plant and oil refinery greenhouse emissions, announcing plans for developing new standards over the next year."

* The AP runs political analysis pieces I disagree with from time to time, but this week's piece on the White House is just a train-wreck.

* North Korea's official news agency called, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the incoming chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee "human scum" in response to her request that North Korea be added to the list of state sponsors of terror.

* Grover Norquist doesn't mind the notion of states going bankrupt. Imagine that.

* For the millions of Americans who drop out of college, when do they tend to quit? Right about now.

* Alex Pereene does a nice job summarizing the "Year in Pseudo-scandals." My personal favorite: when the far-right got hysterical about the logo for the National Security Summit. For wingnuts, it was a pro-Islam code. For the rest of us, it was based on the Bohr model of the atom. Only one of those two interpretations makes sense.

* And finally, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told MSNBC yesterday he expects the first six months of 2011 to be a productive period on Capitol Hill. Specifically, he said, "My prediction: The next sixth months will be more like the lame-duck, where there was a lot of productivity, than like the previous two years, when there was a lot of dart-throwing." I have no idea where his confidence comes from, and I'm fairly certain he's completely wrong, but here's hoping Schumer's prediction comes true.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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KRAUTHAMMER SEES OBAMA 'BACK WITH A VENGEANCE'.... Earlier this month, Charles Krauthammer wrote a couple of columns on the shift in the White House's fortunes. The conservative columnist raised major doubts about the tax deal, for example, not because it was a bad idea, but because President Obama, as Krauthammer sees it, "pulled off ... the swindle of the year."

A week later, Krauthammer, who vehemently opposes the president and his agenda, added, "Obama is back" and "conservative gloaters were simply fooled." The columnist went so far as to describe this president as another "comeback kid."

Today, Krauthammer took another step, marveling at Obama's December hat trick.

Riding the lamest of ducks, President Obama just won the Triple Crown. He fulfilled (1) his most important economic priority, passage of Stimulus II, a.k.a. the tax cut deal (the perfect pre-re-election fiscal sugar high - the piper gets paid in 2013 and beyond); (2) his most important social policy objective, repeal of "don't ask, don't tell"; and (3) his most cherished (achievable) foreign policy goal, ratification of the New START treaty with Russia.

Politically, these are all synergistic. The bipartisan nature of the tax deal instantly repositioned Obama back to the center. And just when conventional wisdom decided the deal had caused irreparable alienation from his liberal base, Obama almost immediately won it back -- by delivering one of the gay rights movement's most elusive and coveted breakthroughs.

The symbolism of the don't ask, don't tell repeal cannot be underestimated. It's not just that for the civil rights community, it represents a long-awaited extension of the historic arc -- first blacks, then women, now gays. It was also Obama decisively transcending the triangulated trimming of Bill Clinton, who instituted don't ask, don't tell in the first place. Even more subtly and understatedly, the repeal represents the taming of the most conservative of the nation's institutions, the military, by a movement historically among the most avant-garde. Whatever your views, that is a cultural landmark.

Then came START, which was important for Obama not just because of the dearth of foreign policy achievements these past two years but because treaties, especially grand-sounding treaties on strategic arms, carry the aura of presidential authority and diplomatic mastery.

To be sure, the column was filled with misguided, Krauthammer-like assessments. The columnist considers New START "damaging," which strikes me as deeply silly. But he nevertheless makes the same point that Adam Serwer, Fred Kaplan, and I made the other day: "Republican opposition ... garnered the treaty more attention than it would have otherwise and thus gave Obama a larger PR victory."

Nevertheless, given the developments of December, Krauthammer concludes, "Obama came back with a vengeance. His string of lame-duck successes is a singular political achievement. Because of it, the epic battles of the 112th Congress begin on what would have seemed impossible just one month ago -- a level playing field."

If this helps capture the conventional wisdom in D.C., and shapes perceptions accordingly, the White House has to feel like it's entering 2011 right where it wants to be.

Steve Benen 11:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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THE 'INEVITABILITY' OF MARRIAGE EQUALITY.... President Obama has acknowledged quite a few times in recent months that his views on same-sex marriage are "evolving."

This morning, ABC's George Stephanopoulos followed up on the issue with Vice President Biden. (via TPM)

The vice president agreed with Obama's comments that his position on gay marriage is "evolving." Biden said there is an "inevitability for a national consensus on gay marriage."

"I think the country's evolving. And I think you're going to see, you know, the next effort is probably going to be to deal with so called DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act]," he said.

The use of the word "inevitably" probably scares the hell out of anti-gay activists, and it should. As the arc of history continues to bend toward justice, we see a growing number of Americans -- by some measures, a majority -- who believe two consenting adults should be legally permitted to get married if they want to. It's exceptionally unlikely that trend will reverse -- that's just not how civil-rights trajectories ever move. Society becomes less prejudiced, less hateful, and less bigoted over time.

We'll never get to 100%. I suspect there's probably still a tiny percentage of the population that still opposes people of different races or different religions from marrying, too. But to use Biden's words, we're moving towards a "consensus" that's "inevitable."

And there's not much the right can do about it.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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THE WORD THE PRESIDENT DOESN'T WANT TO HEAR.... For all the recent speculation about the White House and "triangulation," President Obama has given some instructions to his staff: don't even say the word.

Despite all his time studying the Clinton administration, Mr. Obama told his aides that he had no intention of following the precise path of Mr. Clinton, who after the Democratic midterm election defeats of 1994 ordered a clearing of the decks inside the White House, installed competing teams of advisers and employed a centrist policy of triangulation. In fact, several advisers confirmed, the word "triangulation" has been banned by Mr. Obama because he does not believe it accurately describes his approach.

Since it doesn't apply, that's a good idea. As Greg Sargent explained this morning, "Triangulation just isn't Obama's style, and his scolding of liberals seems to be rooted in genuine frustration with them for disagreeing with him about what's politically possible, given today's realities. To whatever degree Obama is using his disagreement with the left for positioning purposes, it's more about temperament than ideology."

I agree wholeheartedly. As we talked about a couple of weeks ago, what we're seeing from Obama and his team really bears no resemblance to the Clintonian model in the wake of 1994 midterms.

The Dick Morris approach was fairly specific -- Clinton had to put distance between his White House and the left. When liberals criticized him, Clinton and his team found this valuable, because it allowed them to exploit liberal rebukes to help Clinton appeal to moderates and "independents."

What we're seeing now appears to be largely the opposite. Obama doesn't welcome liberal attacks; he's frustrated by them. Obama isn't going out of his way to say he disagrees with liberals; he's making an effort to say he agrees with liberals, but feels the need to make concessions to move his agenda forward. Right or wrong, the president wants the left's support, and thinks he's earned it.

Much of the left disagrees, obviously, but the larger point is that this bears absolutely no resemblance to Dick Morris' advice in the mid '90s. In a triangulation model, the leader tells the public, "Those folks and I aren't on the same page." In Obama's model, the president is telling the public, "Those folks and I should be on the same page."

The fact that Obama has banned the word altogether is a good sign about his future intentions.

Steve Benen 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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HAVE I GOT A GIFT IDEA FOR YOU.... It's Dec. 24, which is pretty late in the game for last-minute Christmas shopping. You could rush out at the last minute, dealing with crowded malls and overworked post offices, and hoping for the best, or you could a gift that they're sure to like: a gift subscription to the Washington Monthly.

If you're a regular reader of the print edition, you know that the Washington Monthly offers cutting-edge reporting and analysis, breaking big stories well ahead of major mainstream outlets.

I'm reminded of this recent piece from the Monthly's editor-in-chief, Paul Glastris.

The Monthly has long made a habit of publishing stories that were months or even years ahead of the news, usually for the purpose of sounding alarms about unrecognized problems -- alarms which often turned out to be well worth heeding.

A few examples: In 1980, Gregg Easterbrook wrote a cover story explaining that the space shuttle, then under construction, had so many problems -- especially its solid rocket boosters and heat-shielding tiles -- that it risked being destroyed in flight. Which, alas, happened in 1986 and then again in 2003, for precisely the reasons Easterbrook foresaw. In March of 2003, Nicholas Confessore predicted, rightly, that the imminent U.S. invasion of Iraq would undermine the readiness of our already-overstretched all-volunteer army and lead to falling reenlistments and crushingly burdensome redeployments. A year later, Benjamin Wallace-Wells looked at the supercharged real estate market, the Fed's loose money policy, and Alan Greenspan's odd pronouncements about the splendors of adjustable rate mortgages, and predicted that the housing bubble "is likely to burst, and when it does it may very well take the American economy down with it."

Remember Phil Longman's legendary piece on the VA's turn-around? Or Nick Confessore's breakthrough piece on the Republicans' K Street Project? Or how about James Verini's blockbuster on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce from earlier this year? This is the kind of journalism readers find in every issue.

I've been reading the print edition since college, and would gladly endorse it, even if I didn't work here. If you're looking for a last-minute gift for the holidays, a gift subscription to the Washington Monthly is a great choice.

The first gift subscription is only $26, and each additional gift subscription is $20. To place the order, call toll-free 1-888-238-0047.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (2)

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TACKLING TAX REFORM.... Prospects appear to be severely limited for major legislative initiatives in the 112th Congress, but there are clearly some big-ticket agenda items on the to-do list. President Obama, for example, would no doubt like to see lawmakers tackle comprehensive immigration reform and an overhaul of U.S. energy policy.

But in a Washington Monthly web exclusive this week, Andrew Ratzkin offers a different idea.

After the surprisingly productive lame duck session ends -- whatever one's views of the content of the legislation, the output was impressive -- can there be any further hope for a continued affirmative Democratic agenda, or will the Party's options boil down to defending the enactments of the outgoing Congress or capitulating to the incoming Republican agenda?

Democrats should reject such a false choice and instead seize upon a Republican perennial favorite: tax reform. Much the way that Bill Clinton elevated welfare reform following the 1994 mid-terms, major tax reform is an area ripe with bipartisan appeal and the potential to improve the Administration's fortunes, whatever the Republican response. The tax code presents a major opportunity for significant action on a domestic priority during the coming Congress. Potentially, much of the energy to drive tax reforms to passage could stem from Tea Party supporters.

Tax reform should be built on two issues important to Republicans: simplification and a shift from income and payroll taxes, which are predominately taxes on work, toward a national consumption tax, as many in the Tea Party have advocated. However, these measures should be sculpted in such a way that they do not become figleaves for regressive taxation that falls disproportionately on the lower ranges of the income spectrum.

Ratzkin fleshes out the details of his vision in a worthwhile piece. Take a look.

Steve Benen 9:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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LEAVING A DIAMOND BEHIND.... Before wrapping up the lame-duck session, the Senate confirmed quite a few pending nominees submitted by the Obama administration. Regrettably, Peter Diamond wasn't among them.

The White House says President Obama will resubmit the nomination of a Nobel prize-winning economist to the Federal Reserve, even though he faces stronger opposition from the next Congress.

Peter Diamond's nomination fizzled when the Senate adjourned Wednesday without acting on it.

Senate Republicans opposed the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor's nomination, questioning his qualifications for the job.

This is, of course, deeply foolish. Diamond, among the most accomplished economists of his generation, was blocked by one far-right senator, Alabama's Richard Shelby (R). Even after Diamond won a Nobel Prize in economics, Shelby insisted the economist lacked the qualifications to join the board of governors of the Federal Reserve.

Let's flesh this out a bit. The Alabaman has argued that Diamond's background is not in monetary policy, which is true, but it's hardly a prerequisite -- of the five sitting Fed governors at the time of Diamond's nomination, three were not specialists in monetary economics. One of Bush's appointees has no advanced degree in economics at all and has never done any academic research in the field.

What did Shelby have to say about this nominee? Nothing -- he never raised questions about the nominee's qualifications and didn't hesitate to support the nomination.

Diamond's expertise -- the scholarship that produced a Nobel prize -- is in understanding competing kinds of unemployment. Paul Krugman, himself a Nobel winner, noted a while back that "there's an ongoing dispute over what the rise in vacancies without a corresponding fall in unemployment means," and as luck would have it, Diamond "pioneered the whole study of this subject."

But for reasons that defy comprehension, Shelby simply decided he didn't like Diamond. After the nomination cleared committee and headed to the floor, Shelby could have registered his opposition by voting against Diamond, but that wasn't good enough -- the conservative insisted that the Nobel laureate is so offensive, the Senate shouldn't be allowed to vote on the nominee at all.

Have I mentioned that this is no way to run a country?

The White House intends to try again with Diamond in 2011. I'm glad to hear it.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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MEASURED OPTIMISM.... By the middle of spring, plenty of folks watching the economy were feeling relatively good. Economic growth in the first quarter was pretty strong, and in April, we saw more jobs created than at any point in four years. Conditions appeared to be improving so much, Karl Rove, National Review, and other media conservatives started working on ways to ensure Democrats didn't get credit for the recovery.

It didn't last. A variety of factors, most notably the European debt crisis, rattled global markets, growth slowed, and job creation stalled.

As 2010 comes to a close, however, we're once again seeing some sun peek through the clouds. The Wall Street Journal reports this morning, "As the economy gradually recovers, some big U.S. companies are cranking up their recruiting and advertising thousands of job openings." The New York Times added that a growing number of economists are expecting a stronger 2011.

Eighteen months after the recession officially ended, the government's latest measures to bolster the economy have led many forecasters and policy makers to express new optimism that the recovery will gain substantial momentum in 2011.

Economists in universities and on Wall Street have raised their growth projections for next year. Retail sales, industrial production and factory orders are on the upswing, and new claims for unemployment benefits are trending downward. [...]

Even so, economists are increasingly upbeat about the outlook, saying that while the economy in 2011 will not be strong enough to drive unemployment down significantly, it should put the United States on its soundest footing since the financial crisis started an economic tailspin three years ago.

Phillip L. Swagel, who was the Treasury Department's chief economist during the administration of George W. Bush and teaches at the University of Maryland, said, "The recovery in 2011 will be strong enough for us to see sustained job creation that will finally give Americans a tangible sense of an improving economy."

The rationale for "measured optimism" isn't without evidence. The job market is improving, as is consumer confidence. Private-sector profits are up, and some additional stimulus is now on the way.

Caveats, however, abound. The situation in Europe remains precarious, and in the U.S., state and local governments are still facing massive problems, as is the still-struggling housing market.

And there's one other thing that gives me pause: congressional Republicans. What will/would a government shutdown do to the recovery? What about the international shockwaves of a GOP push not to raise the debt limit? Just how negative will the consequences be if/when Republicans slash spending, focus on deficit reduction instead of growth, and take billions out of the economy?

I'm delighted by the optimism, and I sincerely hope the predictions are true. But I can't help but wonder the extent to which Republicans, deliberately or not, might screw this up.

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

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December 23, 2010

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

* We're getting closer to where we need to be: "The number of people seeking benefits edged down by 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 420,000, the Labor Department said Thursday."

* There's other encouraging economic news, too: "Economic reports suggest employers are laying off fewer workers, businesses are ordering more computers and appliances, and consumers are spending with more confidence. Combined, the data confirm the economy is improving, and further job gains are expected in 2011."

* Terrorists strike in Rome: "Parcel bombs exploded at two embassies in Rome in a coordinated attack Thursday that raised new fears in Europe, which has been on high alert for a possible terrorist attack by Islamist radicals ahead of the holidays. But Italy's interior minister said that an initial investigation indicated the bombs might have been the work of anarchists, and an Italian anarchist group claimed responsibility for at least one of the attacks."

* The terrorist threat closer to home: "Just days before Christmas, the White House asked Americans to be vigilant this holiday season, warning of a possible -- though unspecified -- terror threat from Al Qaeda. The caution echoed a weeks' worth of warnings from law enforcement authorities."

* The saber rattling on the Korean peninsula is intensifying: "One month after a deadly exchange of artillery fire, the two Koreas ramped up their rhetoric Thursday, with South Korea's president pledging unsparing retaliation if attacked again and a top North Korean official threatening a "sacred" nuclear war if provoked."

* More of this, please: "The Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday that it would regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and oil refineries next year, targeting the nation's two biggest sources of carbon dioxide."

* I do find it rather odd to see prominent Republicans and Bush administration officials supporting an Iranian terrorist group.

* For the for-profit college industry, the bad news just keeps on coming.

* Here's a radical thought: maybe fewer executive branch positions should require Senate confirmation. At this point, the process is farcical.

* Pondering Clinton-era hack Lanny Davis' latest deals, Isaac Chotiner asks a good question: "How low can one man sink?"

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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PALIN'S FRUIT FROM THE POISONOUS TREE.... A certain former half-term governor of Alaska pretends to have credibility on foreign policy today -- did you know Putin once flew over her house? -- with an op-ed in USA Today on U.S. policy towards Iran.

Now, for anyone familiar with Sarah Palin's writings, it's pretty easy to tell when her work is ghost-written. The reader only needs to ask some basic questions: is the piece filled with exclamation points? Are there any made-up words and obvious grammatical errors? Is the piece littered with sentence fragments and awkward attempts at junior-high-level humor?

If the answer to all of these is "no," then Palin didn't write it.

But let's put that aside. For that matter, let's also overlook the likelihood that Palin almost certainly couldn't find Iran on a map (including maps in which Iran is labeled "Iran"). Instead, let's take a look at her lede. (via Jamil Smith)

Iran continues to defy the international community in its drive to acquire nuclear weapons. Arab leaders in the region rightly fear a nuclear-armed Iran. We suspected this before, but now we know for sure because of leaked diplomatic cables.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia "frequently exhorted the U.S. to attack Iran to put an end to its nuclear weapons program," according to these communications. Officials from Jordan said the Iranian nuclear program should be stopped by any means necessary. Officials from the United Arab Emirates and Egypt saw Iran as evil, an "existential threat" and a sponsor of terrorism. If Iran isn't stopped from obtaining nuclear weapons, it could trigger a regional nuclear arms race in which these countries would seek their own nuclear weapons to protect themselves.

Why is this interesting? Because those "leaked diplomatic cables" that Palin's ghost-writer referenced are, of course, the materials published through Wikileaks.

I'm not suggesting for a moment that the media steer clear of such revelations, but the former half-term governor's reliance on the documents is, to put it mildly, unexpected.

After all, Palin has referred to the leaks as "treasonous." She's even equated Julian Assange and Wikileaks with al Qaeda.

So I'm afraid I'm left bemused by all of this. Palin is comfortable using secret information procured by terrorists in the hopes of making the American president look bad? She thinks the leaks are an outrageous, criminal offense, but she's happy to exploit the leaks anyway for her partisan agenda?

Someone's ghost-writer has some explaining to do.

Steve Benen 4:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... The Senate yesterday afternoon unanimously approved its version of the Zadroga 9/11 health bill, and sent it to the House before lawmakers adjourned and left town.

Not surprisingly, the House followed suit and passed the bill, though more than a third of the chamber was already empty. The final vote was 206 to 60, with 59 Republicans and one Blue Dog voting against it.

But it's worth pondering what those 60 were thinking. After all, they knew it was going to pass anyway, and saw that even the most right-wing members of the Senate were satisfied with the scaled-back compromise that was struck in the late morning. These five dozen conservatives also, in all likelihood, realized that much of the American mainstream would consider them sociopathic for fighting as dead-enders against health care for sick 9/11 heroes.

So why vote against it anyway, knowing it wouldn't affect the outcome? Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), one of the 60, boasted about her opposition.

"The last vote taken by this Congress offered a sad commentary on the abysmal lame duck session that was run by the Democrat [sic] majority. Almost 40 percent of House members were not even present for the vote on the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. Additionally, Members of Congress have a responsibility to review bills before they vote, but Speaker Pelosi hurried this bill through, disregarding normal House procedure. [...]

"At a time when government spending is out-of-control this Congress should not have pushed a bill with more than $4 billion in new spending through this lame duck session."

As a matter of fact-checking, it's not the leadership's fault 168 members didn't stick around for the final vote -- their absences are irrelevant to the bill's merit. For that matter, the Zadroga bill had already been voted on the House twice before, so it's not like Bachmann and her cohorts were seeing this for the first time.

But what's really fascinating here is Bachmann's pride in rejecting the funds for 9/11 rescue workers' care. In her mind, spending $4 billion is necessarily bad, because, well, it's spending $4 billion. If there's one expenditure even the most unhinged Republican should be comfortable with, it's care for 9/11 first responders, especially if it doesn't add a penny to the deficit, but by Bachmann's standards, that's just not the case.

What's more, Matt Finkelstein sets the record straight on some of the details Bachmann doesn't quite grasp: "Aside from the obvious problem of misplaced priorities -- she's willing to spend hundreds of billions on tax breaks for top earners, but not $4 billion on health benefits for rescue workers who breathed in toxic fumes at Ground Zero -- Bachmann is confused. The Zadroga Act is 'paid for with a fee on some foreign firms that get U.S. government procurement contracts.' So it's not exactly "new spending," despite what Bachmann says."

Steve Benen 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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IF MORE POLITICAL REPORTERS LIVED IN NEW JERSEY, CHRISTIE WOULD BE FINE.... A few days ago, MSNBC's Joe Scarborough told viewers that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie reduces him "to a 14-year-old girl at a Beatles concert."

This is not an uncommon sentiment among media professionals. For years, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) used to joke that political reporters loved him so much, they were his "base." As McCain descends into ignominy, it appears the media has shifted its affections to Christie.

What's more, many of the governor's media devotees are absolutely convinced that voters love Christie as much as they do.

But that's not the case. National Journal flagged the two latest statewide polls out of the Garden State.

The polls, from Quinnipiac and Rutgers-Eagleton, show Christie's approval rating in New Jersey slipping a bit, with significant majorities skeptical that he'd make a good president or vice-president. The polling shows that Christie is one of the most polarizing governors in recent New Jersey history, with more voters holding both a very favorable view of him and an extremely negative view. [...]

The Quinnipiac survey shows Christie with a 46 percent job approval rating, with 44 percent disapproving. That's down from his 51 percent approval rating last month.... The Rutgers poll found 39 percent giving Christie positive ratings, with 54 percent rating him negatively. The 28 percent of voters who consider his job performance "poor" is the second-highest for any first-year governor in the history of the poll.

Some of this has to do with Christie's deliberately abrasive, confrontational style. It's not uncommon for clips of the governor upbraiding a constituent to generate lots of clicks on YouTube -- they apparently make Scarborough squeal -- and that's not an accident. A gubernatorial aide follows Christie around so these aggressive confrontations can be captured and shared. Christie has an image as a bully, and he likes that image and chooses to cultivate it as much as possible.

But it's not just style. Jonathan Singer noted this week that substance as taken its toll on the governor's standing, too: "Christie presided over an administration that made a mistake costing his state $400 million in federal education money. He has taken further steps to reject federal dollars in a way that killed tens of thousands of jobs. Those aren't popular steps."

This is no doubt shocking to the media professionals who swoon over Christie, but I'm sure they'll get over it. Eventually.

Reader G.S. emailed me the other day with a comparison that's accurate and will likely ring true with football fans: "Chris Christie is the Rex Ryan of politics: a breath of fresh air and good fun for the first 15 minutes, an annoying blowhard ever thereafter, even to his fans once they realized that he actually believed his initial clips."

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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DOING WHAT THEY WERE ELECTED TO DO.... The American Enterprise Institute's Norman Ornstein had a very good piece a while back that characterized the 111th Congress as the most productive in 45 years.

That was in January. In the 11 months since, policymakers have put together a record of success that rivals any two-year stretch in the modern era. NBC's Mark Murray had a good item on this earlier in the week.

With an approval rating in the teens, Congress right now is about as popular as Julian Assange at the State Department's Christmas Party -- or Sarah Palin at The Nation's editorial meeting, or President Obama at a Federalist Society convention.

And, politically, the Democratic-controlled Congress took a beating from voters in November, as Republicans won back control of the House and picked up seats in the Senate.

But lost in the poll numbers and the voters' message in November is this one unmistakable fact: This Congress, which likely will come to a close this week, accomplished more, legislatively, than any other Congress since the 1960s (the Great Society) or the 1930s (the New Deal).

Ornstein noted yesterday, "This is the most dysfunctional political environment that I have ever seen. But then you have to juxtapose that with [this Congress being] one of, at least, the three most productive Congresses" since 1900. He added that the 111th "edges the Great Society" in terms of accomplishments.

I'm aware of the fact that this record hasn't exactly impressed voters, many of whom don't even realize that this two-year stretch was productive at all. A weak economy, stunted discourse, and partisan enthusiasm gap contributed to massive GOP electoral gains, Dems' dramatic accomplishments notwithstanding.

But the historic record is nevertheless undeniable. It's hard to even know where to start.

We are, after all, talking about a two-year span in which Democratic policymakers approved the Affordable Care Act, the Recovery Act, Wall Street reform and a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, student loan reform, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal, a critically important nuclear arms treaty with Russia, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the biggest overhaul of our food-safety laws in 70 years, new regulation of the credit card industry, new regulation of the tobacco industry, a national service bill, expanded stem-cell research, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, net neutrality, the most sweeping land-protection act in 15 years, health care for 9/11 rescue workers, and some other accomplishments I'm probably forgetting*.

All of this was accomplished in the midst of multiple crises here and around the world, and for the first time in American history, with mandatory supermajorities in the U.S. Senate. And don't get me started on the disaster Dems inherited -- Great Recession, two deadly wars, a jobs crisis, a massive deficit and budget mess, crushing debt, etc. -- after the spectacular Republican failures of the Bush/Cheney era.

Some of the recent victories have been decades in the making -- in the case of health care reform, politicians have been talking about a major overhaul for a full century -- but it took this Congress and this president to get it done.

To be sure, the "season of progress," as President Obama called it yesterday, is over. A new Congress will begin next month, with what will likely be the most reactionary right-wing House majority in the modern political era. If you're not expecting bitter ugliness, you're probably not paying attention.

Still, the Congress that wrapped up its work yesterday was truly remarkable. Something Rachel Maddow said last month continues to ring true: "Democrats had a choice when they became the governing party. When they won those last two elections and they took control of the two branches of government that are subject to partisan control in our country, they could have governed in a way that was about accumulating political capital with the primary goal of winning the next election. They could have governed in constant campaign mode. Or they could have governed in a way that was about using their political capital, not accumulating more of it, about spending the political capital they had to get a legislative agenda done, to tackle big, complex, longstanding problems that had languished."

Democrats paid a high price, but they chose wisely.

* Update: As various readers have reminded me, I forgot the child-nutrition bill, expanded S-CHIP, and the confirmation of two Supreme Court justices.

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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DON'T LET SOME SUCCESSES FOOL YOU.... The 111th Congress racked up an extraordinary record of success, despite levels of obstructionism unseen in American history. But the observation might seem self-defeating -- doesn't the former negate the latter? If Congress could pass so many historic, breakthrough bills, maybe Senate obstructionism isn't such a big deal?

Don't let recent successes fool you. Alex Pareene had a good item on this earlier.

Even this successful-looking lame duck demonstrated how difficult it's become to do the simplest things in the world's most deliberative body. The Senate had to pass the food safety bill multiple times, because of procedural screw-ups. The 9/11 bill shrunk -- after it "failed" a vote by receiving more than 50 but fewer than 60 votes -- because one cranky senator threatened to single-handedly delay another vote until after Christmas.

The Senate just gave up on slightly difficult but necessary things, like the DREAM Act and the appropriations bill. The failure of the omnibus spending bill will have major repercussions. It means that the government can't actually act on the wonderful progressive things the Senate passed earlier this year, like healthcare reform and financial regulation. If Dodd-Frank can't be implemented, does it even matter? And the Democrats failed to even come close to passing a budget while they still controlled both houses.

Sure, the Senate approved 19 judges. 19 out of 38 pending nominations. One confirmed judge had been awaiting confirmation since January. And as part of the "deal" between Democrats and Republicans, Democrats won't even seek votes on four other pending judges. (This is the point where liberal bloggers all reminisce about the days of "straight up-or-down votes.") After two years, Obama has managed get 60 judges confirmed, which is an absurdly low number, especially for a president whose party "controls" the Senate.

Meanwhile, we've got no climate bill, no immigration reform, no budget, and no hope of improving, rather than dismantling, the healthcare reform law. This was the dying breath of a sick Congress.

Obviously, the lame-duck session exceeded expectations, and was, by some measures, extraordinary. But Pareene is right about how it could have been even better, and would have been were it not for pointless procedural hurdles.

I'd add for context that for much of the 111th Congress, the majority party had 59 votes -- a very high number by historical standards -- and still couldn't even bring up some key legislation that enjoyed majority support. This is important precisely because 59-member majorities are so rare -- we can't have a Senate that fails to function when one party "only" has a narrow majority, since one party nearly always has a narrow majority.

In other words, it might well be a generation until a Senate majority is as large as the one we see now. Will we have to wait that long until the chamber can vote up or down on important legislation?

Abuse of existing rules has not only made the Senate ridiculous, it's literally undermined the strength of the American political system. I'm thrilled the 111th Congress was able to do all that it did, but (a) these victories would have been even better if the chamber operated on majority rule; (b) there would have been more success stories if the chamber operated on majority rule; and (c) the accomplishments shouldn't mask a dramatic and systemic flaw, brought on by abuses with no precedent in American history.

With that in mind, the need for reform is overwhelming. Greg Sargent reports today that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is "in active discussions with his caucus about moving forward with reform in the new year." That's a very encouraging step in the right direction.

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

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

* The Alaska Supreme Court is the latest court to smack down Joe Miller's (R) challenge to Sen. Lisa Murkowski's (R) write-in victory. Miller doesn't seem to have any options, but he still hasn't conceded, and says he's still considering what to do next.

* On a related note, Dave Weigel takes a closer look at the state Supreme Court's ruling, and notes that the judges seemed to consider Miller's arguments almost laughable.

* We noted last week that Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) intends to meet with DSCC chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) about the 2012 cycle. Yesterday, however, Lieberman went a little further, telling TPM, "Some of my colleagues in the Democratic caucus have been very gracious and kind saying they hope I run as a Democrat. Patty and I said we'd talk sometime early in the New Year."

* The Republican-focused Hispanic Leadership Network will host a conference in Miami next month, and organizers invited every GOP official who's hinted at interest in the 2012 presidential race. The only candidate to accept was Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty; the rest blew off the invitations.

* The results come from a Republican pollster, so take the numbers with a grain of salt, but a poll from Magellan Data and Mapping Strategies in Nebraska shows only 29% of the state's voters want to re-elect Sen. Ben Nelson (D). In a match-up against state Attorney General Jon Bruning (R), Nelson trailed by 14 points, 52% to 38%.

* And Public Policy Polling's latest survey in North Carolina shows President Obama improving his standing in the state. After winning North Carolina in 2008, Obama now leads all of his likely GOP challengers except Mike Huckabee, who leads the president by one point.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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HAVE I GOT A GIFT IDEA FOR YOU.... It's Dec. 23, which is pretty late in the game for last-minute Christmas shopping. You could rush out and deal with crowded malls and overworked post offices, and hope for the best, or you could a gift that they're sure to like: a gift subscription to the Washington Monthly.

If you're a regular reader of the print edition, you know that the Washington Monthly offers cutting-edge reporting and analysis, breaking big stories well ahead of major mainstream outlets.

I'm reminded of this recent piece from the Monthly's editor-in-chief, Paul Glastris.

The Monthly has long made a habit of publishing stories that were months or even years ahead of the news, usually for the purpose of sounding alarms about unrecognized problems -- alarms which often turned out to be well worth heeding.

A few examples: In 1980, Gregg Easterbrook wrote a cover story explaining that the space shuttle, then under construction, had so many problems -- especially its solid rocket boosters and heat-shielding tiles -- that it risked being destroyed in flight. Which, alas, happened in 1986 and then again in 2003, for precisely the reasons Easterbrook foresaw. In March of 2003, Nicholas Confessore predicted, rightly, that the imminent U.S. invasion of Iraq would undermine the readiness of our already-overstretched all-volunteer army and lead to falling reenlistments and crushingly burdensome redeployments. A year later, Benjamin Wallace-Wells looked at the supercharged real estate market, the Fed's loose money policy, and Alan Greenspan's odd pronouncements about the splendors of adjustable rate mortgages, and predicted that the housing bubble "is likely to burst, and when it does it may very well take the American economy down with it."

Remember Geoff Earle's prescient 2005 piece on the shallowness of Sen. Lindsey Graham's (R-S.C.) alleged bipartisanship? How about Josh Green's influential expose on mismanagement of the National Mall? Or Amy Sullivan's powerful indictment against the political consultant racket? Or Phillip Longman's prescient 2009 article predicting the success of the auto industry bailout?

I've been reading the print edition since college, and would gladly endorse it, even if I didn't work here. If you're looking for a last-minute gift for the holidays, a gift subscription to the Washington Monthly is a great choice.

The first gift subscription is only $26, and each additional gift subscription is $20. To place the order, call toll-free 1-888-238-0047.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (3)

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WHY MCCONNELL DOESN'T BOTHER WITH PRETENSE.... There's something to be said for candor. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said this week that he has every intention of taking the unprecedented obstructionism of recent years and making it even worse next year.

This is the latest in a streak, of sorts. The comments come on the heels of McConnell admitting that destroying the Obama presidency is his top priority; he'll only consider negotiating with the White House if they agree to give him everything he wants; and he demands unanimous GOP opposition to everything as a way of making ideas unpopular.

While none of this is surprising anymore, there is a certain oddity to the candor -- political leaders rarely ever talk this way. Traditionally, Americans have come to expect those in leadership positions to at least pay lip-service to finding common ground, working constructively with those they disagree with; being open-minded and respectful of rivals' ideas; etc.

McConnell just doesn't bother with any of this. Ezra Klein had a good item the other day exploring various explanations as to why the senator just doesn't seem to give a damn.

1) The Mr. Smith flicks off Washington theory: McConnell himself is a hardcore partisan who truly dislikes Obama. The guy says this stuff because he's an uncommonly honest politician.

2) Jon Chait's theory: McConnell is worried about the tea parties, both in Kentucky, where they knocked off his favored candidate in a primary, and nationally. This is how he stays ahead of them.

3) The DeMint theory: The common take on McConnell on the Hill is that he's terrified of Jim DeMint's growing influence among Republican legislators. McConnell can't out-conservative DeMint -- in part because he's simply not conservative in the way DeMint is, and in part because, as leader, he'll have to sign onto compromises that DeMint will never support -- so he's trying to out-partisan him, with the central insight being that most conservatives are bigger partisans than they are ideologues.

4) The negotiator's theory: McConnell is a creature of the Senate. He makes deals. The tax deal, for instance, was McConnell's. So he repeats these comments for two reasons: First, to show the White House that he's not a pushover, and is not impressed by them and should not be taken lightly. And second, to underscore his partisan credibility so that when he does cut deals with the White House, he has the conservative capital necessary to sell them as something other than capitulations to Obama.

5) He's communicating with his members and allies: Senate Republicans will remain in the minority next year, and so McConnell's job in 2011 will be the same as his job in 2010: Keep everyone together on procedural votes so Democrats can't move their agenda forward. McConnell is giving these quotes to Beltway publications like the National Journal and Politico, which are best understood as message boards where the professional political class talks to itself. By making his intentions public in these forums, McConnell is letting his members -- not to mention allied lobbyists, advocacy groups, etc -- know how seriously he's going to take party loyalty over the next two years.

I think there's quite a bit of truth to all of these, but I'd mention a sixth: McConnell knows he can get away with obstinacy because he always has.

When McConnell first started being candid about his reflexive, mindless, knee-jerk partisanship, he faced almost no pushback. If there'd been a major controversy, and the media had helped push him into a corner, McConnell would likely be more cautious about speaking his mind.

But that's not what's happened at all. McConnell is as rigid as he wants to be in large part because he pays no price for sentiments that should be scandalous but aren't -- the media doesn't care, the public doesn't seem surprised, Dems can't make hay of it, and his caucus rewards him.

In other words, McConnell does this because he can, and there's no reason to think that's going to change.

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THE POLITICS OF SPITE.... Over the course of two years, a wide variety of Senate Republicans were willing to break ranks and support key items on President Obama's agenda. "Maverick" John McCain (R-Ariz.) wasn't one of them -- he opposed the White House's position on literally every controversial vote.

It's tough picking the worst moment. Was it his loathsome antics during the fight over DADT repeal? How about his willingness to blow off his own party's foreign policy establishment and flip-flop on New START ratification?

There's a strong case to be made for his actions on the DREAM Act. (via John Cole)

McCain also voted no Saturday on the Dream Act, which would have granted citizenship to thousands of foreign-born college students. He initially sponsored the legislation. [...]

[Grant Woods, an old friend who has known McCain for 28 years and was his first chief of staff] said "it hurts" McCain to vote against legislation like the Dream Act after years of working on reform but said the senator felt betrayed when Latinos overwhelmingly supported Obama in 2008. "When you carry that fight at great sacrifice year after year and then you are abandoned during the biggest fight of your life, it has to have some sort of effect on you," he said.

At face value, this is pretty awful, at least in a moral sense. McCain opposed a bill related to basic decency, which he championed for years, because Latino voters hurt his feelings? That's a reasonable rationale for punishing thousands of kids?

But if we put that aside, there's another problem -- the timeline doesn't add up.

To hear McCain's long-time ally explain it, McCain turned on immigration-reform advocates after they voted for President Obama in 2008. But that's not what happened in reality. During the Republican primaries, as part of McCain shift to the hard-right in order to win the GOP nomination, McCain announced he'd rejected his own immigration reform bill, and declared his opposition to the DREAM Act he had co-sponsored.

In other words, McCain had invested time, energy, and political capital into doing the right thing on immigration policy, and threw it all away to have a shot at the presidency. Hispanic voters noticed, and decided they needed a consistent ally, not someone who'd abandon them for political expediency. They voted against him in large numbers precisely because he'd already abandoned them.

McCain feels "betrayed"? That's backwards.

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THE MISGUIDED NET NEUTRALITY FREAK-OUT.... There have been some pretty significant breakthroughs among federal policymakers over the last week, but one appears to have been largely lost in the shuffle is net neutrality.

As you may have heard -- or perhaps not, given all of the other developments of late -- the Federal Communications Commission approved a net neutrality measure after more than a year of deliberations. It was the first Internet regulation ever endorsed by FCC members, and is intended to ensure "unimpeded access to any legal Web content for home Internet users."

For some in the online community, the advance was a disappointment -- many net neutrality proponents hoped to see the FCC go much further. But George Zornick noted yesterday that the apoplexy on the right is just bizarre.

[Tuesday], the Federal Communications Commission passed "network neutrality" regulations, which aim to ensure equal access to all legal Internet content. Service providers will not be allowed to block rival services, nor will they be able to divide traffic to certain sites into fast and slow lanes, thus giving priority to preferred web content providers. The new regulations are still opposed by many open internet groups for not going far enough, and came after years of debate and millions of dollars of lobbying.

The announcement of a new federal regulation prompted a characteristic outburst from conservative leaders, who have consistently fear-mongered against net neutrality regulations as an evil progressive scheme to control the Internet. On the Senate floor, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) accused the Obama administration of trying to "nationalize" and "control" the Internet; radio host Rush Limbaugh also said Obama just took over the Internet (at the behest of George Soros, of course) and suggested Hugo Chavez would be jealous.

I suppose it's possible that these Republicans are just deeply confused, have absolutely no idea what net neutrality is, and are spewing nonsense just to rile up right-wing activists. It's also possible these Republicans know the truth, but are shamelessly lying as part of a larger campaign to scare unsuspecting conservatives about a "big government" bogeyman.

But it's worth appreciating the fact that the rhetoric from prominent GOP voices really is unhinged. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) insisted that "unelected, unaccountable Democrat [sic] FCC commissioners are taking over the Internet." Incoming House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called the policy "another government takeover." Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) told a national television audience yesterday, "[W]e're starting to see the FCC say, 'You have to come to us to get permission to manage your own website.'"

The incoming chairman of the House Commerce Committee, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), has even vowed extensive hearings, in the hopes of using "every resource available" to halt the new regulations.

This is a classic case of the Republican position having absolutely no relation to reality at any level. It's just crazy. These folks are either lying or ignorant -- those are the only two options. The irony is, the whole point of net neutrality is to protect consumers from the very restrictions Republicans are whining about. The far-right rhetoric isn't just wrong; it's the opposite of the truth.

Jamelle Bouie argued, "At this point, most conservatives are reflexively anti-liberal. If liberals like something, then conservatives will find a reason to hate it, even when the rationale is absurd. In this case, conservatives should want to maintain a free and open internet, but since both are associated with liberals, they don't."

This clearly has a lot of merit. I'd add, however, that massive checks from telecommunications companies to Republican candidates also helps "persuade" GOP policymakers.

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

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THE DRIVE FOR SENATE REFORM PICKS UP STEAM.... For quite a while, senators hoping to change their dysfunctional institution have generally been part of a small, almost quixotic, group. The issue of reforming the Senate's easily-abused, often-archaic rules just hasn't been high-profile enough to generate widespread enthusiasm.

But the salience of Senate reform appears to be growing. This week's developments within the Democratic caucus were a huge step in the right direction.

All Democratic senators returning next year have signed a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., urging him to consider action to change long-sacrosanct filibuster rules.

The letter, delivered this week, expresses general frustration with what Democrats consider unprecedented obstruction and asks Reid to take steps to end those abuses. While it does not urge a specific solution, Democrats said it demonstrates increased backing in the majority for a proposal, championed by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and others, weaken the minority's ability to tie the Senate calendar into parliamentary knots.

Among the chief revisions that Democrats say will likely be offered: Senators could not initiate a filibuster of a bill before it reaches the floor unless they first muster 40 votes for it, and they would have to remain on the floor to sustain it. That is a change from current rules, which require the majority leader to file a cloture motion to overcome an anonymous objection to a motion to proceed, and then wait 30 hours for a vote on it.

The only Democratic senator to withhold his signature from the letter was Connecticut's Chris Dodd, who isn't coming back next year anyway.

The unanimity matters a great deal. There have been a handful of senators working behind the scenes on reform efforts for months, with the bulk of the work being done by newer, younger members like Merkley, Udall, Bennet, Warner, and McCaskill. (The exception is Iowa's Tom Harkin, who's been a leader on this for many years.)

But this week's letter was signed by every Dem who's returning for the 112th Congress. It suggests the unprecedented obstructionism from Republicans in recent years has made it overwhelmingly clear -- this isn't how the Senate used to work, this isn't how the Senate was designed to work, and this isn't how the Senate should be expected to work.

Obviously, the details of reform make all the difference, and there's no real agreement, even among Dems, about exactly which reforms to push. It's also not clear how Democrats would pursue potential changes procedurally.

Still, it's encouraging that the issue is generating some momentum going into the new year. At least in theory, the larger dynamic might even make Republicans more amenable to change -- even if Dems found it easier to pass bills next year, there's still a very right-wing House to block measures the GOP doesn't like. And since Republicans hope/expect to win back the Senate in 2013 anyway, this may be a unique moment for bipartisan progress.

Post script: Chris Hayes had a good item on this yesterday, noting, among other things, that earlier this week, former Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Gary Hart (D-Colo.) issued a bipartisan call for rules reform. "The most important vote of the 112th Senate will likely be its first," Chris concluded.

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THE ZADROGA WIN COMES AT A PRICE.... That the Zadroga 9/11 health bill was even in doubt continues to amaze me. First responders and rescue workers from 9/11 got sick from breathing in toxic air, and congressional Republicans didn't want to help them with medical care? Are you kidding me?

What's worse, GOP opponents couldn't even come up with a compelling reason for their position. They came up with a variety of half-hearted arguments, all of which were either patently false, utterly ridiculous, or both. In some cases, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) resorted to just making up nonsense, hoping no one would know the difference.

Even yesterday, when the legislation passed both chambers, 60 House conservatives -- 59 Republicans and a Blue Dog from Mississippi -- still voted against it. This from a gang that didn't hesitate to fight tooth and nail for hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts.

Nevertheless, success felt good. I just wish it hadn't come at such a high price.

After years of fierce lobbying and debate, Congress approved a bill on Wednesday to cover the cost of medical care for rescue workers and others who became sick from toxic fumes, dust and smoke after the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. The $4.3 billion bill cleared its biggest hurdle early in the afternoon when the Senate unexpectedly approved it just 12 days after Republican senators had blocked a more expensive House version from coming to the floor of the Senate for a vote. [...]

After the Senate vote, a celebration broke out in a room in the Capitol that was packed with emergency workers and 9/11 families, as well as the two senators from New York, Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand, and the two senators from New Jersey, Frank R. Lautenberg and Robert Menendez. The senators, all Democrats, were greeted with a huge ovation and repeated chants of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!"

To be sure, I'm thrilled with passage, and I applaud those who helped make it happen. "This compromise isn't everything we wanted," Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), a chief sponsor of the legislation, said. "But in the end we got a strong program that will save lives."

That's entirely right, and to a very extent, it's what matters most.

But let's not forget what Senate Republicans demanded to get the bill through the chamber: a considerably weaker bill. The price tag is down to just $4.2 billion, and the life of the program is now five years instead of 10.

As Jonathan Zasloff noted, "Does that matter? I would think so: a chronic illness doesn't stop after five years because the federal funding runs out.... Hopefully, this does not harm any of the first responders who risked themselves for his freedom. But just remember this the next time Republicans tell you how much they care about national security."

Also remember this because, in five years, it's fairly likely policymakers will have to return to the subject.

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

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December 22, 2010

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

* Most of the chamber's Republicans had already left for their home districts, but the House passed the Zadroga 9/11 health bill. Around the same time, the Senate approved some more judicial nominees, and agreed to adjourn for the year.

* The defense authorization bill cleared both chambers this afternoon and is on its way to the president's desk. The House also approved the Senate's version of the food-safety bill, and that will await President Obama's signature, too.

* Third quarter GDP growth was just a little better than previously estimated.

* Gitmo: "President Obama's advisers have been drafting an executive order that would set up a system for periodically reviewing the cases of Guantanamo prisoners whom courts have approved for detention without trial, officials said."

* Adam Serwer scrutinizes the Gitmo plan, and concludes it's not at all encouraging -- though it's still preferable to Bush's policy.

* The Obama administration's next step in looking out for health care consumers: "In a move to protect consumers, the Obama administration said Tuesday that it would require health insurance companies to disclose and justify any rate increases of 10 percent or more next year." (It's the subject of the latest episode of the White House White Board -- and yes, I really do love the White House White Board.)

* More of this, please: "The Obama administration is expected to roll out a major greenhouse gas policy for power plants and refineries as soon as Wednesday, signaling it won't back off its push to fight climate change in the face of mounting opposition on Capitol Hill."

* It would have been entirely understandable for Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), still recovering from surgery for prostate cancer, to not come to work today. He showed up anyway. Good for him.

* When banks break into families' homes and steal their belongings, that's not O.K.

* This doesn't exactly inspire confidence in Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

* One more addition to the list of lame-duck successes: the Shark Conservation Act.

* Fresh off his DADT victory, the president reemphasizes his support for passing ENDA and repealing DOMA.

* A strong column from Dana Milbank on the GOP contingent that makes up "the Petulant Party."

* Kaplan has a very bad week.

* Rick Perlstein considers what Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's (R) "amnesia" tells us.

* On a related note, Fox tried desperately to cover for Barbour, but failed in humiliating fashion.

* In still more Fox-related news, describing Elie Wiesel as a "Holocaust Winner" is probably the most spectacular chyron fail of all time.

* And finally, a reminder to conservative media types: taking on Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) is generally a very bad idea. He's much smarter than you, and he doesn't mind making you look foolish.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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DAN CHOI GETS HIS RING BACK.... In July, there was a striking moment at the Netroots Nation conference. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) personally pledged to Lt. Dan Choi that he would work to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the policy that led to Choi's discharge.

At the time, Reid accepted Choi's West Point ring, but promised to give it back. "When the bill's signed, I'll keep it safely and then give it back to him," the senator said.

At an event in Reid's office this afternoon, Reid kept his promise and returned the ring to its rightful owner.


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PASSING A TEST OF THE PRESIDENT'S METTLE.... As expected, the Senate approved New START this afternoon by a wide margin. With the process coming to an end, it's worth pausing to appreciate the larger context, and the extent to which far-right Republicans screwed this up.

By any reasonable measure, this is a major victory for President Obama, who made little secret of the fact he considered the treaty his top priority for the lame-duck session.

But let's not forget that Republican opponents of New START, following an incoherent strategy, ended up making this an even bigger win for Obama than it otherwise would have been. Adam Serwer had a great item on this yesterday, which rings true.

Early in the Obama administration, Senate Republicans settled on a strategy of total procedural obstruction.... The problem is, the New START treaty is about as controversial as a tuna salad sandwich. Not only has the current military leadership and every living Republican Secretary of State endorsed it, but former Republican national security stalwarts such as Brent Scowcroft are "baffled" by the GOP's decision to obstruct ratification. New START is also popular -- a CNN poll from November shows three quarters of Americans support ratifying the treaty.

If New START is ratified, the only reason it'll be considered an Obama victory is because Republicans decided to oppose it without any real reason for doing so. If the Senate had simply ratified the treaty without any fuss, Obama might have gotten a few days of positive press, but it wouldn't have been treated as a major political success. Because Senate Republicans turned ratification into a huge partisan brawl, a Democratic president renewing an agreement with Russia designed by Republican presidents now looks like a massive victory for the administration.

Exactly. New START, which could have very well been negotiated by Reagan himself, builds on the kind of counter-proliferation policy that's enjoyed broad international support for a generation. Had Republicans treated this the way previous Senates had -- which is to say, ratified it fairly quickly with overwhelming support -- the political world have barely have blinked an eye.

But Republicans instead decided to turn this into a defining presidential test, and a challenge to Obama's mettle as a world leader. Left with no choice, Obama fought back as hard as he could, rallying support from the Pentagon and Joint Chiefs, foreign leaders from around the globe, eight former secretaries of state from both parties, five former secretaries of defense from both parties, seven former Strategic Command chiefs, national security advisers from both parties, nearly all former commanders of U.S. nuclear forces -- even a former Republican president (H.W. Bush). The president put the full weight of his administration behind this, to ensure success.

And it worked. The result is a victory for the White House that's even more significant than if the GOP hadn't needlessly picked a misguided fight.

As Fred Kaplan noted yesterday, "[T]he Republican leadership made this a purely political battle and -- fresh off what had seemed a triumphant election season -- suffered an astonishingly egregious defeat."

There's no denying how significant Republican gains were in the midterms, and the leverage the GOP will try to exploit in the next Congress. But it's President Obama who's ending 2010 on a winning streak, looking stronger than at any point in quite a while.

Steve Benen 3:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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SENATE APPROVES NEW START, 71 TO 26.... After the cloture vote garnered 67 votes yesterday, the question wasn't whether the pending nuclear arms treaty, New START, would get the necessary support, but whether ratification would top 70 votes.

It did. The Senate just concluded its final vote on the treaty, and a 71-member bipartisan majority approved New START. There were 26 opponents, all of whom were Republicans. The minority included Sens. McCain, Graham, and Hatch, all of whom had previously expressed support for the measure.

More soon.

Update: Democrats, at the outset, needed nine GOP votes to ratify. As of the weekend, there were seven. Today, there were 13 Republican votes.

Yesterday, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said yesterday, "In today's Senate, 70 votes is yesterday's 95." That strikes me as entirely accurate.

The 13 Republicans who backed the treaty: Alexander (Tenn.), Bennett (Utah), Brown (Mass.), Corker (Tenn.), Cochran (Miss.), Collins (Maine), Gregg (N.H.), Isakson (Ga.), Johanns (Neb.), Lugar (Ind.), Murkowski (Alaska), Snowe (Maine), and Voinovich (Ohio). Of these, arguably the biggest surprise is Johanns, who had not indicated support before today.

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MAYBE GIBBS WAS RIGHT AFTER ALL.... Almost exactly three weeks ago, there was a slightly awkward exchange in the White House briefing room. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was sounding optimistic about the agenda for the lame-duck session, and ABC's Jake Tapper expressed his skepticism.

TAPPER: So just to put a period on this, the president thinks that funding the government, passing unemployment-insurance extensions "don't ask, don't tell" repeal, the DREAM Act, tax cuts and START all can be done?

GIBBS: Yes.

TAPPER: In the next 18 days?

GIBBS: Yes.

TAPPER: Good luck.

GIBBS: Yes. Well, thank you. (Laughter.) Yeah, you'll have a lot to cover.

In Tapper's defense, it's been 22 days, not 18.

But since that's awfully close, CNN's Paul Steinhauser notes today that Gibbs' confidence actually stands up pretty well with the benefit of hindsight.

Indeed, it's not quite finished yet, but has anyone ever seen such a prolific lame-duck session? Let's see, there's the tax deal, DADT repeal, New START, the most sweeping food-safety bill in 70 years, the Zadroga 9/11 health bill, the defense authorization bill, more than a few judicial nominee confirmations, and probably some other stuff I'm forgetting.

Obviously, there were serious setbacks. The DREAM Act deserved an up-or-down vote, but fell to a Republican filibuster, and the failure of the omnibus was bad news.

But the victories in December are extremely important, and in some cases, even historic. After the midterms, the conventional wisdom was that President Obama was severely weakened, and shouldn't expect to pass anything else on his to-do list for the rest of his term. Obviously, the rules of the game will change dramatically with the start of the new Congress, but after this lame-duck session, the president actually appears stronger now than he did before the election.

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DEAL STRUCK ON 9/11 HEALTH BILL, SENATE PASSAGE VERY LIKELY.... Key players in the Senate debated privately for hours last night, trying to work out a deal on the 9/11 health bill. As of this morning, the fate of the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which would pay health care costs for 9/11 rescue workers, sickened after exposure to toxic smoke and debris, was still in doubt.

The votes appeared to be in place to overcome a Republican filibuster, but in the interests of time, the Senate was seeking unanimous consent. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) refused to go along.

As of this afternoon, the New York Daily News, which has done fantastic work covering the issue, reports that a deal appears to have been struck that will allow for final passage.

Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand met with other senators' staffers and aides to Rep. Carolyn Maloney's office until well after midnight to cut a new deal on a measure to aid ailing 9/11 responders.

The agreement trims the cost of the package to $4.3 billion, sources close to the deal said.

The proposal had initially cost $7.4 billion, and had been trimmed earlier this week to $6.2 billion.

Senators reached a final agreement on the proposal at about 11:30 Wednesday morning after the New York Democrats met for an hour with the prime GOP opponents, Sens. Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

The Senate leadership has reportedly signed off on the agreement, and expects to pass the bill this afternoon. Greg Sargent and ABC's Rick Klein are hearing the same thing.

If all goes according to plan -- and at this point, it should -- this should clear quite a few things up. Not only will 9/11 heroes be able to get much-needed medical care, but New START ratification can proceed this afternoon, too. The House, which has been cooling its heels waiting for the Zadroga bill, should be able to pass this with relative ease -- more than 90% of House Republicans opposed it when it initially passed the chamber, but given recent developments, and unanimous Senate support, it stands to reason they'll be more supportive later today.

As for the substantive changes, there's a real concern that reducing the cost of the package to $4.3 billion, from $7.4 billion, will undercut the amount of care available, and the number of rescue workers who'll be eligible. It's possible, then, that the next Congress will have to revisit this issue in the future.

In the meantime, Democratic negotiators very likely concluded that $4.3 billion is far better than zero. For those sick first responders and their families, this is still excellent news.

Update: At 2:31 p.m., the Senate unanimously approved the 9/11 health bill. The House is expected to act within two hours.

Steve Benen 1:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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OPPOSING JUDICIAL NOMINEES AT THE GENETIC LEVEL.... The great irony of the partisan fight over judicial nominees is that President Obama was absolutely committed to avoiding it.

Just two months into the Obama presidency, the White House nominated David Hamilton, a moderate, to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. He'd previously won bipartisan praise, officials freely admitted that the selection was intended to send a signal that the process of filling vacancies need not be contentious. "We would like to put the history of the confirmation wars behind us," a White House aide said at the time.

As is usually the case when one counts on congressional Republicans to appreciate gestures of goodwill, this effort failed miserably. GOP senators not only filibustered Hamilton, but also blocked the entire process of filling judicial vacancies to a point unseen in American history. Obama, in the spirit of bipartisanship, tried to end the confirmation wars. Simultaneously, Republicans preferred a surge.

There's been some movement of late, but the obstructionism on this has been extraordinary. One of the lead Republican crusaders on this took some time yesterday to explain why.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) railed against President Barack Obama's nominees to the federal bench on Tuesday afternoon, complaining that Obama was only nominating individuals with "ACLU DNA" and rattling off a list of potential judges who are now or have ever been a member of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"I'm sure that less than one percent of the lawyers in America are members of the ACLU," Sessions said. "It seems if you have the ACLU DNA, you get a pretty good leg up to being nominated by this president." [...]

"It's clear that the president, our president, an activist -- a community activist, a liberal progressive as his friends have described him, and former law professor, is attempting to pack the courts who share his views and who will promote his vision of what, as he has said about judges, what America should be," Sessions said.

"I do believe the administration needs to understand that this is going to be a more contentious matter if we keep seeing the ACLU chromosome as part of this process," Sessions said.

How many of Obama's judicial nominees have any background with the ACLU? Sessions didn't say. Do any have any formal connections with the ACLU? Sessions didn't say. What's wrong, exactly, with a group committed to protecting American civil liberties? Sessions didn't say.

But Sessions thinks some of these would-be judges might have been nominated because of agreements with the ACLU at a genetic level, and that's good enough reason to him to create a genuine vacancy crisis in the federal courts, which is seriously undermining the ability of the legal system to function effectively.

Sessions didn't use to think this way. Just a few years ago, when there were delays on Bush's judicial nominees, the crypto-segregationist Alabama senator said denying jurists an up-or-down vote was an American tragedy, inconsistent with a process that has been in place "since the founding of the republic."

I guess he's changed his mind.

But there's a related point Sessions ought to keep in mind: he has the ability to vote against judges he doesn't like. Regrettably, he doesn't think that's good enough, and insists on ensuring that these nominees aren't able to get a vote at all.

I suspect when there's a Republican president, and Democrats are noting the problems with nominees with "Federalist Society DNA," Sessions will magically reverse course once again.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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

* Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) had hoped to get a ruling from the state Supreme Court to rule so that her re-election win could be certified. That now appears unlikely.

* The latest census numbers clearly give some additional power to traditionally "red" states, but Christopher Beam emphasizes the bigger picture: "When we talk about population growth in the United States, we're almost invariably talking about a group that votes Democratic."

* In Florida, a new survey from Public Policy Polling shows incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D) with solid leads over his potential GOP challengers in 2012, with margins ranging from 8 to 16 points. The exception, however, is former Gov. Jeb Bush (R), who leads Nelson in a hypothetical match-up, 49% to 44%.

* On a related note, PPP also found President Obama leading the Republican field in the Sunshine State, though by modest margins. Obama fares worst against Mitt Romney, who trails by two in a hypothetical match-up, and fares best against Sarah Palin, who's behind by 14 points.

* In Indiana, Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman (R) announced this week she would not run for governor in 2012, increasing speculation about Rep. Mike Pence's (R) possible entry into the race.

* Charlie Baker (R) just lost Massachusetts' gubernatorial race last month, but he's already being pressured to try again in 2014. Both the chair of Massachusetts Republican Party and the state House Minority Leader are urging Baker to give it another shot, perhaps reflecting the weakness of the GOP bench in the Bay State.

* For the record, I continue to find any speculation about another Rudy Giuliani (R) presidential campaign to be hopelessly silly.

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

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HAVE I GOT A GIFT IDEA FOR YOU.... It's Dec. 22, which is pretty late in the game for last-minute Christmas shopping. You could rush out and deal with crowded malls and overworked post offices, and hope for the best, or you could a gift that they're sure to like: a gift subscription to the Washington Monthly.

If you're a regular reader of the print edition, you know that the Washington Monthly offers cutting-edge reporting and analysis, breaking big stories well ahead of major mainstream outlets.

I'm reminded of this recent piece from the Monthly's editor-in-chief, Paul Glastris.

The Monthly has long made a habit of publishing stories that were months or even years ahead of the news, usually for the purpose of sounding alarms about unrecognized problems -- alarms which often turned out to be well worth heeding.

A few examples: In 1980, Gregg Easterbrook wrote a cover story explaining that the space shuttle, then under construction, had so many problems -- especially its solid rocket boosters and heat-shielding tiles -- that it risked being destroyed in flight. Which, alas, happened in 1986 and then again in 2003, for precisely the reasons Easterbrook foresaw. In March of 2003, Nicholas Confessore predicted, rightly, that the imminent U.S. invasion of Iraq would undermine the readiness of our already-overstretched all-volunteer army and lead to falling reenlistments and crushingly burdensome redeployments. A year later, Benjamin Wallace-Wells looked at the supercharged real estate market, the Fed's loose money policy, and Alan Greenspan's odd pronouncements about the splendors of adjustable rate mortgages, and predicted that the housing bubble "is likely to burst, and when it does it may very well take the American economy down with it."

Remember Phil Longman's legendary piece on the VA's turn-around? Or Nick Confessore's breakthrough piece on the Republicans' K Street Project? Or how about James Verini's blockbuster on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce from earlier this year? This is the kind of journalism readers find in every issue.

I've been reading the print edition since college, and would gladly endorse it, even if I didn't work here. If you're looking for a last-minute gift for the holidays, a gift subscription to the Washington Monthly is a great choice.

The first gift subscription is only $26, and each additional gift subscription is $20. To place the order, call toll-free 1-888-238-0047.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (3)

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'THE RIGHT THING TO DO, PERIOD'.... Given the legislative developments from the weekend, I've already written at some length about the historic breakthrough of repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and the groups, leaders, policymakers, and activists who this landmark civil rights achievement possible.

But I'd be remiss if I didn't note the inspiring signing ceremony held at the White House this morning, the video of which I've embedded here.

For those who can't watch clips from your work computers, President Obama noted before signing the bill, "No longer will our country be denied the service of thousands of patriotic Americans who are forced to leave the military -- regardless of their skills, no matter their bravery or their zeal, no matter their years of exemplary performance -- because they happen to be gay. No longer will tens of thousands of Americans in uniform be asked to live a lie, or look over their shoulder in order to serve the country that they love."

He added that he believes "this is the right thing to do for our military. That's why I believe it is the right thing to do, period."

The president noted that a transition phase will begin, and has already talked with each of the service chiefs, all of whom are "committed to implementing this change swiftly and efficiently." Obama went on to vow, "We are not going to be dragging our feet to get this done."

Of particular interest, clearing up a lingering question, the president also said this morning that he hopes U.S. troops who were discharged under the DADT policy will re-enlist.

At the outset, Obama told an enthusiastic audience, "This is a good day." I couldn't agree more.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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DEMINT KEEPS PLAYING THE CHRISTMAS CARD.... Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), arguably the chamber's most right-wing member, hasn't had much luck winning policy arguments lately. It's gotten so bad, he's been reduced to whining incessantly about having to do what the vast majority of Americans do: work in mid-December.

Last week, DeMint called legislative work before Christmas "sacrilegious." Yesterday, he said the bipartisan majority poised to approve the pending nuclear arms treaty, New START, is "doing this under the cover of Christmas," which he characterized as "something to be outraged about."

Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin asked DeMint yesterday what on earth he's talking about.

"It has nothing to do with us not being willing to work. For the [continuing resolution] I'm willing to work right through New Year's. It's just, trying to do [New START] under the cover of people being distracted. [...]

"The whole lame duck [session] to me is an illegitimate process and the intent to do whatever is the nation's business that has to be done, such as fund the government. But to pass major legislation during the lame duck is not the intent."

Funny, DeMint didn't seem to feel the same way when he voted to impeach President Clinton* in the lame-duck session after the 1998 midterms. I wonder what changed his mind?

Look, this is ridiculous. New START has been pending since April. Dems aren't trying to rush it through; they wanted to ratify it months ago, but ran into Republican delays. If DeMint wanted a debate well before the winter holidays, he shouldn't have relied so heavily on obstructionist tactics that pushed off the debate.

As for the notion that voters are "distracted," which makes the process "illegitimate," this is just incoherent. Voters are always going to have other things on their minds -- folks are busy with family responsibilities, jobs, etc. Besides, the treaty has been on the table since April, and polls show overwhelming public support for ratification.

DeMint went on to tell Rogin, "[I]t is obvious that Americans do not expect their unelected officials to come in and make major decisions when we're not supposed to be here and they're not paying attention."

Let's be real clear about this: lawmakers voting on New START are not "unelected." Aside from a handful of appointed senators, every member was chosen by a majority of their constituents to serve through the 111th Congress. In this case, the 111th Congress isn't over. For DeMint to characterize democratically elected U.S. senators as "unelected" is insane.

I get that DeMint doesn't like the treaty, but if he expects anyone to take him seriously, he'll have to do much better than this.

*Corrected

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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FOX NEWS BLAMES DEMS ON 9/11 HEALTH BILL.... If you missed "Fox & Friends" this morning, you missed the co-hosts doing their very best to blame delays on the Zadroga 9/11 health bill on Democrats. Steve Doocy went so far as to say the "Democratic House killed" the bill in July, without noting that it was Republicans that blocked passage -- and that it was Dems who ultimately got the bill through the chamber.

Doocy added that paying for first responders' health care without adding to the deficit -- as opposed to, say, paying for tax cuts for millionaires -- is what really matters.

Eric Boehlert noted this morning, "There's a special place in hell for these people."

For what it's worth, the Senate still hopes to get this done today, and will try to break a Republican filibuster. It would then head back to the House, where there's a serious concern not enough lawmakers will be on hand to pass the bill.

Update: Look for floor action in the Senate around noon. Proponents are cautiously optimistic.

Steve Benen 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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REPUBLICANS TAKE ONE LAST SHOT AT PROTECTING DADT.... In about an hour, the White House will host a signing ceremony at which President Obama will repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. But last night, Senate Republicans made one more, last-ditch effort.

Republicans in the Senate filed an amendment to a sweeping defense authorization bill that would have required the four military service chiefs to be part of the certification process called for in the bill that repeals the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

That would have put Marine Corps chief General James Amos, a vocal opponent of the repeal, in line to delay or potentially prevent its implementation. The amendment was filed late Tuesday to the defense measure, which could be voted on in the Senate on Wednesday.

But Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader from Kentucky, said late Tuesday night that an objection from a senator had been registered to the last-minute amendment and that it would not be included as part of the defense authorization bill.

The push was blocked, thankfully, by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). Nevertheless, the fact that Republicans are still, even now, trying to undermine DADT repeal is kind of sad.

The Senate will likely take up the larger defense authorization bill, without the poison pill, this morning. The majority hopes to get unanimous consent, though one never really knows what Republicans might object to.

On a related note, in the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi hosted a stirring event yesterday to sign the discharge petition that formally sent the DADT repeal bill to the White House. She was joined by hundreds of lawmakers and U.S. soldiers who'd been punished by the policy.

"Isn't this a joyful day?" she said, adding that the repeal measure will "change the law, improve the policy, make life better for many Americans, and make our country stronger."

Pelosi then asked all in attendance to sing "God Bless America." At the end, Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, one of the first openly gay House members, could be seen wiping his eyes.

Earlier, Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania told the gathering of an e-mail he received from a company commander in Afghanistan, who mentioned how he often had to counsel soldiers who received divorce papers or "Dear John" letters from spouses or opposite-sex partners.

Murphy continued: "This young company commander, this captain, on his fourth deployment, wrote in that e-mail saying, 'I never thought I'd see the day when I got one of those letters myself. And I'm sitting here at three o'clock in the morning in Kabul, Afghanistan, and I have nowhere to go because I happen to be gay, and I can't walk to the chaplain, and I can't go to a battle buddy, and I can't walk to my commander's office, so I'm sitting here cradling my 9 mm pistol thinking about blowing my brains out. But I read this article about this Iraq war veteran named Patrick Murphy from Pennsylvania that's fighting for me, and it gives me hope.'"

The fact that this bill will be signed into law gives a lot of people hope.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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THE CASE OF LINDSEY GRAHAM'S MISSING LUNCH.... A couple of weeks ago, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was largely satisfied with the outcome of the tax deal, but he didn't like President Obama's willingness to criticize the costly and ineffective policies Republicans demanded.

"Quite frankly, the president is whining," Graham said.

It was an odd complaint. The president agreed to unpopular provisions he didn't like, and he's not supposed to mention that? Besides, as Dave Weigel noted at the time, Graham was complaining about "whining" by "whining at around 10 times as many decibels."

It's a quality Graham has nearly perfected. Yesterday, Graham's latest round of whimpering related to the lame-duck session.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) lashed out at fellow Republicans Tuesday for a "capitulation ... of dramatic proportions" to Democrats and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in the lame-duck Congress.

Graham said Republicans have no one to blame but themselves for allowing ratification of the New START Treaty and other legislation in the period before new lawmakers are sworn in in January.

"When it's all going to be said and done, Harry Reid has eaten our lunch," Graham said on Fox News radio. "This has been a capitulation in two weeks of dramatic proportions of policies that wouldn't have passed in the new Congress."

Graham seemed especially incensed by his retiring GOP colleagues, like Utah's Bob Bennett, who are willing to support quality legislation as they depart. "They have used the power of the Senate against the minority, and we have, quite frankly, a handful of us have been letting them do it. And a lot of the people who are doing this got beat. And that's what makes me so upset," he said. "It makes me disappointed that, with a new group of Republicans coming in, we could get a better deal on almost everything."

For all of Graham's whining about "capitulation" and Reid eating his lunch, the truth is, a handful of Republicans are supporting good bills that deserve to pass, and which just happen to enjoy broad national support among voters. Before the midterms, partisan strategies made much of this impossible -- the GOP had a powerful interest to deny Democrats pre-election victories and stymie the majority's legislative agenda. In the lame-duck, it's easier for some members to evaluate proposals on the merits.

And so key priorities are becoming law. For Americans, that's good news. For Lindsey Graham, it's little more than fodder for a fine whine.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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December 21, 2010

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

* In the wake of the omnibus' failure, the Senate voted today to approve a continuing resolution "to fund the government through March 4." It passed 79 to 16, and heads to the House for approval before midnight.

* On a related note, there was some key funding left out of the continuing resolution that matters quite a bit, most notably on health care and financial regulations.

* A breakthrough in Baghdad: "With a show of hands, a flurry of angry shouts and many unanswered questions, Iraq's Parliament approved a new government on Tuesday, ending nine months of infighting that more than once threatened to throw the nation into a constitutional crisis."

* Net neutrality: "The Federal Communications Commission voted Tuesday to approve its first ever Internet access regulation, which ensures unimpeded access to any legal Web content for home Internet users. The FCC's three Democratic members made up a majority of votes in favor of the so-called net neutrality regulation, which was introduced more than a year ago by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski."

* Attorney General Eric Holder, warning of ongoing terrorist threats, noted on ABC this morning that Americans have to be "aware of the fact that the threat is real, the threat is different, the threat is constant."

* With the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy on its way out, ROTC programs at some Ivy League schools are on their way back in.

* President Obama assured representatives of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus today that he remains committed to both the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform.

* Given the larger economic circumstances, I'm a little surprised crime rates keep falling.

* The turmoil surrounding the House Ethics Committee is pretty amazing.

* Andy Sabl has a fascinating new item on why Obama can't be an activist, an organizer, a legislator, and a president all at once.

* Actor Jon Voight appeared on Fox News last night to condemn New START. Media Matters noted that the segment was "so asinine, stupid, and intellectually dishonest that your jaw drops as you wonder how these people wound up on television." Yep, it was that bad.

* Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) apologized today for skipping two key votes over the weekend to attend a family Christmas party. He vowed that it wouldn't happen again.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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NEW START CLEARS FINAL HURDLE, ON TRACK FOR RATIFICATION TOMORROW.... As recently as Sunday, the fate of the pending nuclear arms treaty, New START, was very much in doubt. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) moved forward anyway, confident that votes would come together. He scheduled the last procedural hurdle -- overcoming a Republican filibuster -- for this afternoon.

As we learned about an hour ago, the treaty's future appears bright.

The Senate voted 67 to 28 on Tuesday to advance a new arms control treaty that would pare back American and Russian nuclear arsenals, reaching the two-thirds margin needed for approval despite a concerted Republican effort to block ratification.

Eleven Republicans joined every Democrat present to support the treaty, known as New Start, which now heads to a seemingly certain final vote of approval on Wednesday, as the Senate wraps up business before heading out of town. Voting against the treaty were 28 Republicans who argued that it could hurt national security.

The majority was 67 votes, but it would have been 69 were it not for two Democratic senators' absences -- Oregon's Ron Wyden is recovering from cancer surgery, and Indiana's Evan Bayh is on some self-congratulatory tour of his own state. A Republican, New Hampshire's Judd Gregg, had also expressed support, but for whatever reason, did not vote today. Whether they'll be on hand for the ratification vote is unclear, but if so, the final majority should be over 70 votes.

Regardless, with 67 votes today, ratification no longer appears in doubt. The 11 Republican votes came from Alexander (Tenn.), Bennett (Utah), Brown (R-Mass.), Cochran (R-Miss.) Collins (R-Maine), Corker (R-Tenn.), Isakson (R-Ga.), Lugar (R-Ind.), Murkowski (R-Alaska), Snowe (R-Maine), and Voinovich (R-Ohio).

Of these, Alexander and Murkowski were the only two who had not yet expressed support for the measure before today.

The Democratic leadership indicated today that a ratification vote will likely be held tomorrow.

In the meantime, the 28 senators opposed to the treaty, all of them conservative Republicans, did not enjoy their day. At one point this morning, in a breathtaking display, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) apologized to Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who was standing nearby, because their colleagues have the audacity to overlook Kyl's incoherent and dishonest whining and bizarre habit of moving the goalposts after the White House agreed to Kyl's demands.

"To Senator Kyl," Graham said, "I want to apologize to you for the way you've been treated by your colleagues."

The nerve. Democrats voted on a pending treaty? And didn't give Kyl veto power over U.S. foreign policy? And insisted on listening to the unanimous judgment of military and diplomatic leaders, instead of the bitter tirades of a confused senator? What were they thinking?

Or as Greg Sargent put it, "Yeah, right: It's an absolute outrage that these Senators are prioritizing their own sense of what's right for the country and the world, over the influence, standing and fragile ego of a single fellow Senator."

No word yet on whether Democrats should expect an apology from Kyl for the way he treated them.

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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WHITE HOUSE EXTENDS WELL-DESERVED PRAISE TO JON STEWART.... It's too soon to say for sure whether Republican obstructionism will kill the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. The supermajority appears to be coming together, and Senate Democrats are keeping the pressure on -- this new video is worth watching -- but time is running out, and a leading conservative senator and his allies aren't budging.

While we wait and see, it's heartening to see the White House give some credit to a certain comedian who kept this issue on the political world's radar screen, and helped make progress possible.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs praised television host Jon Stewart on Tuesday for talking about legislation stalled in the Senate that would provide health benefits for 9/11 first responders.

"I think he has put the awareness around this legislation, and that's good," Gibbs said of the "Daily Show" host. During his press briefing, Gibbs said he hoped Stewart could convince two GOP senators to vote to break a filibuster of the bill.

I'm glad Stewart's efforts are garnering attention, because it's really not an exaggeration to say the bill would have no chance without his coverage. Indeed, major media outlets -- at least in broadcast media -- almost completely ignored the Zadroga bill every step of the way. When a GOP filibuster blocked the most recent attempt at passage, despite 58 votes in support of the proposal, it looked like Republicans had killed the bill.

But then "The Daily Show" ran a bunch of segments on this, noting not only the legislation's merit and the inanity of Republican talking points against the bill, but also calling out news organizations for blowing off an important story regarding 9/11 heroes who need a hand.

And sure enough, Stewart's public shaming paid off -- news shows that couldn't be bothered to even mention the bill in passing started talking about it. The visibility took a story that was entirely overlooked by the mainstream and made it a national issue, which in turn prompted Republican senators to begin talking to Democratic sponsors again.

The New York Daily News noted this morning, "Thanks in large part to relentless television advocacy by Jon Stewart of 'The Daily Show,' the 9/11 bill has risen up the agenda."

It'd be an exaggeration to say Stewart was solely responsible. Other voices in media (including, ahem, the one you're reading now) were reporting on the importance of the bill several weeks ago, and as soon as the tax deal was settled, Republicans who were at least open to the Zadroga bill were willing to start talking again.

But as Christopher Beam noted last night, Stewart "shined a light on the issue at the right moment," which in turn generated some momentum where none existed. With that in mind, the White House shout-out is entirely warranted, and if this manages to somehow pass, "The Daily Show" will have played a key role in making that happen.

As for the bigger picture, Stewart told Rachel Maddow last month that he's not "in the game," but rather, is "in the stands yelling things, criticizing."

Due respect, Jon, but the progress on the Zadroga bill suggests this self-analysis may need some revision.

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

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THE GOP'S EMERGENCY-ROOM ARGUMENT LIVES.... I'd hoped we would hear the argument much less after the Affordable Care Act became law, but the notion that the uninsured can just rely on emergency rooms hasn't gone away quite yet.

Here, for example, was Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) on Fox News the other day:

"The fact is a lot of people that don't have insurance are getting [care] right now. They're not denied in the emergency rooms. They're generally not denied by doctors. It's not a pretty system, but the idea that people are not getting health care particularly for critical needs is just -- is just not the case."

This is strikingly wrong. For one thing, doctors in private practice nationwide tend to take on patients with insurance. For another, all McDonnell has to do is spend a few minutes at a free clinic someday to realize all kinds of families in need go without much-needed care every day, in Virginia and elsewhere.

But it's that darn emergency-room argument that needs the most help.

Let's set the record straight. It's true that under the previous system -- before the Affordable Care Act passed -- if you're uninsured and get sick, there are public hospitals that will treat you. But it's extremely expensive to treat patients this way, and it would be far cheaper, and more medically effective, to pay for preventative care so that people don't have to wait for a medical emergency to seek treatment.

For that matter, when sick people with no insurance go to the E.R. for care, they often can't pay their bills. Since hospitals can't treat sick patients for free, the costs are passed on to everyone else.

In other words, it's the most inefficient system of socialized medicine ever devised.

And yet, Republicans keep praising it. McDonnell was repeating this talking point over the weekend, but he's hardly alone. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) was touting it late last year, and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) was thinking along the same lines a month prior. In July '09, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was asked about the 47 million Americans who go without health insurance, McConnell replied, "Well, they don't go without health care," because they can just go to the emergency room.

In 2008, the conservative who shaped John McCain's health care policy said anyone with access to an emergency room effectively has insurance. The year before, Tom DeLay argued, "[N]o American is denied health care in America," because everyone can go to the emergency room. Around the same time, George W. Bush said the same thing: "[P]eople have access to health care in America. After all, you just go to an emergency room." In 2004, then-HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said our healthcare system "could be defined as universal coverage," because of emergency rooms.

It's a dumb argument. That it's been a staple of Republican rhetoric for so long only adds insult to injury.

Update: Aaron Carroll has a related post on this, which emphasizes a few points I'd overlooked. Worth a read.

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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BARBOUR BACKPEDALS.... Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's (R) comments to the Weekly Standard weren't exactly subtle. Among other things, Barbour said he doesn't recall segregated Mississippi in the midst of the civil rights revolution as being "that bad," and recalls attending a speech delivered by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1962, though he didn't pay much attention to King's remarks.

Perhaps most notably, Barbour praised the white supremacist Citizens Council in his hometown of Yazoo City for keeping the community calm during the civil rights era.

This hasn't exactly gone over well, and more than a few political observers -- from the left and the right -- have said Barbour's presidential ambitions have taken a serious hit.

Hoping to clean up the mess he created, Barbour issued a statement today, backpedaling a bit.

"When asked why my hometown in Mississippi did not suffer the same racial violence when I was a young man that accompanied other towns' integration efforts, I accurately said the community leadership wouldn't tolerate it and helped prevent violence there. My point was my town rejected the Ku Klux Klan, but nobody should construe that to mean I think the town leadership were saints, either. Their vehicle, called the 'Citizens Council,' is totally indefensible, as is segregation. It was a difficult and painful era for Mississippi, the rest of the country, and especially African Americans who were persecuted in that time."

There are a few angles to this. The first is that these remarks are wholly at odds with what he told the Weekly Standard, which, as a prominent Republican magazine, doesn't have any reason to misquote him or twist his words out of context.

The second is that Barbour's chief spokesperson, hoping to defend his boss, took a slightly different line than the governor did yesterday. This makes today's statement look more like spin and crisis management than a sincere clarification.

And finally, let's also not forget that the published remarks became so instantly inflammatory this week precisely because of Barbour's atrocious record on racial issues. Today's statement more or less makes the right points, but it's not as if the governor has earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to diversity and respect for minority groups.

As for the larger context, Markos Moulitsas noted earlier that the fact that Barbour backpedaled quickly "shows that race remains the ONE thing that'll get a Republican in trouble with traditional media." I think that's entirely right, and it's the only reason the governor couldn't let this go without a response.

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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A SENATOR SCORNED.... Quick quiz -- only one Republican senator has sided with Democrats on DADT repeal, the tax deal, New START cloture, and the DREAM Act in the lame-duck session. Who was it?

The obvious guesses would likely be Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Susan Collins (R-Maine), or Scott Brown (R-Mass.). But the truth is a little further north.

One of Pres. Obama's biggest supporters in the Senate in the past week is not even a member of his own party: Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

Murkowski supported the president's position on the Senate's four biggest votes since last Wednesday.... No Senate Republican voted for all four bills other than Murkowski. And the senior senator from Alaska, who became a national figure this year when she defeated attorney Joe Miller (R) with her write-in campaign, has actually been a more reliable vote for the president than 18 members of the Senate Democratic caucus since Dec. 15.

I suspect these votes are not well received by Republican leaders, but don't forget, Murkowski not only doesn't care, she actually has an incentive to annoy them -- her party did very little to help her re-election bid in Alaska this year, and actively sought to defeat her during her successful write-in bid.

Indeed, even after the election was done and it appeared that Murkowski had won, the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent out a message to its supporters with a subject line that read, "Help Joe Miller in Alaska." The email, published over Sen. John Cornyn's (R-Texas) signature, suggested Republicans should send money to help Miller fight Murkowski in court.

I noted on December 7, "Don't be too surprised if Murkowski returns to the Senate next year, and is slightly more open to Democratic outreach than she has been."

It turns out we don't even have to wait until next year -- Murkowski is already proving herself open to working with Dems on a whole range of issues.

Looking ahead, this may not matter too much in the next Congress, since Dems would need seven GOP votes to overcome Republican filibusters, and even if Murkowski joins Snowe, Collins, Brown, and Kirk in some sort of "Mod Squad," that won't be enough.

That said, it's nevertheless good to see a Republican breaking ranks on key issues as often as Murkowski is now.

Update: Just a few minutes after I published this, Murkowski announced she'll support ratification of New START, which only helps reinforce the larger point.

Second Update: It looks like John Cole saw much of this coming over a month ago. The GOP's Lieberman? Murkowski just might like the sound of that.

Steve Benen 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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IT'S THE AFFORDABLE CARE ACT, NOT 'OBAMACARE'.... In some center-left circles, Republicans' insistence on saying "Democrat Party" is about the most annoying rhetorical tic in the GOP lexicon.

"Obamacare" is arguably a competitive second.

Conservatives, even well-intentioned ones, who don't use the word to be obnoxious, aren't clear on why it rankles quite so much. It's not as if "Obamacare" is necessarily derogatory -- it's intended, at least by some on the right, to simply be descriptive, and it's easier than referencing "the health care reform law signed by President Obama."

With that in mind, James Joyner, Patrick Appel, Meghan McArdle are all wondering why Democrats make a fuss when the word comes up. Tim Fernholz's explanation was spot-on.

[A]s a meme, ["Obamacare"] was invented to make healthcare reform efforts unpopular with voters by implying that the government, in the form of President Obama, was going to be making your health-care decisions. It's part and parcel with Politifact's Lie of the Year, "the government takeover of healthcare," because it replaces the traditional term for our health sector with the name of the head of the government.

The term also plays into the oft-repeated "liberal overreach" message spread by the president's conservative opponents, who argued early and often that health-care reform was an ego play on the part of a self-obsessed president ignoring the public's wishes, rather than the inheritance of forty years of Democratic campaigning to fix a broken and unjust system. And by merging the terms for health care reform and the President's name, Republicans could attack both at the same time, maximizing their efficiency: Republicans love talking about "job-killing Obamacare" for just that reason.

If I had to guess, I'd say Republicans started using "Obamacare" as some kind of slur as a way of undermining the president's standing. They knew they could help tear down support for health care reform, but by attaching the president's name to it, maybe they could help tear him down, too. Remember, fairly early on in the process, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) declared, "If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo."

But in time, use of the phrase evolved. The point wasn't just about the president, per se, but about convincing the public that the initiative was what Republicans said it was: a top-down, government imposed scheme. "Obamacare" is necessarily loaded to convey an idea -- that policymakers were replacing a dysfunctional mess with one in which Americans would receive their care from the president, or at a minimum, through a process the president directs.

And if this had any basis in reality, the slur might have some merit. But the very idea is patently ridiculous, which makes the "Obamacare" as misleading as it is annoying.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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

* A new Quinnipiac University poll shows New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's (R) approval rating down to 46%. The results saddened D.C. political reporters, who can't understand why the public won't like who they tell them to like.

* New census data will shift a total of 12 U.S. House seats in the next decade. Texas was the big winner of population shifts, and will get four new seats, while Florida also fared well, adding two seats. Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, South Carolina, Utah, and the state of Washington will each gain one. Ohio and New York were the big losers, with each state losing two seats. Illinois, New Jersey, Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Missouri, and Massachusetts will lose one each.

* The field of Connecticut Democrats anxious to run for the Senate in 2012, regardless of whether Sen. Joe Lieberman's (I-Conn.) seeks re-election, continues to grow. Rep. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) indicated yesterday that he's interested.

* It's pretty early, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) already knows what he'll do in 2014: "I'm not planning on running -- I am running."

* Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who's missing some important votes this week in order to travel Indiana for a ego-driven "farewell tour," said yesterday he won't return to politics in the short term, but is keeping his "options open" for the long term.

* Former Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.), who flirted with the idea of running in Chicago's mayoral election, announced yesterday he's skipping the race.

* Sen. Jon Tester (D) will seek re-election in Montana in 2012, but he'll do so after pissing off a whole lot of liberal supporters, who are livid over his vote on the DREAM Act.

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

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COBURN PREPARED TO KILL 9/11 HEALTH BILL.... The Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which would pay health care costs for 9/11 rescue workers, sickened after exposure to toxic smoke and debris, actually seemed to be picking up speed. Proponents changed the financing mechanism, and it appeared that the GOP-mandated supermajority , needed to overcome Republican a filibuster was more or less in place.

But to get the bill onto the floor and passed before the end of the lame-duck session, Democratic leaders would have to thread a small needle. One right-wing senator intends to make sure that doesn't happen.

New York Democrats hoping for quick action on a bill to give health care compensation to Ground Zero workers are about to run into Tom Coburn.

The Oklahoma Republican and physician -- known in the Senate as "Dr. No" for his penchant in blocking bills -- told POLITICO Monday night he wouldn't allow the bill to move quickly, saying he has problems with parts of the bill and the process Democrats are employing.

On Fox News this morning, Coburn said that the bill's prospects in the lame duck are "doubtful," adding that the proposal has been "drawn up and forced through Congress at the end of the year," and "this bill hasn't even been through a committee."

It's important to emphasize how very wrong Coburn is. The 9/11 health bill is only being rushed now because the session is almost over. It's been pending for over a year; it's already been brought to the floor once; and it would have been done a long time ago were it not for obstructionism from the likes of Coburn.

As for the committee process, the legislation received a hearing in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in June.

Coburn should know this -- he's a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. At a minimum, he should check before lying to a national television audience.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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IGNORANCE COMES WITH CONSEQUENCES.... Gallup released a new national survey the other day, noting public attitudes on the origins of life. The results weren't exactly encouraging.

A 40% plurality of Americans seriously believe that humans were created by their God, in our present form, about 10,000 years ago. That's two-fifths of the U.S. population. Another 38% believe evolution occurred, but was guided by divine intervention. Just 16% believe in an entirely natural process, though that number has nearly doubled in recent decades.

Not surprisingly, there's a political dynamic at play -- most Republicans (52%) in the United States embrace the notion of young-earth creationism, while Democrats and Independents accept this in much smaller numbers.

Reading these results got me thinking about a story President Obama told about a year ago, after he returned from a trip to Asia. He shared an anecdote about a luncheon he attended with the president of South Korea.

"I was interested in education policy -- they've grown enormously over the last 40 years. And I asked him, 'What are the biggest challenges in your education policy?' He said, 'The biggest challenge that I have is that my parents are too demanding.' He said, 'Even if somebody is dirt poor, they are insisting that their kids are getting the best education.' He said, 'I've had to import thousands of foreign teachers because they're all insisting that Korean children have to learn English in elementary school.' That was the biggest education challenge that he had, was an insistence, a demand from parents for excellence in the schools.

"And the same thing was true when I went to China. I was talking to the mayor of Shanghai, and I asked him about how he was doing recruiting teachers, given that they've got 25 million people in this one city. He said, 'We don't have problems recruiting teachers because teaching is so revered and the pay scales for teachers are actually comparable to doctors and other professions. '

"That gives you a sense of what's happening around the world. There is a hunger for knowledge, an insistence on excellence, a reverence for science and math and technology and learning. That used to be what we were about."

I've been thinking a fair amount lately about whether the United States is really in "decline" as an international power, and our ability to compete on the global stage in the 21st century. And in general, I think the push in some circles, including at the White House, for a renewed national emphasis on science and math will benefit the country tremendously.

But then I see a Gallup poll that suggests a plurality of Americans reject the foundation of modern biology, and may very well think The Flintstones were a documentary.

It's not too late for the United States to bounce back from this decline, but we're going to have to do a lot better than this. Our global competitors aren't playing for second place, and the more societal ignorance reigns, the harder it will be for us to come out on top.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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LEAVING A MARK ON BARBOUR.... There was a fair amount of media coverage yesterday on Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's (R) ridiculous remarks regarding race and Southern history, which should do some lasting damage to the lobbyist-turned-politician's reputation.

The next question, I suppose, is how much damage we can expect to see. Steve M. expects this to "pass relatively quickly," regardless of whether or not Barbour "ever shows genuine contrition or evidence of soul-searching."

We know this because, four years after his "macaca" moment, George Allen is preparing to run for the Senate again, and will probably be the favorite in the Republican race to take on Jim Webb two years from now.

We know this because while the revelation of GOP operative Fred Malek's role as "Jew counter" in the Nixon White House cost him a prominent position in the 1988 campaign of George H.W. Bush, Malek was back working for Bush two years later as coordinator of plans for an economic summit. He subsequently became Bush's '92 campaign manager; more recently, he's been a top advisor to John McCain's 2008 campaign, the chair of a government reform commission for Virginia governor Bob O'Donnell, and a top advisor to Sarah Palin.

Oh, and after making racially charged remarks, Trent Lott didn't become a Beltway pariah -- he became a lobbyist, within weeks of resigning his Senate seat, and there isn't a shred of evidence that his remarks have hurt his new career.

I find nearly all of this persuasive. Time and again, we've seen Republicans take heat for controversial, racially-charged comments, and it tends to leave a mark, but the scar invariably heals.

Indeed, when it comes to Barbour in specific, this isn't a hypothetical -- he's made racist comments before, but he's managed to persevere politically anyway.

The only angle to this on which I disagree with Steve is that Boss Hogg is looking for a very specific kind of promotion. Allen, Lott, and the other examples are entirely legit, but none of those GOP figures ever tried to run for president. The scrutiny at that level is a different animal.

More to the point, if Barbour were seeking another term in Mississippi, I could see him easily overcoming this most recent controversy. If he were setting up another lobbying shop or angling for a job on Fox News, it's safe to assume his praise of white supremacist Citizens Councils would be forgotten.

But if/when Barbour launches a campaign for national office, he'll be "that guy with racial problems" -- and that's a tough reputation to shake, even for a candidate political reporters love.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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JUDICIAL NOMINEES START MOVING -- BUT THERE'S A CATCH.... As of a week ago, there were 38 judicial nominees, all of whom have been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, awaiting confirmation votes on the Senate floor. Given the vacancy crisis, and the drastic effects this is having on the federal judicial system, it was past time for some progress.

The good news is, 12 nominees have been confirmed, unanimously, since Friday. The bad news is, the progress is the result of a less-than-ideal agreement.

After a monthslong blockade, Senate Republicans have agreed to let at least 19 of President Barack Obama's non-controversial judicial nominees win confirmation in the waning days of the congressional session in exchange for a commitment by Democrats not to seek votes on four others, according to officials familiar with the deal.

Among the four is Goodwin Liu, a law school dean seen as a potential future Supreme Court pick, whose current nomination to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco has sparked strong criticism from Republicans. [...]

The agreement was worked out between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his Republican counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, with the knowledge of the White House, officials said.

The contours of the deal are in line with rumors from last week: Republicans will "let" the Senate confirm at least 19 of the 38 jurists, with the understanding that Democrats won't even bring up the most progressive nominees. In this case, that's a group that includes district court nominees Liu, Edward Chen, Louis B. Butler Jr. and John J. McConnell, Jr.

It's worth pausing to appreciate the procedural dynamic here. The Senate has a constitutional obligation to consider judicial nominees, and a small Republican minority is calling the shots, agreeing which jurists will be "allowed" to receive votes, based on GOP graciousness. It's a reminder that the institution is in desperate need of reform.

Nevertheless, remember when Senate Republicans spent six years whining incessantly about obstructionism of Bush's judicial nominees? Remember when they said failing to give up-or-down votes to these nominees tore at the very fabric of American democracy?

They don't remember this at all.

Of course, there's also an arithmetic problem that hasn't been worked out. There were 38 pending nominees, a total that dropped to 26 after a recent spate of confirmation votes. Republicans have agreed to advance seven more*, which will lower the total to 19 pending nominees. Four of those jurists have been deemed unacceptable to the GOP.

But what about the other 15? At this point, their fate is unclear.

Just as a reminder, those nominees that don't get votes in the lame-duck session will have to start all over again next year.

* Update: I made an arithmetical error, which I've corrected. The text as it currently reads is accurate.

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... By some measures, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is an exceptional Senate Minority Leader. This may seem counterintuitive given his personal and professional characteristics: he's not honest; he doesn't negotiate in good faith; he has no real respect for institutional norms; he's proven himself willing to put his party's interests above the nation's interests; and he's never demonstrated any working knowledge of any area of public policy.

But if it's the job of the Senate Minority Leader to offer knee-jerk obstructionism, mindlessly oppose the majority's agenda, stymie the chamber's ability to function as a legitimate legislative body, and basically be an all-around pain in the arse, Mitch McConnell is very good at what he does.

And as far as he's concerned, McConnell intends to make things even worse.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has a warning for Democrats seething over his shrewd political tactics: Get used to it.

"There's much for them to be angst-ridden about," McConnell said with a chuckle. "If they think it's bad now, wait 'til next year."

Right. McConnell's caucus will expand from 42 members to 47 members in a few weeks, and at that point, he'll basically consider himself the Senate Majority Leader -- he'll block anything that doesn't meet with his full approval. For the last two years, McConnell's principal goal has been to keep his handful of moderates from cooperating with the White House and the congressional majority. Next year, that won't be a problem.

Indeed, we can add this to the list of McConnell's frequent moments of candor. He conceded in August, for example, that as far as he's concerned, literally every idea considered by the Senate in the next Congress "is going to have to be center-right," even after voters elected a Democratic majority in the chamber.

What's more, in March, McConnell acknowledged the entire basis for his health care strategy, explaining that he demanded unanimous GOP opposition, even to ideas Republicans liked, as a way of making reform unpopular. The strategy had nothing to do with policy or actually helping people, and everything to do with denying Democrats a victory.

Perhaps most famously, McConnell admitted his partisan intentions shortly before the midterm elections:"The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.... Our single biggest political goal is to give [the Republican] nominee for president the maximum opportunity to be successful."

Now, McConnell is at it again. He's already taken Senate obstructionism to levels unseen in American history, and now he has a new promise for Democrats: "If they think it's bad now, wait 'til next year."

I can only hope White House officials are taking note of comments like these -- if the West Wing thinks it can work constructively with McConnell and his cohorts on a range of issues, this would be an excellent time to reevaluate those expectations.

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

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NEW START RATIFICATION COMES INTO FOCUS.... It was a busy day for the pending nuclear arms treaty, New START, in the Senate yesterday. President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton furiously worked the phones, urging Republican senators to do the right thing; the Senate met in closed session so members could hear classified information related to the treaty; and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote a letter to each senator, imploring them to ratify the measure, calling it "vital" to U.S. national security.

And by late yesterday, the finish line was finally in sight.

The Senate moved closer on Monday to approving a new arms control treaty with Russia over the opposition of Republican leaders as lawmakers worked on a side deal to assure skeptics that the arms pact would not inhibit American plans to build missile defense systems.

A Republican senator announced that he would vote for the treaty and two others said they were leaning toward it after a closed-door session on classified aspects of the pact. At the same time, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, produced separate legislation that could reassure fellow Republicans worried about the treaty's impact on missile defense.

By the end of another tumultuous day, treaty backers said they could count more than the two-thirds majority required for approval in votes that could begin as early as Tuesday.

The goal, of course, remains 67 votes. The 58 members of the Senate Democratic caucus are already on board, meaning the treaty will need a minimum of nine Republican votes. As of this morning, there appear to five firm "aye" votes from the GOP caucus: Lugar, Snowe, Collins, Brown, and Voinovich. As the day progressed yesterday, Republicans Gregg, Bennett, Isakson, and Corker also said they're likely to support the treaty, while Murkowski and Cochran also appear to be leaning in the right direction.

If they all follow through, that's 11 Republican votes, which would be more than enough to succeed, and likely cause a few more GOP members to come along, rather than go on the record defying the pleas of the Pentagon (again).

And what about this reported side deal to make the McCain contingent happy? Apparently, they want some kind of formal assurances that the U.S. would pursue missile defense in Europe, regardless of Russian objections, which would not require formal changes to New START itself. The proposal is being pushed by McCain, Graham, Kyl, and Kirk, though it's unclear if any of the four would end up supporting ratification, even if their plan were adopted, and the White House has not yet commented on their offer.

Regardless, at this point, the votes appear to be in place whether this additional amendment is approved or not.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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December 20, 2010

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

* South Korea fired artillery in a 90-minute drill this morning with fighter jets flying overhead. North Korea had threatened to retaliate, but later decided against it. Good move.

* Russian officials want Senate Republicans to know that negotiations on nuclear arms are already over -- they're not headed back to the table to make the GOP feel better.

* On a related note, this afternoon, Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) officially endorsed New START. Some Senate Republicans are beginning to whisper that ratification appears likely.

* Reliable sources report that Sen. Ron Wyden's (D-Ore.) cancer surgery today went very well and the prognosis is encouraging. No word yet on when he might be able to return to work, but rumor has it he could be available to vote on Wednesday.

* Monitoring America: "Nine years after the terrorist attacks of 2001, the United States is assembling a vast domestic intelligence apparatus to collect information about Americans, using the FBI, local police, state homeland security offices and military criminal investigators."

* In case there were any doubts, research shows the Roberts-led Supreme Court is extremely friendly to business interests and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

* I'm generally impressed with the work "60 Minutes" does, but last night's segment on state budgets was just a one-sided mess. Pat Garofalo has more on this.

* The Obama administration released long-awaited science guidelines late last week, intended to "insulate government scientific research from political meddling and to base policy decisions on solid data."

* President Obama will reportedly sign the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal measure into law on Wednesday.

* On a related note, Greg Sargent has a great item on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) key role in getting DADT repeal through Congress.

* I've seen the report on the White House putting Social Security cuts on the table for 2011, but I haven't seen confirmation elsewhere, and I can only hope officials recognize this as a terrible mistake.

* Fox News goes after the University of Maryland, but the school isn't sure why the Republican network would bother.

* College students plagiarizing from Conservapedia shouldn't be near institutions of higher learning.

* And Equality Matters, a new project launched by Media Matters, gets to work. Led by former Clinton administration staffer Richard Socarides and journalist Kerry Eleveld, Equality Matters intends to "push back against homophobic messages in the media and the political arena." In other words, it'll be plenty busy.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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BARBOUR'S 'CLARIFICATION' NEEDS SOME WORK.... As we discussed earlier, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) made some racially-charged remarks to the Weekly Standard, which may very likely have an impact on the national ambitions of the lobbyist-turned-governor.

Among other things, Barbour said he doesn't recall segregated Mississippi in the midst of the civil rights revolution as being "that bad," and recalls attending a speech delivered by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1962, though he didn't pay much attention to King's remarks.

Perhaps most notably, Barbour praised the white supremacist Citizens Council in his hometown of Yazoo City for keeping the community calm during the civil rights era.

In light of the controversy created by the remarks, TPM's Eric Kleefeld spoke to Dan Turner, Barbour's chief spokesperson, who sounded a little defensive.

So, I asked Turner, does Barbour have any comment on the Citizen Council movement's basis in white supremacy, and its work of launching economic boycotts to cut off employment and business for African-Americans who became active for civil rights -- including that notable occasion in Yazoo City?

"Gov. Barbour did not comment on the Citizens Council movement's history," Turner responded. "He commented on the business community in Yazoo City, Mississippi."

I asked further about the Citizen Council movement's white supremacist activities, such as the boycotts in Barbour's hometown. "I'm not aware that that's accurate," Turner said. "I'm not aware that he [Barbour] has any statement on that. I'm aware of the statement that he made in context of how he made it."

After being pressed further on whether Barbour's comments about the Citizens Councils were accurate, Turner said: "I'm aware of what the governor said in this interview. I'm not gonna get into the business of trying to twist what the governor said, or to manipulate it."

The remarks don't need manipulation. Barbour was asked about the civil rights era in his Mississippi community, and he responded with praise for a racist organization, known for touting "racial integrity" and fighting for segregation.

Barbour's point was to draw a distinction between Citizens Councils and the KKK, but what he fails to appreciate is that the two are different sides of the same coin -- the Citizens Councils used economic coercion to preserve racial harmony that kept whites on top, while the KKK used violence to achieve the same ends.

The governor and his spokesperson seem impressed with the fact that the Citizens Council in the community where Barbour grew up kept the KKK out of town. That's nice, but it's also missing the point -- that same Citizens Council enforced what was effectively mandatory apartheid; it was created in response to Brown v. Board of Education; and its efforts were focused on not only fighting the civil rights movement, but also in demanding that local African Americans never even tried to advance beyond second class citizens.

Barbour looks back at those Citizens Council efforts as laudable, effective, and worthy of praise. By any modern standards of decency, that's simply unacceptable.

In the larger political context, does Barbour have a "Bubba" problem? That seems like a fair assessment.

Update: Also note, it's not as if Barbour has a background on civil rights that he can fall back on to demonstrate his integrity on these issues. Just the opposite is true -- few figures in American public life have an uglier past on racial issues.

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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PAY INCREASES FOR ME, BUT NOT FOR THEE.... Almost immediately upon taking office, President Obama froze the pay for his senior staff. In the big picture, it amounted to a very small amount of savings, but the move was intended as a symbolic gesture.

On the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, congressional Republicans have taken a very different course.

For a guy who insists that federal bureaucrats make too much money, incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor sure doesn't mind handing out handsome government raises of his own.

Cantor, the Virginia Republican who has led the GOP charge this year to freeze federal salaries, has boosted his congressional office's payroll by 81 percent since coming to Congress in 2001 -- about 8 percent per year through 2009. When he became minority whip last year, the office's personnel expenses went up by at least 16 percent.

Cantor and other GOP leaders are now pledging to cut their budgets by 5 percent when they take over the House in January -- a symbolic gesture aimed at showing a commitment to slowing Washington spending. But the lawmakers suddenly calling for wage cuts often haven't practiced what they're preaching.

Imagine that. Congressional Republicans, just as a matter of course, complain ad nauseum about the federal workforce and GOP perceptions about soaring public-sector wages. In reality, congressional pay has risen much faster than the civilian federal work force, while "many of most vocal federal critics have overseen growth that rivals or outstrips the executive branch's."

The names in the AP's report are going to be familiar. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has seen her own payroll jump 16% in just the last three years. And while that's unusually high, even for Congress, other prominent right-wing lawmakers, including Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), are in the ballpark.

To be sure, I'm entirely comfortable with congressional staffers receiving generous compensation. I want lawmakers, regardless of party, to have qualified, capable aides helping shape federal policy, and recruiting and keeping a highly-skilled workforce requires competitive salaries. This is not an argument in support of pay cuts for these public employees -- on the contrary, I'd like to see more workers with more money in their pockets, not the other way around.

I would note, though, that the hypocrisy is unsettling. Some of the same far-right lawmakers who hate earmarks are demanding earmarks, just as some of the same far-right lawmakers who are desperate to slash public-sector pay are giving their own employees raises.

Steve Benen 4:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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PETER KING KNOWS JUST HOW TO MAKE A SITUATION WORSE.... Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the more shamelessly anti-Muslim members of Congress. This sentiment will manifest itself in a disturbing way in the next Congress.

The Republican who will head the House committee that oversees domestic security is planning to open a Congressional inquiry into what he calls "the radicalization" of the Muslim community when his party takes over the House next year.

Representative Peter T. King of New York, who will become the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he was responding to what he has described as frequent concerns raised by law enforcement officials that Muslim leaders have been uncooperative in terror investigations.

He cited the case of Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan man and a legal resident of the United States, who was arrested last year for plotting to bomb the New York subway system. Mr. King said that Ahmad Wais Afzali, an imam in Queens who had been a police informant, had warned Mr. Zazi before his arrest that he was the target of a terror investigation.

"When I meet with law enforcement, they are constantly telling me how little cooperation they get from Muslim leaders," Mr. King said.

It's hard to know where to start with so many layers of wrongness here, but let's note from the outset that King's premise is backwards. One of the reasons the United States has traditionally avoided the kind of religious strife seen in other countries is that America doesn't have a "radicalized" Muslim population. On the contrary, thanks to the fact that we separate religion and government, prohibit discrimination on religious grounds, have civil rights laws, and embrace the principle of equal opportunity, the United States is generally a model of how to avoid the radicalization of minority faith communities.

Indeed, whether Pete King is able to appreciate this or not, one way to radicalize a group of people is for the government to single them out, treat them as a suspect class, and make reckless accusations while suggesting their civil rights are somehow negotiable.

Also note, King isn't just random backbencher, prone to rhetorical excesses on Fox News -- we're talking about the man who'll be chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee in a few weeks.

Abed A. Ayoub, the legal director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, reminded the NYT that King prefers to ignore the Muslim leaders around the country who've already worked closely with law enforcement officials, especially in the wake of 9/11.

"We are disturbed that this representative who is in a leadership position does not have the understanding and knowledge of what the realities are on the ground," Ayoub said, adding that King's proposal "has bigoted intentions."

It does, indeed.

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

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NO INTENTION OF REPEALING THE REPEAL.... After a century-long struggle to pass health care reform, the very first thing Republicans said after the passage of the Affordable Care Act was that they'd repeal it.

After the devastation of the near-collapse of the global financial system, Republicans fought tooth and nail to prevent new safeguards and reforms to the industry. Again, the very first thing the GOP said after Democrats approved Wall Street reform was that they'd repeal it.

Over the weekend, Democrats, two independents, and eight Republicans repealed the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Any chance the emboldened GOP might try to repeal the repeal? Apparently not.

The No. 2 Senate Republican said Monday that he didn't plan to seek a repeal of this weekend's vote to repeal "Don't ask, don't tell."

Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the GOP whip, suggested that Republicans — or at least he himself — wouldn't look to undo the actions taken by Congress last week to lift the ban on openly gay and lesbian members of the military.

"No, I don't have any plan in place," Kyl said on Fox News on Monday when asked if he had a plan to repeal the repeal of "Don't ask, don't tell."

That's good to hear, I suppose, but I'm curious about something. For Republicans who opposed DADT repeal -- which is to say, the majority of the Republican caucuses from both chambers -- the legislation that passed is both wrong and dangerous. To hear them tell it, the bill will put our troops at risk, undermine the war efforts, and in the mind of Louis Gohmert, put the entire country on the road to ruin.

So why wouldn't they try to undo what Dems have done? They want to repeal the Affordable Care Act and Wall Street reform, but what they see as a radical, anti-military gambit is a done deal going forward?

It's almost as if Republicans don't really expect the shift in policy to be dangerous at all.

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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FAILING TO PROTECT GIRLS FROM CHILD MARRIAGE.... As Jodi Jacobson explained the other day, "An estimated 60 million girls in developing countries now ages 20 to 24 were married before they reached the age of 18. The Population Council estimates that the number will increase by 100 million over the next decade if current trends continue." In many instances, girls are forced into marriage through force or coercion.

For about six years, policymakers in Washington have crafted efforts to use U.S. influence to combat this trend. The result is the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act. In the Senate, where obstructionism and gridlock are the norm, the bill was approved unanimously. In the House, the bill enjoyed the support of 112 co-sponsors, and it was expected to pass easily.

But House Republicans, in the 11th hour, balked. The bill was on the suspension calendar, so it needed a two-thirds majority to pass. On the floor, it had 241 supporters (nearly all of them Democrats), and 166 opponents (nearly all of them Republicans), which meant the legislation died.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the lead champion of the bill, noted in a statement that the House vote "will endanger the lives of millions of women and girls around the world. These young girls, enslaved in marriage, will be brutalized and many will die when their young bodies are torn apart while giving birth. Those who voted to continue this barbaric practice brought shame to Capitol Hill. "

How could this happen? The Washington Post's Conor Williams explains.

In the hours before the vote, Republicans circulated a memo to pro-life members of Congress alleging that the bill could fund abortions and use child marriage "to overturn pro-life laws." It also reiterated concerns over the bill's cost. When it came time for a vote, a number of the bill's pro-life supporters in both parties abandoned ship. Even co-sponsors of the corresponding House bill (H.R. 2103), like Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) and Lee Terry (R-Neb.), voted against it.

Time for the facts. First of all, S. 987 is short -- the body of the bill is around ten pages long -- and does not mention abortion ("family planning" isn't in there either). A quick read suffices to show that the bill is not dealing with abortion.

Second, as I noted yesterday, it does not appropriate any additional funding. It requires that the President and the State Department make child marriage a core part of American international development strategy. One more time: this means that this bill can't provide funding for abortion. It's not an appropriations bill. Nonetheless, some Republicans appear determined to showcase their conservative credentials at all costs -- even when the facts make it unnecessary, even when the world's most vulnerable children bear the bill.

At this point, the bill's future is uncertain, but the ongoing bizarre misrepresentation of a bill designed to empower young girls and women is the worst sort of political gamesmanship. Why play politics with their lives at stake?

It's hardly possible to think even less of House Republicans lately, but this really is tragic. They made up ridiculous arguments, shamelessly lied to members, and needlessly exploited culture-war divisions to kill a bill that should have been a no-brainer.

What is wrong with these people?

Also note, this is the House GOP caucus now. Next month, the caucus will be bigger, more right-wing, and far more powerful. This is the party the country rewarded last month.

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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BARBOUR WELL POSITIONED TO WRAP UP THE RACIST VOTE.... To put it mildly, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R), a likely presidential candidate in 2012, has a difficult background on race relations.

The far-right lobbyist-turned-governor has at times conveyed a demonstrably ridiculous version of history when it comes to civil rights in the South, and Barbour is known for keeping a Confederate flag signed by Jefferson Davis in his office. He's cited Jim Eastland as his political inspiration -- Eastland is best known as a champion on segregation -- and once told a campaign aide who'd made racist comments that "he would be reincarnated as a watermelon and placed at the mercy of blacks."

But Barbour has opened a new chapter in this story with a lengthy interview with the Weekly Standard.

In interviews Barbour doesn't have much to say about growing up in the midst of the civil rights revolution. "I just don't remember it as being that bad," he said. "I remember Martin Luther King came to town, in '62. He spoke out at the old fairground and it was full of people, black and white."

Did you go? I asked.

"Sure, I was there with some of my friends."

I asked him why he went out.

"We wanted to hear him speak."

I asked what King had said that day.

"I don't really remember. The truth is, we couldn't hear very well. We were sort of out there on the periphery. We just sat on our cars, watching the girls, talking, doing what boys do. We paid more attention to the girls than to King."

It's hard to know where to start with such odious madness. As far as Barbour is concerned, Mississippi -- home to lynchings and other Jim Crow-era violence -- wasn't "that bad" in the 1950s and early 1960s? This coming from a man who "never thought twice" about integration, because he attended all-white, segregated schools.

Wait, it gets worse.

Both Mr. Mott and Mr. Kelly had told me that Yazoo City was perhaps the only municipality in Mississippi that managed to integrate the schools without violence. I asked Haley Barbour why he thought that was so.

"Because the business community wouldn't stand for it," he said. "You heard of the Citizens Councils? Up north they think it was like the KKK. Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders. In Yazoo City they passed a resolution that said anybody who started a chapter of the Klan would get their ass run out of town. If you had a job, you'd lose it. If you had a store, they'd see nobody shopped there. We didn't have a problem with the Klan in Yazoo City."

Those "up north" happen to be right, and Barbour happens to be dangerously ignorant. As Matt Yglesias noted, "The Citizens' Councils were, right in the state of Mississippi where Barbour is from, the respectable face of white supremacist political activism." Josh Marshall added that these Citizens' Councils were so transparently racist, the conservative mainstream "would have nothing to do with them."

But from Barbour's twisted perspective, he's inclined to credit these white supremacists for keeping Mississippi calm during the civil rights era.

I recognize, and have written about, political reporters' love for Barbour, in part because of his willingness to feed their egos and serve them alcohol.

But as the 2012 race draws closer, I can only hope the political world recognizes Barbour for what, by all accounts, he appears to be: an old-school Southern racist.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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

* In Minnesota, speculation is intensifying about Rep. Michele Bachmann's (R-Minn.) interest in a 2012 U.S. Senate race, in which she would take on incumbent Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D). A Bachmann spokesperson said "nothing's off the table for the future."

* It's still unclear if Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) would seek another term in 2012, but late last week, the senator said he'd probably run as an independent, if he runs at all.

* Former California State Assemblyman Chuck DeVore (R) struggled in his U.S. Senate campaign this year, losing to Carly Fiorina in a Republican primary. He's now hinting about another statewide campaign, saying he intends to "run for office in 2012," which presumably would mean a race against Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D).

* Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) continues to be coy about his political future, and won't say whether he'll seek re-election in 2012. We're looking to make a decision during the first quarter [of 2011], if I don't run, out of respect for other people," he told the Washington Post.

* Outgoing Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) conceded the other day that he wishes he'd run for a third term. Of course, given his weak poll numbers, Pawlenty may have very well lost, ruining his presidential ambitions.

* And as odd as this may seen, former right-wing U.N. ambassador John Bolton actually seems serious about running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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9/11 HEALTH BILL LOOKING A LITTLE STRONGER.... Over the weekend, we learned that the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which would pay health care costs for 9/11 rescue workers, sickened after exposure to toxic smoke and debris, wasn't quite dead. Two weeks after a unanimous Senate GOP caucus successfully filibustered the bill, there were signs of life.

As of this morning, the momentum appeared to be on Democrats' side. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told ABC's George Stephanopoulos on "Good Morning America" that the bill's supporters "now have the votes." The senator added, "We've made some modifications that some of our Republican colleagues requested and if no one does undue delay, just stands up and delays and delays and delays, we will get this done."

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) added on CBS that sponsors have "changed how we are paying for the bill," which should generate just enough Republican support to deliver "a Christmas miracle."

They apparently won't be getting any help from Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who seemed unimpressed with the legislation during an appearance on Fox News yesterday.

"First of all, they should have peace of mind when it comes to health care. The question is what and how? And when you try do it, as you said in your introduction, in a hurry, in a lame duck session, without a hearing, without understanding what the ramifications are and whether we can amend the bill, you're doing it in the worst way. [...]

"Nobody wants to deny care to people who, and by the way these are primarily people who helped to clean up the site in the aftermath of 9/11 and there weren't enough adequate precautions taken in some cases to deal with potential health issues and to the extent that they've become ill they do need to be taken care of. It's one thing to make an emotional appeal to say we need to care for someone who did something good. It's another to do it in a sensible way. And that's all we're asking for."

That's not a bad pitch, except for the fact that it's wrong. The 9/11 health bill hasn't been done "in a hurry"' it's been pending for over a year. It hasn't been advanced "without a hearing"; the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee held a hearing and advanced the bill to the floor.

And if Kyl and other far-right senators had suggested changes, they've had plenty of time to bring them forward. Indeed, it was GOP senators with ideas on financing that has led to changes that now make final passage possible.

For what it's worth, Republican campaign aide Kevin Madden told Fox News yesterday, "I think there is also a lot of worry on the Republican side that what used to be a New York issue could quickly become a national issue. I think it will be approved."

Here's hoping that's true.

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

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THE PARTISAN DIFFERENCES ON THE DREAM ACT.... The Washington Post had a piece yesterday on the failure of the DREAM Act, which the article suggests will sour Hispanic-American voters on Democrats.

This seems entirely backwards to me. Yes, a handful of Democrats in both chambers opposed the measure, which is tragic. And yes, had the five Senate Dems who broke ranks on Saturday opposed the Republican filibuster, it's very likely the bill would have passed.

But let's be clear about the partisan breakdown on this. Indeed, I put together another chart to help drive the point home.

dream_act_votes.jpg

Democrats in both chambers overwhelmingly supporting this legislation, while Republicans in both chambers overwhelmingly opposed it.

If proponents are going to blame a political party for its demise, it's pretty clear which side of the aisle is responsible.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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JINDAL'S BERM BOONDOGGLE.... The BP oil-spill disaster from the summer has largely faded from public view, but it's worth pausing to appreciate what we've learned about Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), who thinks he did a terrific job responding to the disaster.

Periodically, revelations about Jindal and the spill have been embarrassing for him. We learned that he sent a fraction of the available National Guard troops to the coast to aid in the response, for example. We also learned that the governor rejected bipartisan calls for transparency on spill-related public records, preferring secrecy. There was the unfortunate news that Jindal and his team never actually got around to creating a spill-response plan, and was forced to wing it when disaster struck.

And then, there are Jindal's beloved sand berms, which Rachel Maddow highlighted in a great segment a couple of days ago. Jindal, railing against those rascally federal officials who lacked his wisdom and foresight, was absolutely convinced that miles of artificial sand berms in the Gulf would work wonders. He transformed himself, as Rachel put it, into "uniformed action man."

People who knew what they were talking about insisted this was an awful plan that wouldn't work. Again quoting Rachel, "Because expert opinion was uniformly against the cockamamie sand berm scheme, the federal government was against it. And if the federal government was against it, then that's the fight that Bobby Jindal wanted to fight. Otherwise, how could conservative uniformed action man be seen railing against federal red tape for political purposes?"

Nevertheless, through his "leadership" (I use the word loosely), Jindal fought long enough and hard enough to actually get what he wanted -- and the idea failed. The bipartisan commission investigating the disaster and the response concluded that the berms weren't effective at all. The panel said last week it "can comfortably conclude that the decision to green light the underwhelmingly effective, overwhelmingly expectative Louisiana berm project was flawed."

Indeed, at Jindal's behest, BP invested triple the amount of funds on these berms as it did on any other response.

So, everybody makes mistakes. Jindal thought he knew what to do, and he made a tough call, which turned out to be wildly wrong. He's human and did his best, right? Well, perhaps, but it'd be much easier to cut the governor some slack if he realized he made a mistake. Instead, Jindal's doing the opposite -- calling his berm boondoggle a "great success," that he's "thrilled" to have come up with. Jindal even has a book about how successful he was at the time.

Rachel concluded, "For the Gulf, Bobby Jindal's vanity sand berms were a disaster -- a huge, risky useless waste pursued for a political point when the Gulf needed engineering that worked. But for Bobby Jindal, the $220 million sand berms did work. They worked for him."

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... The NYT's John Harwood ran a good piece last night, providing some context to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's successes of the last two years, and the low-key Nevadan's ability to survive, preserve, and secure a place in history.

Towards the end of the piece, Reid looked ahead.

For his part, Mr. Reid predicted, "We'll get some things done," naming comprehensive immigration legislation as one possibility.

If Republicans' vulnerability among Hispanic voters does not persuade them to compromise, he noted, "they have real problems with their mental capacity."

On the substance, my expectations for comprehensive immigration reform are pretty low. Just a few years ago, the Bush White House and several leading Republicans endorsed a framework Democrats could live with, but opposition from rank-and-file congressional Republicans and the GOP base made passage impossible. The party has become even more right-wing in the years since, and even if the Obama White House embraced the Bush plan in its entirety, it's hard to see how this GOP-led House would even consider it.

That said, there's something endearing about a Senate Majority Leader willing to question Republicans' "mental capacity" on the record to the New York Times.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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A PLEASANT SURPRISE FOR AMERICANS WHO EAT FOOD.... By all appearances, a sweeping overhaul of the nation's food-safety system, approved by both chambers with bipartisan support, was dead just 24 hours ago. It's why last night's unexpected breakthrough was an early Christmas present for Americans who eat food.

A bill that would overhaul the nation's food-safety laws for the first time since the Great Depression came roaring back to life Sunday as Senate Democrats struck a deal with Republicans that helped overcome a technical mistake made three weeks ago and a filibuster threat that seemed likely to scuttle the legislation.

After a weekend of negotiations, tense strategy sessions and several premature predictions about the bill's demise, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) reached a deal with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that the GOP would not filibuster.

Without notice and in a matter of minutes Sunday evening, the Senate approved the bill by unanimous consent, sending it to the House, where passage is expected. President Obama has said he would sign the legislation, which would give the government far-reaching authority to set and enforce safety standards for farmers and food processors.

This isn't the year's sexiest piece of legislation, but it deserves more attention. The bill expands the FDA's ability to recall tainted foods, increase inspections, demand accountability from food companies, and oversee farming -- all in the hopes of cracking down on unsafe food before consumers get sick. This is the first time Congress has approved an overhaul of food-safety laws in 70 years.

It passed the Senate with 73 votes a few weeks ago, but Senate Democrats made a technical mistake in the writing of the legislation. They intended to fix it by inserting the bill's language into the omnibus, but when that was scuttled, the measure's fate appeared sealed.

Under normal circumstances, the fact that the legislation has broad bipartisan support in both chambers would mean the Senate could just reapprove the bill by unanimous agreement. But far-right opponents of the food-safety bill, led by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), said they'd force Dems to start over -- taking a week to jump through the procedural hoops. There was no time for that, which is why the legislation appeared to have no chance.

But last night, out of the blue, opponents yielded, and the Senate passed the bill again by unanimous consent. Why did Coburn and his allies relent? No one seems to know for sure, but we can all be glad he did. The legislation now heads to the House, where approval should be easy, and then to President Obama, who looks forward to signing it into law.

Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, responded, "This reaffirmed my faith in democracy."

When drawing up lists of major Democratic accomplishments of the last two years, I hope folks won't forget this one -- it's likely to make a big difference.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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NEW START INCHES FORWARD, BUT OUTCOME STILL IN DOUBT.... Opponents of the pending nuclear arms treaty, New START, know they don't support the agreement, but they're having a little trouble explaining why. They keep bringing up new complaints, all of which are easily debunked and proven baseless.

During the floor debate yesterday, one of the points that kept coming up is the notion that there just isn't enough time in the lame-duck session for a thorough discussion. It led Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) to raise a good point.

"We have now spent 5 days having a very good debate on New START and proposed amendments. That is as much time as the Senate spent on START I, and more than it spent on START II and the Moscow Treaty combined, but we are looking forward to continuing the debate this week," Kerry said in a statement Sunday evening. "This is a big test of the Senate because this treaty is about our national security, not our politics. Our country and the world have watched a spirited exchange of views in the best traditions of the Senate, and there is more to come as we work to address senators' concerns."

Let no one say Democrats are "jamming" this through without sufficient debate.

Indeed, Republicans have been free to bring forward sweeping amendments, including measures that would kill the treaty. On Saturday, a poison-pill amendment offered by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) failed, and a related push from Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) yesterday fared even worse.

The good news is, these amendments haven't come close to passing. The bad news is, far-right senators might use this as an excuse to scuttle the entire initiative and undermine U.S. foreign policy.

As of yesterday, several key Republicans announced their opposition to the treaty -- for reasons ranging from odd to dumb -- and the outcome remains in doubt.

The top two Senate Republicans declared Sunday that they would vote against President Obama's nuclear treaty with Russia as the bipartisan spirit of last week's tax-cut deal devolved into a sharp battle over national security in the waning days of the session.

With some prominent Republicans angry over passage of legislation ending the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military, the mood in the Senate turned increasingly divisive and Mr. Obama and Democratic lawmakers scrambled to hold together a coalition to approve the treaty.

I continue to find this astounding. Republicans are "angry" that Democrats passed a bipartisan bill requested by the Pentagon and endorsed by the vast majority of Americans, so they're prepared to defeat a treaty that military leaders consider vital to our national security?

The Senate is no place for petulant children.

It's probably a lost cause, but the Republicans' handling of this debate really should generate a wholesale reevaluation of which party has earned credibility on foreign policy and international affairs.

Regardless, a cloture vote will likely be held tomorrow. The Senate leadership is still eyeing a ratification vote for this week.

Steve Benen 8:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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FROM THE WEEKEND.... We covered a fair amount of ground over the weekend. Here's a quick overview of you may have missed.

On Sunday, we talked about:

* Fox News viewers struggle to understand current events. Try to contain your surprise.

* Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl's (R-Ariz.) approach to New START negotiations is pretty much the opposite of good-faith talks.

* During the debate on DADT repeal, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was a bitter, cantankerous ass. But that's just the half of it.

* The Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act still has a pulse, but time is running out.

* The fact that eight GOP senators voted for DADT repeal -- more than expected -- signals a larger cultural shift.

* Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) skipped Saturday's key votes to attend a family Christmas party. That's really not an acceptable excuse.

And on Saturday, we talked about:

* The repeal of the DADT policy is a breakthrough victory, and there's plenty of credit to go around.

* The news on the Hill was not all good -- a Republican filibuster killed the DREAM Act.

* Putting Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) on the House Intelligence Committee is ridiculous, and quite possibly dangerous.

* In "This Week in God," we covered several developments of note, including prominent Republican leaders rallying behind religious right organizations recently labeled "hate groups."

* McCain's dismissal of the 9/11 health bill has led some New Yorkers to label him "McWeasel."

* Florida may join Wisconsin and Ohio in the group of states that inexplicably turns down high-speed-rail funds from the federal government.

* The latest arguments against New START aren't just wrong; they're incoherent.

Steve Benen 7:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (1)

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December 19, 2010

WHEN PROPAGANDA IS A POOR SUBSTITUTE FOR NEWS.... I've long been fascinated by studies documenting public awareness of current events based on preferred news outlets. More to the point, the fun comes by realizing that Fox News viewers know* less than everyone else.

This isn't exactly new. Seven years ago, just six months into the war in Iraq, the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland found that those who relied on the Republican network were "three times more likely than the next nearest network to hold all three misperceptions -- about WMD in Iraq, Saddam Hussein was involved with 9/11, and foreign support for the U.S. position on the war in Iraq."

Ben Armbruster added, "An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll out last year found that Fox News viewers were overwhelmingly misinformed about health care reform proposals. A 2008 Pew study ranked Fox News last in the number of 'high knowledge' viewers and a 2007 Pew poll ranked Fox viewers as the least knowledgeable about national and international affairs."

The problem has arguably gotten worse. This week, PIPA published a report, this time on "Misinformation and the 2010 Election" (pdf). The point was to measure Americans' understanding of a variety of key developments that news consumers would likely be familiar with. As was the case seven years ago, Fox News viewers were "significantly more likely" to be confused about reality.

Researchers found that Americans who paid more attention to the news were more likely to know about current events. But Americans who relied on Fox News were "significantly more likely than those who never watched it to believe":

* most economists estimate the stimulus caused job losses (12 points more likely)

* most economists have estimated the health care law will worsen the deficit (31 points)

* the economy is getting worse (26 points)

* most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring (30 points)

* the stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts (14 points)

* their own income taxes have gone up (14 points)

* the auto bailout only occurred under Obama (13 points)

* when TARP came up for a vote most Republicans opposed it (12 points)

* and that it is not clear that Obama was born in the United States (31 points)

This point, in particular, seems especially noteworthy -- in some cases, regular Fox News viewers would have done better, statistically speaking, if they had received no news at all and simply guessed whether the claims about current events were accurate.

What's more, this isn't party affiliations -- Democrats who watch Fox News were worse off than Democrats who relied on legitimate news organizations (though Dems who watch Fox News were still less confused than Republicans who watch Fox News).

It would take an unlikely twist of self-reflection, but at a certain point, Fox News and its audience might take a moment to ponder why these viewers are so wrong, so often, about so much. That almost certainly won't happen, of course, in part because the network and its viewers aren't quite informed enough to realize they're uninformed.

*D'oh!

Steve Benen 11:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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KYL'S BAD FAITH ON NEW START.... It seems to have been largely forgotten, but back in July, two months after American and Russian leaders had come to terms on New START, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) raised some mild concerns. Kyl, the GOP's point man on the nuclear arms treaty, said so long as the Obama administration committed necessary resources to maintaining and modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal, Republicans would consider the rest of the treaty "relatively benign."

The White House was pleased. After all, Kyl's concerns were easy to address, and the administration quickly announced that they would gladly commit to Kyl's requests. Leading administration officials met with Kyl privately, and mapped out in detail how they're prepared to do exactly what he asked them to do. Even Jon Kyl, with his limited intellect, should have been able to understand when someone says "yes" to his demands.

But it doesn't matter.

It's official: Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl will not vote for ratification of the START treaty in its current state.

The Senate GOP point man on the nuclear arms agreement told host Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday" that without any amendments, he could not vote for the treaty.

"This treaty needs to be fixed. We're not going to have time to do that," the Senate minority whip said.

Kyl is, of course, just making things up as he goes along, inventing new reasons to oppose the treaty -- reasons that don't make any sense to anyone who actually gives a damn about the policy. It's as if Kyl identified how best to negotiate in good faith, and then chose to do the exact opposite.

Likewise, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced he'll oppose the treaty, too, muttering something about "trying to rush things right here before Christmas Eve," which might make more sense if the treaty hasn't been sitting in the Senate since April.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), meanwhile, whined for a quite a while yesterday on the Senate floor, saying he's "ignored" the issue of nuclear proliferation because he's been "pretty busy around here stopping some bad ideas or at least trying to." The work, he added, has been "really wearing on the body."

I might suggest that if a U.S. senator can't keep up with a variety of important issues at the same time, a career in shaping federal policy might not be the best choice.

Putting all of this aside, are the votes going to be there are or not? Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) sounded relatively optimistic this morning, but Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), who's been fantastic on this issue, was cautious about predicting ratification. To ratify, nine Senate Republicans would have to do the right thing, but at this point, I only see seven firm "yes" votes -- Bennett (Utah), Brown (Mass.), Collins (Maine), Lugar (R-Ind.), Murkowski (R-Alaska), Snowe (Maine), and Voinovich (Ohio).

Would every other Republican in the chamber ignore the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, eight former secretaries of state from both parties, five former secretaries of defense from both parties, seven former Strategic Command chiefs, national security advisers from both parties, and nearly all former commanders of U.S. nuclear forces? It's certainly possible.

Remember, the only organized groups on the planet hoping to see the Senate fail to ratify this treaty are Iranian officials, North Korean officials, hardliners in Russia, and most Republicans in the nation's capital.

Update: The Senate considered a poison-pill amendment yesterday, offered by Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and John Barrasso (Wyo.), that would have killed the treaty. It failed, garnering only 37 votes. The good news is, New START cleared the hurdle. The bad news is, far-right senators might use this as an excuse to scuttle the entire initiative and undermine U.S. foreign policy.

Steve Benen 10:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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WHY MUST HE BE SUCH AN ANGRY OLD MAN.... Most good stories have heroes, and when it comes to the story of repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the list of heroes is wonderfully long.

And then there are the villains.

If John McCain gets any more hostile toward his Senate colleagues, they might consider having him go through the metal detector before he enters the Capitol.

Saturday's debate on the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy was only half an hour old when the Arizona Republican burst onto the floor from the cloakroom, hiked up his pants and stalked over to his friend Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Ignoring Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who had the floor, McCain hectored the men noisily for a few moments, waving his arms for emphasis.

When McCain finally stormed off, Durbin shook his head in exasperation and Lieberman smiled. A minute later, McCain returned -- he had apparently remembered another element of his grievance -- and resumed his harangue.

Watching McCain rail endlessly yesterday was a genuinely painful experience. In one sense, he was practically embracing the caricature of himself, lashing out as a bitter, cantankerous ass. I kept expected McCain to start shaking his fist at clouds and demanding that children stay off his lawn.

But that's really not that unusual anymore, and it's only part of a larger picture. McCain wasn't just an angry old man yesterday; what we saw was darker and uglier. The Arizona senator on the floor yesterday, with a series of cringe-worthy tantrums, was hateful and filled with bile. McCain was even sarcastic at times, as if he almost relished the role.

This wasn't about policy. By all appearances, this was personal.

When we look back at the apartheid-loving segregationists of the 1950s and 1960s, most decent people see racists and misguided monsters. Yesterday, it seemed as if McCain decided, perhaps deliberately, that he wanted to be that guy for the 21st century. Why? I obviously can't read the conservative senator's mind, but it seemed to have something to with (a) his intense disgust for President Obama and anything he wants; and (b) his revulsion towards gay people.

If you missed the display, you missed McCain arguing:

* The tripartisan majority supporting repeal are acting "in direct repudiation" to the wishes of the public (which, incidentally, strongly supports repeal).

* Apropos of nothing, McCain said he's launched this crusade because, "You go up to Bethesda Naval Hospital, Marines are up there with no legs, none. You've got Marines at Walter Reed with no limbs."

* At one point, McCain said, "I'm aware that this vote will probably pass today ... and there will be high fives all over the liberal bastions of America. And we'll see the talk shows tomorrow, a bunch of people talking about how great it is. Most of them never have served in the military or maybe not even known someone in the military." (That will be news to the decorated war heroes who voted for repeal yesterday, including Jim Webb and Daniel Inouye.)

This isn't another "Whatever happened to the old McCain?" piece, which we've all seen too many times in recent years. Rather, this is to suggest McCain has done more than make the transition from "maverick" to petulant right-winger. Yesterday, the man waving his arms on the Senate floor was a misanthropic hack who's abandoned basic decency, and trashed any hopes he might have had about a respectable legacy.

Steve Benen 10:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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9/11 HEALTH BILL NOT QUITE DEAD.... Two weeks ago, a unanimous Senate GOP caucus blocked a debate on the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which would pay health care costs for 9/11 rescue workers, sickened after exposure to the toxic smoke and debris. Given the limited time remaining in the lame-duck session, it appeared Republicans had killed the bill.

But as of late yesterday, the 9/11 health bill had a pulse.

Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand said Saturday that she and other sponsors of a stalled 9/11 health bill had won new Republican support for the measure and intended to try again to pass it before the end of the 111th Congress.

Following the Senate's vote to repeal the ban on gays serving in the military, Ms. Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, said Democrats intended to resurrect the health initiative in the coming days after falling three votes short of breaking a filibuster against it earlier this month.

"We have the votes we need," Ms. Gillibrand said. "We have indications from several Republicans that they very much want to vote for this bill."

As of two weeks ago, the bill had 58 votes, made up entirely of every member of the Democratic caucus. There's apparently been some movement, though, on the two GOP votes needed to end the Republican filibuster.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) had promised to vote for the bill, then reversed course, and now appears ready to reverse course again. He'd be vote #59. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), meanwhile, said yesterday that she, too, is prepared to vote for the Zadroga bill, so long as it has the "appropriate offsets."

That's really the key -- what we're left with is a debate about a funding mechanism. The way the bill is currently shaped, Democrats pay for the health costs for 9/11 heroes by closing tax loopholes for foreign businesses that do business in the United States. This has drawn the ire of Republicans and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has demanded the loopholes remain in place.

Collins, in effect, has told Gillibrand and other Dems that the bill can pass if they pay for it some other way, and yesterday, talks for an alternative funding mechanism appeared to be progressing. Details are a little sketchy, but the new plan would apparently include new visa fees and a 2% fee on some procurement contracts.

The next challenge would be finding floor time before the Senate wraps up for the year. As Gillibrand sees it, this can and should follow New START ratification this week. Stay tuned.

Steve Benen 9:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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THE RESULT OF 'A GENERATIONAL CHANGE'.... For about a year, the strategy for getting the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal through the Senate was built around making a couple of open-to-reason Republicans happy, and getting over the 60-vote threshold.

It seemed unlikely Dems would pick up eight GOP votes on anything, better yet a culture-war issue involving gay civil rights, which made yesterday's outcome all the more heartening.

The Republican senators voting "yes" with the Democrats on repeal were Richard Burr of North Carolina, Mark Kirk of Illinois, John Ensign of Nevada, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, George Voinovich of Ohio, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska - and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine.

Burr, Ensign and Kirk did not announce their support for repeal before the Saturday vote. Burr and Ensign initially sided with Republicans in a procedural vote to bring the measure to the floor; they voted for repeal on the final vote.

But while Kirk and Ensign had previously indicated they were open to voting for repeal, Burr's vote came as a surprise even to the sponsors of the legislation.

Susan Collins -- who, to her enormous credit, took the lead in lobbying for Republican votes -- never even reached out to Burr, assuming he was unreachable on this.

So, what changed his mind? Burr told reporters he still objects to the timing of repeal, but nevertheless concluded that we've had "a generational change." He added that DADT-style discrimination is "not accepted practice anywhere in our society."

It's tempting to note that oddity of Ensign and Burr supporting the filibuster and backing final passage. There's something of a disconnect here -- they ended up supporting legislation that they didn't even want the chamber to vote on.

But why quibble? They ended up in the right place and made yesterday's breakthrough that much more one-sided.

The larger lesson here is that the national controversy, such as it was, is long since over. It's one thing for moderates from Maine, Massachusetts, and Illinois to side with Dems on this, but it's something else altogether when conservative Republican senators from traditionally "red" states -- including one (Ensign) who's likely to face a primary challenger in 2012 -- to break ranks on an issue like this.

It's indicative of where the public stands, and the extent to which conservatives failed miserably to persuade much of anyone to support the status quo.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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MANCHIN'S UNEXCUSED ABSENCE.... It was an important day on Capitol Hill yesterday, with the Senate taking up some key measures that were years in the making. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who was expected to miss the proceedings with pre-op tests before cancer surgery tomorrow, made a point to be there. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), an orthodox Jew, worked on the Shabbat.

So it came as something of a surprise when one member of the Senate Democratic caucus couldn't quite make it to work yesterday -- and offered an underwhelming explanation for his absence.

There was one Democratic senator who missed today's crucial votes on Capitol Hill: West Virginia's Joe Manchin, who was elected just last month.

So where was Manchin when the Senate finally passed the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal and took one last shot at the DREAM Act immigration bill?

At a holiday party.

"Sen. Manchin and his wife Gayle planned a holiday gathering over a year ago with all their children and grandchildren as they will not all be together on Christmas Day. While he regrets missing the votes, it was a family obligation that he just could not break," Manchin spokeswoman Sara Payne Scarbro said.

By all appearances, Manchin's vote wouldn't have affected any of the outcomes, and based on his stated positions, Manchin would have voted with Republicans anyway.

But it's the principle here that rankles. Call me old fashioned, but I think senators should show up for work, and if they can't, the excuse should be better than "Christmas party."

Indeed, Ben Smith noted that Manchin wouldn't even have far to go to return home after the day's proceedings: "United Airlines Flight 7795 departs Washington Dulles this evening at 5:40 PM and goes direct to Charleston, W.V., where Manchin lives, arriving at 7:16 PM."

He could have voted and been home in time for pictures and eggnog.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee's spokesperson said, "I'm sure that most Senators, as well as the hundreds of staffers who had to come to work today, would have rather been at a Christmas Party like Joe Manchin. But perhaps in Joe Manchin's world today was a win-win -- not only was he able to skip work and party, but he was also able to avoid voting on two very sensitive political issues. For a Senator who has only been on the job a few weeks, Manchin's absence today, and the apparent lack of seriousness with which he takes the job he was elected to do, speaks volumes."

In most instances, the NRSC takes some pretty cheap shots at Democrats. In this case, the Dem deserves it.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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December 18, 2010

DADT RELEGATED TO THE TRASH HEAP OF HISTORY.... There's going to be a point in the not too distant future in which young people turn to their parents and teachers with a quizzical look.

"Let me get this straight," they'll say. "The law dictated that courageous and patriotic American volunteers, physically fit and ready to serve, were legally prohibited from military service -- even during two wars -- because they acknowledged they were gay?" And some of us will sheepishly reply, "Yep, I never understood it, either."

And thanks to today's developments, we'll be able to add one more aspect to our explanation: "Fortunately, just enough Americans realized the country had made a mistake and put things right."

This morning, a bipartisan group of 57 Democrats and six Republicans broke a GOP filibuster, allowing the Senate to vote up or down on a standalone bill to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." This afternoon, the Senate finished the deal -- the legislation passed 65 to 31.

The legislation is identical to the one that passed the House a few days ago, so its next stop is the White House, where President Obama will gladly sign it into law, officially removing DADT from the books and relegating the discriminatory policy to the trash heap of history.

It's worth pausing to note some of the folks who made this success possible.

* The LGBT community's activists and their allies -- For those demanding equality and LGBT civil rights, there are a variety of issues that fuel and motivate activism, but DADT has been a central rallying cry for many years. They helped get repeal on the map, helped push policymakers to do what's right, and it was the community's tireless efforts that helped deliver today's win.

* The American people -- Policymakers don't always follow the polls, but the more popular the proposal, the easier it is to pass. In the case of DADT, survey after survey showed the American mainstream overwhelmingly supportive of repeal -- regardless of party, ideology, age, race, gender, education level, income, or region. Had the public not shown such good sense, today's victory, in all likelihood, wouldn't have happened.

* U.S. troops -- Gay and lesbian soldiers helped tell their story, making it painfully obvious to decent people that the status quo wasn't working. The larger community of servicemen and women answered a survey, and their comfort with change made today possible.

* President Obama -- In 2008, candidate Obama ran on a platform that included DADT repeal as a key promise. In his first State of the Union address, President Obama put repeal on the front burner, urging Congress to make the long-overdue change, and raising the visibility of the issue to new heights. The president, his White House, and Organizing for America continued to push for repeal, and played an important role in making it happen.

* Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen -- Perhaps no one brought more credibility and stature to this debate than Gates and Mullen, both of whom not only endorsed repeal, but offered persuasive and powerful congressional testimony on the issue. In multiple hearings, Republicans kept rehashing tired talking points, and these two men kept knocking them down. It was absolutely pivotal.

* Joe Lieberman -- It pains me to admit it, because I've been exasperated with Lieberman for many years, but the truth is he showed real leadership on this issue, and today's victory is a direct result of his hard work.

* Harry Reid -- The Senate Majority Leader was not only on the side of angels on this issue all along, but he made damn sure it reached the floor when it looked like it might not. Reid invested endless hours in helping assemble the necessary votes, and worked with the House to get the standalone bill crafted just right. Without Reid's commitment and follow-through, the bill would have very likely died.

* Susan Collins -- There have been times when I've questioned whether she was negotiating in good faith. She was. Last week, Collins teamed up with Lieberman, when it would have been easy for her to quit and move on, and made the standalone a bipartisan bill, which in turn helped bring other Republicans on board.

* Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and Patrick Murphy -- House Democrats have been on board with repeal from the outset, and were willing to pass this more than once to accommodate a serpentine process. Pelosi, Hoyer, and Murphy never wavered, and never blinked.

I could go on, and I don't want to short shrift other deserving figures. Kirsten Gillibrand, Barney Frank, Hillary Clinton, Colin Powell, and many others made today possible.

The larger point, though, is that a variety of groups, figures, leaders, and policymakers established a goal and worked together to reach it. The result is a historic victory for American civil rights that all of us can be proud of.

Steve Benen 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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BIPARTISAN MAJORITY CLEARS WAY FOR DADT REPEAL, 63 TO 33.... Seventeen years ago, a bipartisan majority Congress thought it had struck a reasonable "compromise" on gays in the military -- officials would stop asking those who volunteered for service, and so long as gays and lesbians agreed to stay in the closet, the country would allow them to put their lives on the line.

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell," however, wasn't much of a compromise. Courageous volunteers, trained and ready to serve, were investigated and driven out of the military. The process cost too much, undermined military readiness, and undercut our national security interests, even in a time of war.

The effort to right this wrong has been a long time coming. Just this year, the House and Senate have each voted repeatedly on efforts to repeal the existing policy. In each instance, the most recent coming just last week, Senate Republicans blocked an up-or-down vote.

This morning, that changed. Just three days after the House approved a standalone bill on DADT repeal, the Senate defeated a Republican filibuster of an identical bill. It wasn't even close -- 63 senators supported repeal, while 33 opposed it.

If my count is right, the Republicans who broke ranks and sided with Democrats were Brown (Mass.), Collins (Maine), Kirk (Ill.), Murkowski (Alaska), Snowe (Maine), and Voinovich (Ohio). In this Senate, on a hot-button issue, that's pretty impressive. [Update: Here's the roll call on this morning's vote.]

It's worth emphasizing that this morning's vote wasn't final passage; it was to overcome the Republican filibuster. The clock now starts on the final up-or-down vote on DADT repeal, which will probably be held tomorrow. Passage now appears to be a lock, and it's not too early to celebrate.

I'll have more on this once the bill clears the chamber, but this is a milestone moment for American civil rights and the drive towards equality.

When advocates of discrimination, division, and bigotry try and fail, America wins. When policymakers stand up for those who put their lives on the line for the rest of us, America wins. When a barrier that stands in the way of equality falls, America wins.

The arc of history is long, but I'm pleased to note that it's still bending towards justice.

Steve Benen 12:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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SENATE KILLS 'DREAM ACT'.... It should have been an easy one.

Every year, tens of thousands of young illegal immigrants graduate from American high schools, but are quickly stuck -- they can't qualify for college aid, and they can't work legally. America is the only home they've ever known -- in most cases, they were, at a very young age, brought into the country illegally by their parents -- but at 18, they have few options.

The DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act), which has traditionally enjoyed strong bipartisan support, provides a path to citizenship for these young immigrants -- graduate from high school, get conditional permanent residency status, go to college or serve in the military, pay some steep fees, and become eligible for citizenship. The Pentagon urged Congress to pass it, and the CBO found that it lowers the deficit, a priority Republicans at least pretend to consider important.

Last week, it passed the House, and it would pass the Senate if members were allowed to vote on it. But that's not how the chamber works anymore -- this morning, as expected, Republicans blocked the vote, refused to allow majority rule, and killed the bill for the foreseeable future.

When the gavel went down, the DREAM Act had 55 supporters and 41 opponents. Because the Senate is the Senate, 41 trumps 55.

As best as I can tell, three Republicans -- Lugar (Ind.), Bennett (Utah), and Murkowski (Alaska) -- sided with the majority. Five Democrats -- Pryor (Ark.), Tester (Montana), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Baucus (Montana), and Hagan (N.C.) -- sided with the minority. [Update: Here's the roll call on the vote.]

If those five Democrats had voted for cloture, the GOP filibuster would have been defeated and the DREAM Act would be on its way towards passage.

Also note, the legislation was written in large part by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and it has enjoyed the enthusiastic backing of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

But that was before the Republican Party fell off the right-wing cliff -- this morning, both Hatch and McCain refused to allow senators to even vote up or down on the bill they used to champion.

Steve Benen 11:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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BOEHNER, BACHMANN, AND A RECKLESS COMMITTEE ASSIGNMENT.... As the start of the 112th Congress draws closer, House Republican leaders are making committee assignments for their new majority caucus. One assignment, in particular, appears inexplicable.

In a press release yesterday, incoming House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) explained, "The members of the House Intelligence Committee are charged with one of the most significant responsibilities of Congress -- keeping the American people safe by ensuring our nation's intelligence community has the resources and authorities it needs to succeed and conducting effective oversight of the Administration."

That seems like a reasonably fair assessment of the committee, though I'd also note that members of the House Intelligence Committee are given access to some of the nation's most sensitive materials and classified secrets. It's a panel that requires a great deal of its members, who can't so much as hint about what they're shown behind closed doors.

And with that in mind, this decision is just breathtaking.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, one of the most outspoken conservatives in the House, has won an appointment to the secretive House Intelligence Committee.

The move by incoming Speaker John Boehner to put Bachmann on the panel surprised Republican insiders, who see her as a fiery grass roots leader of the tea party movement but not necessarily a leader on national security among House Republicans.

Bachmann once suggested that Congress should investigate whether Democratic lawmakers were pro- or anti-America, and she's been a cable TV favorite because she's known for colorful sound bites.

Members of the Intelligence panel receive classified briefings in a secure conference room in the Capitol, and are sworn to secrecy about most of the committee's activities.

Look, I realize that Bachmann makes convenient fodder for jokes and mockery, but there's a good reason for that -- she's stark raving mad. Bachmann, in all seriousness, is one of the more ridiculous people to serve on Capitol Hill in my lifetime. I think most reasonable observers, regardless of party or ideology, should be able to agree that Bachmann lacks maturity, judgment, and the intellect needed to understand complex subjects.

Voluntarily assigning her responsibilities related to top secret intelligence and our national security is more than just a mistake -- it's arguably dangerous.

I've heard some whispers that have suggest Boehner is actually thinking strategically on this. Members of the Intelligence Committee are generally encouraged to avoid the media spotlight, and since Boehner very likely finds Bachmann embarrassing, this is his way of forcing her to keep a lower profile.

Perhaps there's something to this. But the fact remains that trusting Bachmann with our most guarded secrets is an inherently risky move.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is the ongoing fallout from the Southern Poverty Law Center's decision to label leading, anti-gay religious right organizations as "hate groups."

In November, the SPLC, a respected source for decades on monitoring extremists and hate-based organizations, raised quite a few eyebrows with its updated lists, which included some leading religious right entities -- including the Family Research Council and the American Family Association -- along side mainstays like the KKK.

The religious right movement, not surprisingly, was apoplectic -- they want to spew hate without being labeled a hate group.

This week, however, the groups received some higher-profile backing.

A number of prominent Republicans have signed on to the Family Research Council's "Start Debating, Stop Hating" campaign in response to a Southern Poverty Law Center annual report that labeled the Family Research Council a "hate group." [...]

Unsurprisingly, the FRC was not happy about the designation, and labeled the list "slanderous." And today they launched a "Start Debating, Stop Hating" website, and took out a full page ad in Politco, Dave Weigel reports.

The ad says: "The surest sign one is losing a debate is to resort to character assassination. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a liberal fundraising machine whose tactics have been condemned by observers across the political spectrum, is doing just that."

More interesting than the ad is who undersigned it: incoming House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.), Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), and even Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R).

The Republican Party isn't always reliable when it comes to passing legislation the religious right movement wants, but when it comes to defending the groups' extremist and hate-filled rhetoric, the GOP has its allies' back.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* Atheists have purchased some ads on four city buses in Fort Worth, Texas, and the New York Times reports that it's led to a "clash of beliefs" that has "rattled" the city. Among the responses: ministers organizing a bus boycott, a push to ban all religious advertising on public buses, and my personal favorite, a decision from local businesses to hire a "van with the Christian message to follow the atheist-messaged buses around town."

* Following up on earlier reports about Kentucky helping finance the development of a creationist theme park with tax incentives, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D) insisted this week that the state will not allow the theme park to discriminate on religious grounds when hiring employees. That's good news, but it doesn't quite reconcile the subsidies problem.

* And the Vatican scandal stemming from the sexual abuse of children took another turn in Ireland this week: "The Vatican tried to stop Irish church leaders from defrocking a paedophile priest whose abusive behaviour was known about from the early 1970s, a previously censored chapter from a report on clerical child abuse in Dublin revealed today. Father Tony Walsh, who was imprisoned for raping boys last week, is named in the report as one of the worst child abusers in the Dublin archdiocese." (thanks to D.J. for the tip)

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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'MCWEASEL' BLASTS 9/11 HEALTH BILL.... It's not enough for Senate Republicans to block a vote on the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. Now, members like John McCain (R-Ariz.) are condemning Democratic efforts to even try to pass the bill.

Arizona Sen. John McCain did it again, insulting 9/11's heroes and belittling the push to pass a health bill as "fooling around."

The Arizona Republican, dubbed McWeasel for blowing off an ailing Ground Zero construction worker two weeks ago, whipped up new fury last night by suggesting Senate Democrats have wasted time trying to pass the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, among other bills.

At the time, McCain was refusing to accept a time limit for debating the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

"To have a time agreement after all of the fooling around that we've been doing on [the] Dream Act, on New York City ... we will not have a time agreement from this side," he insisted angrily.

Let's unpack this a bit, because I think it's important.

Democrats, hoping to complete the lame-duck schedule in a reasonable amount of time, sought to limit the length of the already-long debate over New START ratification. McCain, showing the temperament of a spoiled four-year-old, threw a little tantrum and refused to limit the duration, insisting that there'd be more time for him to make ridiculous arguments about arms control if Democrats hadn't wasted time "fooling around" on frivolous legislation.

But this is more than just petty and spiteful, it's also truly idiotic. For one thing, Republicans are responsible for the lengthy delays, thanks to pointless obstructionist tactics. For another, providing health care to 9/11 first responders is not some pointless exercise.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York was not amused.

"Mr. President, this is not fooling around," Mr. Schumer declared standing before a huge photo of two rescue workers amid the chaos at ground zero, one of them apparently injured.

"These men and the thousands of others who rushed to the towers on 9/11 and in the days thereafter were not fooling around," Mr. Schumer continued. "They, just like my colleague from Arizona, were risking their lives. It was like a time of war. The bottom line is that we were attacked and without asking any questions, the police and firefighters, the construction workers and E.M.T. workers, who rushed to the towers risked their lives in a time of war as well. And to call that helping them fooling around is saddening and frustrating, saddening and frustrating."

As long as we're on the subject, Fox News, perhaps shamed by Jon Stewart, finally mentioned the 9/11 health bill yesterday. Shep Smith didn't emphasize which party was responsible, but he nevertheless was right to describe efforts to defeat the legislation as "disgusting" and "a national disgrace." (thanks to reader V.S.)

We also learned yesterday why Republicans have been so opposed to the measure -- the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been quietly lobbying against it because it's financed by closing tax loopholes for foreign businesses that do business in the United States. The Chamber cares more about protecting the loopholes than caring for 9/11 heroes, so it's been successfully pressuring Republicans to kill the bill.

Steve Benen 9:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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IS THIS REALLY WHAT FLORIDA HAD IN MIND?.... As part of the economic stimulus, the federal government was prepared to spend nearly $1 billion on a high-speed-rail corridor linking Madison and Milwaukee in Wisconsin. It was poised to be a boon to job creation and economic development in the state -- right up until Gov.-elect Scott Walker (R) forced Wisconsin to give the money back.

Fine, federal officials said, we'll redirect those funds to other high-speed-rail projects elsewhere. Florida, in particular, was poised to be one of the big winners from Wisconsin's inexplicable desire to shoot itself in the foot.

As it turns out, though, Florida is also about to swear in a right-wing governor, and he, too, may turn down the funds, the jobs, the economic development, and the infrastructure investment.

The current plan is to create a $2.6 billion high-speed project linking Orlando and Tampa, and in time, Orlando and Miami. Nearly every penny would be funded by the federal government -- and the remaining costs would be covered by private companies vying for contracts to run the system.

But the Sunshine State's incoming criminal governor, Republican Rick Scott, is hedging. (via Atrios)

Could Rick Scott, who's all about getting people back to work, manage to kill the planned Orlando to Tampa high-speed rail line and the 24,000 jobs it would bring Florida?

The answer's yes, if, in the end, the governor-elect cares more about partisan politics than an economic opportunity that anyone with his supposed business savvy would be daft to resist.

Regrettably, Mr. Scott's sending signals that to him, politics may well be more important than doing what's clearly in the best interests of Florida. How unfortunate for the state, which needs the stimulative, potentially transformative high-speed line.

And how ironic for someone who cast himself as a political outsider in his run for governor.

The Orlando Sentinel's editorial board tried to come up with a coherent explanation for Scott's position, but the best it could do is (a) the incoming governor irrational partisanship places Obama hatred above Florida's needs; and (b) he hopes to impress the GOP's right-wing base, even if it costs Florida 24,000 jobs.

Is this really what Floridians had in mind on Nov. 2?

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'STARTING' TO SOUND INCOHERENT.... Even by the low standards of Senate Republicans, watching several leading members threaten to derail New START ratification over "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal was astonishing. National security policy should never be in the hands of petty children, and yesterday's floor debate reinforced the worst fears about GOP priorities and judgment.

But the DADT hostage strategy wasn't the only angle to the debate that made it such a humiliating display. We also heard nonsense from the likes of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who said the treaty to reduce nuclear stockpiles will actually increase the number of nuclear weapons. Why? Because the voices in his head told him that made sense.

Some ridiculous arguments were even more problematic.

In a long floor speech during Senate deliberations on ratifying the New START treaty, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) assailed the treaty for supposedly containing language to weaken the United States' ability to implement missile defense systems. McCain cited several parts of the treaty, but focused on language in the preamble, claiming that Russia will "surely" use it to "try to keep us from building up our missile defenses."

Yet analysts have confirmed that this is a misinterpretation of the clause; not only is the preamble non-binding, but in addition the clause in question is merely a statement of widely-recognized fact on the interrelationship between offensive and defensive missile defense systems.

McCain has absolutely no idea what he's talking about. This isn't a subjective matter, where reasonable people can come to different conclusions shaped by perspective and opinion; McCain is just completely wrong -- the preamble is non-binding, and it simply describes the existing reality. McCain said the language will hinder missile defense efforts going forward, but the U.S. general in charge of missile defense says that's backwards.

Reality notwithstanding, a growing number of Republicans rallied behind McCain's recommended changes to the preamble, despite the fact that the language is non-binding, and despite knowing that approving the amendment would necessarily kill the treaty.

In all likelihood, McCain's proposed changes will fail -- there's nowhere near a majority prepared to embrace it. The problem, though, is that it becomes another excuse for conservative senators to scuttle the treaty, blow off the demands of military and diplomatic leaders, and undermine U.S. foreign policy.

At this point, the head-count is looking shaky. To ratify, nine Senate Republicans would have to do the right thing, but at this point, I only see seven firm "yes" votes -- Bennett (Utah), Brown (Mass.), Collins (Maine), Lugar (R-Ind.), Murkowski (R-Alaska), Snowe (Maine), and Voinovich (Ohio).

This one's going to be tight, and I suspect the White House will be pushing next week as hard as it can. For a recap of the administration's case, check out President Obama's weekly address this morning.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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December 17, 2010

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

* As expected, President Obama signed the tax deal into law today.

* Oh my: "The CIA has pulled its top spy out of Pakistan after terrorists threatened to kill him, current and former U.S. officials said, an unusual move for the U.S. and a complication on the front lines of the fight against al-Qaida."

* Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) suggested today, for the first time publicly, that the Senate may actually wrap up its work for the year before Christmas. It's funny what the death of the omnibus can do to the calendar.

* Of course, with the death of the omnibus, funding the next stage of ACA implementation becomes a lot more difficult.

* Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) had hedged, just a little, on whether she's a firm "yes" vote on a clean DADT repeal bill, but today she removed all doubt -- she'll side with the majority. By most counts, repeal supporters now total 61.

* The Food Safety Modernization Act was part of the omnibus. Republicans now have a new chance to kill the bill that passed the chamber with broad bipartisan support.

* For weeks, there have been 38 judicial nominations waiting for up-or-down votes. As of last night, there are 34 -- the small Republican minority decided to let four of them get confirmation votes, and they were approved. Three of the four have waiting for a vote since May, the other since June.

* In addition to DADT repeal, the Senate will also move on the DREAM Act over the weekend. Attorney General Eric Holder offered a strong endorsement of the proposal earlier today.

* Fred Kaplan reviews the latest assessment of the war in Afghanistan. He's not encouraged.

* Why nukes aren't the only scary aspect of North Korean society.

* Best wishes to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) for a speedy recovery. The prognosis on his prostate cancer looks encouraging, thanks to doctors catching it early.

* The most entertaining part of my day was ready Jon Chait's response to Nick Gillespie.

* Looking back at the BP oil spill disaster, it's worth remembering that Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) had no idea what he was talking about.

* I'm glad this effort failed: "Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), blaming Republicans, admitted defeat Friday in his long-shot bid to advance legislation this year that would delay looming Environmental Protection Agency climate change rules. Rockefeller -- who says the rules will harm his coal-heavy state -- had vowed Thursday to try and force a vote on the measure, but now admits it's on ice for the year."

* When Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) whines about a $165,000 earmark for maple-syrup research in Vermont, remember, there's a lot to this that the senator doesn't understand.

* "The Ph.D. Challenge" actually sounds pretty clever.

* And in the upcoming Thor movie, the role of mythical Nordic deity Heimdall will be played by an African-American actor. That has racists awfully upset. (thanks to readers D.N. and J.D.)

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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IDIOCY WATCH, CONT'D.... Following up on the last post, it's worth highlighting comments Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) made to Greg Sargent this afternoon.

"I felt like momentum was growing for START," Corker said, adding that since Reid announced he was holding votes on DADT and DREAM, it has had a "chilling effect."

"I'm watching support for the treaty erode, because of highly partisan political issues being brought up solely because activist groups in the Democratic Party want this done," he continued.

This is among the dumbest policy positions I've ever heard a senator take out loud and in public.

New START is necessary for American national security and foreign policy, a truth heartily endorsed by eight former secretaries of state from both parties, five former secretaries of defense from both parties, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and several of his predecessors, seven former Strategic Command chiefs, national security advisers from both parties, and nearly all former commanders of U.S. nuclear forces. Corker knows this -- he voted for it in committee.

The only organized groups on the planet hoping to see the Senate fail to ratify this treaty are Iranian officials, North Korean officials, hardliners in Russia, and most Republicans in D.C.

And they'll get their wish, according to Corker, because Democrats have hurt Republicans' feelings by bringing up a bipartisan piece of legislation, requested by the Pentagon, and endorsed by 77% of the American people.

We'd love to monitor Russia's long-range nuclear capabilities, Corker is effectively arguing, but not if the Senate votes on a bill we don't like regarding gay people.

Taking a step back, what we see here is yet another hostage situation.

Give us tax cuts breaks for millionaires, Republicans said, or we'll shoot the hostage (raising taxes on the middle class).

Scrap the bipartisan omnibus spending bill, Republicans said, or we'll shoot the hostage (shutting down the government).

Ignore the Pentagon and kill DADT repeal, Republicans are saying, or we'll shoot the hostage (undermining American foreign policy and helping America's enemies).

It's as offensive as anything Republicans have done in years, and given the antics of these guys, that's really saying something.

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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IDIOCY WATCH.... As things stand in the Senate, members will vote on repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" on Sunday, and consider New START ratification next week.

But Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee has a different idea. Indeed, today he argued on the Senate floor that if members pursue DADT repeal, Republicans may very well deliberately undermine American foreign policy by killing the nuclear arms treaty.

As Corker sees it, DADT repeal is "absolutely partisan," and is advancing to "accommodate activist groups." That's ridiculous and he knows it. The Pentagon specifically urged the Senate to approve repeal during this lame-duck session, as has the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. The repeal push enjoys bipartisan support, and has the backing of the vast majority of the public.

Corker disagrees? Fine. He can vote against it. He can even filibuster it. But today he suggested even considering DADT repeal may cause Republicans to kill arms control out of spite.

"I'm hoping that those [issues like DADT repeal] will be taken down or else I don't think the future of the START treaty over the next several days is going to be successful, based on what I'm watching."

That's genuinely insane. Military and diplomatic leaders have explicitly made the case that New START is vital to American foreign policy and national security. Bob Corker, who already voted for the treaty at the committee level, is prepared to watch the treaty die ... because he doesn't like gay people? Because the Senate might honor a direct request from the Pentagon about expanding military service qualifications?

I should also note that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was also on the floor today, addressing New START. After seemingly endorsing the treaty last week, and voting with Democrats on the motion to proceed this week, McCain offered a sputtering, incoherent tirade today condemning New START. I'd like to note why he's opposed, but after listening to McCain ramble, I haven't the foggiest idea what he's even thinking.

Watching the Senate has been pretty painful lately, but listening to Republican senators' arguments against New START today has, in all seriousness, brought a new round of shame to the once-great institution.

Update: Corker elaborated on this soon after. Here's the rest of the story.

Steve Benen 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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CNN SHOULD PROBABLY PICK BETTER PARTNERS.... It makes perfect sense for CNN to host plenty of debates for the Republican presidential candidates running in 2012. It makes less sense to partner with sketchy organizations to co-host these debates.

CNN said Friday that it is joining forces with the Tea Party Express -- a political action committee that played a key role in the 2010 midterm elections -- to co-host a Republican presidential debate.

The debate is scheduled for Labor Day week in Tampa, Fla., in September -- five months before the 2012 presidential primaries begin.

Generally, major news organizations exercise some caution when partnering with outside groups, for fear of tarnishing the outlet's reputation.

And that's precisely why I'm a little surprised CNN would team up with a controversial political action committee. Indeed, I may be missing some examples, but I don't recall CNN ever partnering with a political action committee on anything before.

Sure, it's a Republican debate, but did the network look into the Tea Party Express' background? Does CNN realize this is the same far-right outfit that was led by Mark Williams, repeatedly accused of racism? Did CNN appreciate the fact that even plenty of conservative activists look askance at the Tea Party Express because it appears to be a vehicle for a Republican operative's consulting firm?

This seems like a mistake. Perhaps not on par with hiring Erick Erickson as a paid political analyst, but a mistake nevertheless.

Update: Dave Weigel notes that CNN has been cozying up to Tea Party Express for quite a while. Presumably, then, the network is well aware of the outfit's sketchy nature, and doesn't care.

Steve Benen 3:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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DELAYS FOR THE SAKE OF DELAYS, CONT'D.... After eight months of Senate consideration of the pending nuclear arms control treaty, New START, Republicans are still complaining the process is moving too quickly. The latest problem is over amendments.

Now, when it comes to the nature of treaties -- which are negotiated by the executive branches of the U.S. and the other country -- senators can't come in with changes they'd like to see. They can, however, push amendments that would force related policy changes that the administration would have to follow, and in the case of New START, Republicans have said they need more time to bring these ideas to the floor for debate.

Fine, Democrats said, let's have the debate. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), one of the leading champions of the treaty, went to the floor yesterday to invite Republicans with concerns to present their amendments for consideration. It was, by some accounts, the moment the GOP has been waiting for -- a chance to present their recommended policy changes and have them voted on.

Except, that's not what happened. Kerry kept asking Republicans to present their amendments so the Senate could vote on them, but GOP detractors of the treaty had nothing to offer. They had demanded time for their amendments, but hadn't bothered to actually write any.

Kerry, who'd been patient all day, just about lost it after waiting for five hours for Republicans to use their time the way they said they intended to use it. Kerry, perhaps assuming his GOP colleagues were acting in good faith before, and were sincere in their concerns about the time allotted, was just exasperated upon realizing that Republicans didn't even take their own complaints seriously.

"We've reached a new stage in America where you just say something; it doesn't matter if it's based on the truth " Kerry said, speaking without a prepared text. "Just say it. Put it out there -- somebody's going to believe it, someone will pick it up."

I don't know Kerry personally, but watching him, it seemed as if he's just a little sad about what's become of the institution. Senator, if you're reading, you're not the only one.

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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THEY'RE STILL GOING AFTER TED KENNEDY.... When it comes to the religious right, some groups and leaders have real power and influence. The Traditional Values Coalition and its chairman, Lou Sheldon, have neither power nor influence, and are more or less bottom feeders in the movement's food chain.

But the TVC nevertheless manages to raise eyebrows from time to time with attacks like this one, sent to the group's supporters this week.

"Just when Americans started to hope that the liberal leadership in the Senate had learned its lesson last November, they do something which is so blatantly hypocritical and offensive.

"Few legislators despised the U.S. military more than the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

"So where does the Senate include funding for (take a deep breath here because this is going to make your blood boil!) the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate to the tune of $8 million?

"It's right there on page 383. It is part of a $41,400,000 appropriation for the Department of Defense!"

Just as a matter of fact-checking, the Traditional Values Coalition confused the omnibus spending bill with the defense authorization bill.

Regardless, smearing Kennedy this way is disgusting.

In addition to serving in the Army from 1951 to 1953, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) saw one brother, Joe Kennedy, Jr., die in combat during World War II, and another become president in part because of his reputation for heroism in the Pacific Theater of that same war. Over decades of service in the Senate, he supported or co-sponsored numerous bills aimed at improving life for the men and women who protect us, and giving them the tools (like up-armored Humvees) and support (like child care for their kids) they need to succeed.

The last time I checked, smearing American heroes with demonstrable lies is not a "traditional value."

I am curious, though, how long the right will use Ted Kennedy as a foil in their messaging. He's been a go-to target for decades, but I assumed after his passing in August 2009, the right would move on to other bogeymen.

But I guess old habits die hard. Last year, after the senator's death, the American Life League created placards that read, "Bury Obamacare With Kennedy." This week, it's the Sheldons' Traditional Values Coalition misusing Kennedy's name.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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THEY DON'T LIKE WHAT THEY DON'T UNDERSTAND.... I'd have far more respect for Republican opposition to unemployment benefits if Republicans demonstrated a better understanding of the policy itself.

I don't just mean confusion over the economic benefits, either. The evidence is overwhelming that jobless aid is very stimulative, a notion many on the right simply choose to ignore.

But that's more a reflection of Republican confusion about economics. The real problem is with their failure to understand basic elements of the policy itself. Here was Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) last night on Fox News, complaining about the provisions of the tax deal that extended unemployment insurance benefits.

"I would prefer the insurance to be paid for, naturally. They weren't going to pay for it. Let's be honest about it -- the Democrats have always won on unemployment insurance. It is well over 100 weeks now. There is no question people are suffering. I don't want them to suffer.

"On the other hand, we also know there are people who could be working who won't work because they've got unemployment insurance and they keep -- don't go out and start looking, especially jobs that might not be as good as what they had before. So these are all things that had to be worked out."

This from the guy who wants to impose drug tests on those who've lost their jobs.

Note that Hatch believes unemployment aid is now "well over 100 weeks." That's patently false, and suggests Hatch went on national television to rail against a policy -- one that's been debated for months -- without an understanding of the basics.

But what's frustrating is how routine these errors are. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) recently blasted an extension, saying the benefits are intended to help those "who have been collecting unemployment benefits for 99 weeks." But that's not even close to being true. Similarly, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said an extension would add 13 weeks to a 99-week limit, which isn't the policy at all. Huffington reported recently that other Republicans have struggled with the difference between extending benefits and reauthorizing benefits.

It's one thing to have a debate with someone on the right, and run into ideological differences. But one can't even get to the debate if one side struggles to understand the introductory details of the subject at hand.

Is it too much to ask that Republican lawmakers, responsible for helping shape federal policy, do a little homework?

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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

* The midterm elections were just last month, but the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is already intensifying its candidate recruitment program for 2012. The first recruitment meeting was yesterday. Among the Dems' early targets: Rep. Dan Lungren, Illinois Rep.-elect Robert Dold, New Jersey Rep. Leonard Lance, New Hampshire Rep.-elect Charlie Bass, and Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent. Dems would need a net gain of 25 seats to win back the House majority.

* It was assumed that Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R) would seek re-election in Arizona in 2012, but the conservative leader has not yet stated his plans. Adding to the speculation is his weak fundraising and his decision to not yet activate his political organization

* Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) has not yet said whether he'll run again in 2012, but he already has a Republican challenger. Failed House candidate Greg Sowards, now a Tea Party activist, kicked off his Senate race yesterday. In 2008, Sowards spent several hundred thousand dollars of his own money in a House GOP primary, but lost.

* The DCCC hopes to get several recently-defeated House incumbents to seek rematches in 2012, but Rep. Walt Minnick (D) of Idaho won't be one of them. "I think I'm done with elective politics," Minnick told Roll Call. "I'm not sure what I'm going to do, but I think it's time for somebody else."

* Blue Dog Rep. Baron Hill (D) lost his re-election bid in Indiana last month, but apparently isn't interested in running for governor in 2012. The most talked-about Democratic candidates for the race remain Reps. Brad Ellsworth and Joe Donnelly.

* The top Republican candidate to take on Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) in 2012 appears to be state Attorney General Jon Bruning, who announced a few weeks ago, but don't be surprised if former Gov. Kay Orr (R) also throws her hat into the ring.

* In Wisconsin, the latest survey from Public Policy Polling shows President Obama leading his potential GOP challengers in head-to-head hypothetical match-ups, but by modest margins. The president leads Mitt Romney by only four points, but is ahead of Sarah Palin in the state by 14 points.

* And on a related note, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows the president ahead nationally in match-ups against his likely Republican opponents. Romney is closest in the poll, trailing Obama by seven, while Palin does the worst, trailing the president by 22 points.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (4)

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'THE COLLAPSING CRISIS COMMISSION'.... We learned this week that the bipartisan Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission isn't having much luck. Republican members on the panel want to ban the phrases "Wall Street" and "shadow banking" and the words "interconnection" and "deregulation" from the panel's final report.

It was a reminder that just when it seems Republicans are incapable of surprising, they manage to kick things up a notch. This even applies to a panel instructed by law to "examine the causes, domestic and global, of the current financial and economic crisis in the United States."

As you may have heard, Democrats on the commission balked at the Republicans' Orwellian requests, prompting GOP panelists to issue their own report. Paul Krugman wasn't impressed by their nine-page effort, which features "few facts and hardly any numbers."

In the world according to the G.O.P. commissioners, it's all the fault of government do-gooders, who used various levers -- especially Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored loan-guarantee agencies -- to promote loans to low-income borrowers. Wall Street -- I mean, the private sector -- erred only to the extent that it got suckered into going along with this government-created bubble.

It's hard to overstate how wrongheaded all of this is. For one thing, as I've already noted, the housing bubble was international -- and Fannie and Freddie weren't guaranteeing mortgages in Latvia. Nor were they guaranteeing loans in commercial real estate, which also experienced a huge bubble.

Beyond that, the timing shows that private players weren't suckered into a government-created bubble. It was the other way around. During the peak years of housing inflation, Fannie and Freddie were pushed to the sidelines; they only got into dubious lending late in the game, as they tried to regain market share.

But the G.O.P. commissioners are just doing their job, which is to sustain the conservative narrative. And a narrative that absolves the banks of any wrongdoing, that places all the blame on meddling politicians, is especially important now that Republicans are about to take over the House.

Remember, just this week, Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) said, "In Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated, and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks."

And who's Spencer Bachus? He's the conservative who Republicans tasked with chairing the House Financial Services Committee, which is responsible for oversight of the banks and Wall Street.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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WHEN 'THE DAILY SHOW' PICKS UP THE SLACK, CONT'D.... Last week, a unanimous Senate Republican caucus blocked the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. It's the bill that intended to pay health care costs for 9/11 rescue workers, sickened after exposure to the toxic smoke and debris. For the GOP, it was a simple calculus -- they'd consider bills like this, just as soon as they'd secured tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires.

At this point, the only broadcast news outlet that's jumping all over this story is, oddly enough, Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," which has aired multiple segments. Last night, Jon Stewart took Republicans to task for the callousness, and also blasted ABC, NBC, and CBS for completely ignoring the issue on their evening news casts.

In fact, the host noted in last night's show that the only network to run a thorough report on the 9/11 health bill was ... Al Jazeera. "Our networks were scooped with a sympathetic Zadroga Bill story by the same network that Osama bin Laden sends his mix tapes to," Stewart noted.

Not done there, "The Daily Show" also hosted an on-air discussion with four 9/11 responders, all of whom are suffering health problems believed to be caused by the air they breathed in the aftermath of the attacks.

The segment was pretty devastating, and well worth watching.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
9/11 First Responders React to the Senate Filibuster
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook
Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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THE LIE OF THE YEAR.... In late 2009, PolitiFact named Sarah Palin's "death panels" garbage the Lie of the Year. It was a well-deserved honor.

As 2010 comes to an end, it's time for PolitiFact's editors to bestow the award on this year's biggest whopper, and this time, it's another bogus Republican line on health care reform.

In the spring of 2009, a Republican strategist settled on a brilliant and powerful attack line for President Barack Obama's ambitious plan to overhaul America's health insurance system. Frank Luntz, a consultant famous for his phraseology, urged GOP leaders to call it a "government takeover."

"Takeovers are like coups," Luntz wrote in a 28-page memo. "They both lead to dictators and a loss of freedom."

The line stuck. By the time the health care bill was headed toward passage in early 2010, Obama and congressional Democrats had sanded down their program, dropping the "public option" concept that was derided as too much government intrusion. The law passed in March, with new regulations, but no government-run plan.

But as Republicans smelled serious opportunity in the midterm elections, they didn't let facts get in the way of a great punchline. And few in the press challenged their frequent assertion that under Obama, the government was going to take over the health care industry.

That last line seems especially important. Plenty of reporters were responsible when it came to the "death panels" nonsense -- though much of the public ended up believing it anyway -- but the "government takeover" baloney simply became the standard Republican response to the entire policy initiative. News outlets used it routinely, with almost no scrutiny, in the he-said-she-said reporting that's become the American norm.

But reality is stubborn, and the "government takeover" claim is demonstrably false, whether it was called out by the media or not. PolitiFact quoted Jonathan Oberlander, a professor of health policy at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, explaining, "The label 'government takeover" has no basis in reality, but instead reflects a political dynamic where conservatives label any increase in government authority in health care as a 'takeover.' "

Many Republicans who used the line were no doubt aware of this. The point of the attack was not to point out a problem with the Affordable Care Act, but to fool the public into believing nonsense, which in turn would create opponents of health care reform out of those who benefit from it. The tactic was about deception through repetition, not debate.

And good lord was it repetitious. PolitiFact "sought to count how often the phrase was used in 2010 but found an accurate tally was unfeasible because it had been repeated so frequently in so many places. It was used hundreds of times during the debate over the bill and then revived during the fall campaign."

Incoming House Speaker John Boehner's website, for example, uses the phrase more than 90 times. The RNC's site features it more than 200 times.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) noted, "There was a uniformity of Republican messaging that was disconnected from facts. The sheer discipline ... was breathtaking."

Quite right. What Republicans lack in policy knowledge, decency, integrity, and veracity they compensate for with remarkable message discipline, repeating the same lie over and over again, practically in unison. They do this because it works -- much of the country now believes the lie.

Best of all, the fact that the "government takeover" line has been deemed the Lie of the Year will have absolutely no bearing on GOP rhetoric going forward. It follows a familiar pattern: (1) Republicans make a policy claim; (2) objective evidence makes clear that the Republican claim is demonstrably false; (3) Republicans repeat the claim anyway, hoping the public won't know the difference. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Still, the award is well deserved, and kudos to PolitiFact for making a wise choice.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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CLEARING THE WAY FOR SENATE REPEAL OF DADT.... As of yesterday, the question wasn't whether the votes were in place to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"; it was simply a matter of finding time on the shrinking lame-duck calendar in the Senate.

But with the unexpected demise of the omnibus spending bill, there's suddenly a window of opportunity. For those hoping to see DADT repeal pass, that's very good news.

The Senate is scheduled to vote on the repeal of the "Don't ask, don't tell" law this weekend.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Thursday evening called for the end of debate, or cloture, on a standalone bill to repeal the ban on openly gay people serving in the military.

Invoking cloture means that the Senate would take a procedural vote on the repeal legislation on Saturday and a final vote on the bill by Sunday.

As Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and others had suggested, this puts DADT ahead of New START ratification on the schedule. Presumably, the arms treaty would be the very next measure to be considered before Christmas.

Whether the votes are in place no longer appears in doubt. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) endorsed repeal on Wednesday, and Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) was even stronger in his support yesterday morning. By mid-day, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) confirmed that she's a "yes" as well.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) announced late yesterday that he will be treated for prostate cancer today, but he also expects to be on the floor to support DADT repeal.

By my count, that's 61 votes, and if passage appears assured, I wouldn't be surprised if a few other Republicans jumped on the bandwagon when all is said and done.

That said, it's not quite in the bag. It's possible that Republicans will start making demands on unnecessary amendments, prompting the party's "moderates" to balk over procedural concerns (again). It's hard to feel too confident when Lucy says, "No, really, Charlie, this time I'll let you kick the ball."

But at this point, everything appears to be lined up extremely well, and the smart money is on success by Monday.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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THE DEATH OF THE OMNIBUS.... The stage was set for yet another partisan showdown. With the threat of a government shutdown lingering in the air, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) demanded that the chamber approve a temporary extension of existing funding levels to keep the government's lights on through Feb. 18. At that point, a new, more right-wing Congress can decide how best to proceed.

As of yesterday, Democrats rejected the demands. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said yesterday that he would advance an omnibus spending bill that would fund the government through the end of the fiscal year.

Reid felt confident, because he thought he had the votes -- as many as nine Senate Republicans had said they'd support the omnibus, which would be more than enough to guarantee passage. But within a few hours, Reid was told that those GOP senators, feeling too much heat from their party, had decided not to keep their commitments.

Lacking the votes he'd need to proceed, Reid gave up on the omnibus last night.

The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, said Thursday night that he was abandoning efforts to pass a $1.2 trillion spending measure to finance the government through Sept. 30 because Republicans would not support it.

Mr. Reid said he would work with the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, on a stop-gap spending bill instead. Senate Republicans also said they would not support a House-passed temporary spending measure running through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. Instead, they want to develop a separate measure running only through the early part of next year.

Republicans seemed awfully pleased with themselves, but it's worth emphasizing how poor a showing this was for the GOP. This was, after all, a spending bill Republicans stuffed with earmarks, only to then whine about how awful the bill is because of all the earmarks. Worse, the Senate Republican leadership complained that the omnibus was too big, despite the fact that the Senate Republican leadership had already agreed to the exact size of the omnibus. Months of bipartisan work went into shaping this bill, all of which was trashed in a partisan tantrum.

The GOP clearly won the skirmish, by virtue of the fact Republicans got what they wanted, but anyone watching the fight hopefully noticed how petty and ridiculous the party appeared. Of course, for Republicans, that's a tradeoff they're more than willing to make.

Taken together, the bad news is the GOP got the better end of the hostage standoff, and will be in a position to do even more damage in February, when the likelihood of a government shutdown just became stronger.

The good news is the government won't shutdown tomorrow, and, to the delight of Senate clerks, Sen. Jim DeMint's (R-S.C.) stunt will be unnecessary.

Also, the demise of the omnibus suddenly clears up some valuable calendar time in the upper chamber, which will be put to good use. More on that soon.

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

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TAX DEAL IS A DONE DEAL.... It seems hard to believe, but the tax policy agreement reached by the White House and congressional Republicans was unveiled just last week. Given the initial response, it was hard to imagine this week's House and Senate votes would turn out to be so one-sided.

Indeed, over the course of about 10 days, the tax deal made the transition from a crash-and-burn failure drawing the ire of both left and right to legislative success with bipartisan support. Very few, if any, efforts in the last two years have passed by such wide margins, and reversed their political fortunes so quickly.

On Wednesday, the Senate approved the deal after an 81-to-19 vote. Last night, hours after a procedural setback, the House followed suit.

Congress at midnight Thursday approved an $801 billion package of tax cuts and $57 billion for extended unemployment insurance. The vote sealed the first major deal between President Obama and Congressional Republicans as Democrats put aside their objections and bowed to the realignment of power brought about by their crushing election losses.

The bipartisan support for the tax deal also underscored the urgency felt by the administration and by lawmakers in both parties to prop up the still-struggling economy and to prevent an across-the-board tax increase that was set to occur if the rates enacted under President George W. Bush had expired, as scheduled, at the end of the month.

The House bill is identical to the Senate measure, so there will be no additional wrangling. The agreement now heads to the White House, and President Obama is expected to sign it into law today.

Here's the final roll call in the House, which voted 277 to 148. A majority of Democrats in the chamber ended up supporting the deal (139 to 112), and a majority of Republicans did the same (138 to 36). Off the top of the head, I don't think any other major legislation in this Congress received this kind of bipartisan support.

The dust hasn't quite settled on this one, but it's not too early to wonder how, exactly, the deal ended up passing after an angry initial response. I'd argue the turning point came during a Senate Democratic caucus meeting last week in which White House budget director Jacob Lew and senior Treasury adviser Gene Sperling offered a compelling presentation.

Vice President Biden had spoken to the same conference the day before, and didn't persuade members at all. A day later, Lew and Sperling pointed almost exclusively to economic projections, and went with a much softer sell -- answering questions rather than giving instructions. It proved quite effective. After the meeting, much of the opposition among Senate Dems withered, and House Dems began to realize they didn't have the backup they'd need for a prolonged fight.

Also note that the right, which tends to be unified on these issues, struggled to settle on a specific tack. Some groups and leading personalities balked, but their opposition seemed half-hearted, and was generally drowned out by criticism of the deal from the left. Rank-and-file Republicans, then, never really felt pressure from their base, at least not enough to sway the outcome in any meaningful way.

The result is a win for the White House, which still hopes to pick up a few more victories before the lame-duck session concludes.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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December 16, 2010

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

* The first full-scale assessment since President Obama's shift in U.S. strategy in Afghanistan: "A review of President Obama's strategy for the war in Afghanistan concludes that American forces can begin withdrawing on schedule in July, despite finding uneven signs of progress in the year since the president announced the deployment of an additional 30,000 troops, according to a summary made public Thursday."

* At the White House today, the president defended the war's progress, telling reporters, "We're in a better position to give our forces in Afghanistan the support and the resources they need to complete their mission. We are making considerable gains toward our military objectives."

* Some evidence of progress: "The stepped-up operations in Kandahar Province have left many in the Taliban demoralized, reluctant to fight and struggling to recruit, a Taliban commander said in an interview this week."

* The House was set to pass the tax deal this afternoon. This morning, there was an unexpected setback: "A liberal uprising over House procedures on Thursday was delaying a final vote on a far-reaching tax compromise brokered by the White House and Republican leaders."

* Brian Beutler has more on this: "House progressives are still prepared for President Obama's tax cut compromise to pass unamended. But they temporarily derailed that train this afternoon to be heard publicly on just how bad they think the package is."

* A pleasant surprise: "First-time claims for state unemployment benefits fell unexpectedly in the latest week, the Labor Department reported Thursday. The number of initial claims in the week ending Dec. 11 fell 3,000 to 420,000."

* This followed other encouraging reports on factory production and consumer spending.

* Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright said today the Senate needs to ratify New START: "[W]e need it very badly."

* Solar energy zones: "The Obama administration issued proposed guidelines Thursday for solar development on public lands in the West, a move that could speed renewable energy projects that have been mired in environmental controversy."

* U.S. missile defense still doesn't work.

* Virginia's Republican gubernatorial administration believes "health reform is worth doing" and urged swift implementation of the Affordable Care Act, state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's (R) hysterical crusade notwithstanding.

* I'm glad some television commercials will stop being so much louder than others.

* Speaking of television, I am thoroughly annoyed by the cancellation of "Stargate: Universe."

* If the omnibus passes -- a big "if" -- it will be good news for the Pell Grant program.

* And apparently, right-wing, anti-gay activists want to reclaim rainbow flags for themselves. It's a reminder that right-wing, anti-gay activists are some really strange folks.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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STILL ON TRACK FOR AN OMNIBUS SHOWDOWN.... Following up on yesterday's item, an omnibus spending bill that would fund the government through the end of the fiscal year is still pending in the Senate, and will run into fierce Republican opposition when it's brought to the floor, probably on Saturday. The main GOP complaint: the laundry list of earmarks, many of which they personally put in the bill.

This morning, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reiterated his demand that the Senate approve an extension of existing funding levels to keep the government's lights on through Feb. 18. At that point, McConnell said, the new, more right-wing Congress can decide how best to proceed. If Democrats refuse, Republicans may very well shut down the government.

The Democratic leadership doesn't seem receptive to McConnell's demands, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said this afternoon that he'll proceed as planned with the omnibus.

The Nevada Democrat also lashed out at GOP critics of the bill's earmarks, arguing their opposition is merely political posturing and hypocritical because many of them have earmarks in the legislation.

"You can't have it both ways. If you go to H in the dictionary and see hypocrites, under that would be people who ask for earmarks but vote against them," he said.

Despite conservative threats to force a reading of the bill -- a tactic that would delay passage until after the midnight Saturday deadline to avoid a government shutdown -- Reid told reporters he will try to file cloture on the omnibus Thursday afternoon or evening.

"We'll take care of this. ... We're going to proceed as we are. I hope to sometime in the next 24 hours to file cloture" on the omnibus, Reid said.

Of course, soon after, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) will very likely launch his tantrum, forcing clerks to read the entirety of the1,924-page bill, out loud, paralyzing the chamber for at least 50 hours.

In the meantime, the fact that Republicans, furious with funding for pet projects, are outraged by a bill stuffed with their own pet projects, continues to generate attention. I found this video, released this afternoon by Senate Democrats, to be pretty compelling:


Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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REID LOOKS AHEAD.... After meeting with the Senate Democratic caucus this afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) answered reporters' questions about what to expect from the rest of the session.

Igor Volsky posted a clip of the most relevant comments, but for those who can't watch videos from your work computers, Reid was asked about whether he expected to bring a repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy to the floor before Christmas.

"I don't know if I'll bring it before Christmas," Reid said. "Before this Congress ends, we're gonna complete or have a vote, determine a vote, on the START treaty, the DREAM Act, 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' 9/11, and hopefully we can get agreement on nominations, otherwise we'll have some votes on nominations."

He added that he'd "like to" get to DADT quickly, but he's "not sure we can."

Just to clarify, "9/11" was in reference to the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, and "nominations" refers to a few dozen pending judicial nominations.

It's discouraging, in a way, that DADT isn't slated for consideration sooner. Reid didn't rule it out, but based on his comments, I'd say the likelihood of a vote before Christmas is remote. But the key part of his comments this afternoon is that he's already thinking about post-Christmas votes -- in other words, Reid's sense of the calendar is that members will go home for the holiday, and then return, which vastly improves the odds of getting things done.

He added, "We are in session, if necessary, up to January 5th. That is the clock our Republican colleagues need to run out. It's a long clock."

If he sticks to this, it's good news.

What's more, other Senate Dems left their caucus meeting telling reporters that DADT repeal is a priority of the leadership.

As for the various obstructionist stunts, the majority has some related responses in mind: "Democrats think they may have a way around such tactics: hold 24-hour sessions where time could run out on the procedural objections in a fewer amount of days. It's unclear whether that tactic will be employed, but Democrats discussed it the Thursday meeting."

Update: Of course, in order for Reid's strategy to work, senators have to actually show up after Christmas to do their jobs. If even a few Dems fail to do so, Republican obstructionism will succeed.

Steve Benen 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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A PRICKLY PROBLEM OF PICKING PRIORITIES.... In the abstract, the Senate's task isn't that difficult. The chamber has to vote to keep the government running. Then, among other things, there's the New START treaty, which has the votes to be ratified, and the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which also has the votes it needs.

But Josh Marshall's lay of the land sounds about right -- for some on the Hill, it's sounding like an either/or scenario.

The key background issue to think about here with the looming DADT vote is how much the real issue is here is DADT repeal versus getting the START treaty passed. Which goes first and which there's time to get passed.

It's really not clear to me that it has to be one of the other. But that's the chatter.

Lieberman says DADT should come first. The White House is very, very, very focused on getting the START Treaty passed. The truth is that they're both very important. And both probably have to go through in this Congress, though arguably START has more of a shot next year than DADT repeal. Again, though, there are three more weeks before the next Congress gets sworn in. I'm not convinced there's only time for one.

Remember, Republican obstruction means far more than just finding supermajorities to do anything. It means GOP filibusters on motions to proceed (delays), followed by GOP demands for pointless amendments (more delays), followed by GOP filibusters on final passage (even more delays). Simple measures that should take a few hours end up taking a week, if not more. With the far-right desperate to run out the clock on the lame-duck session, these tactics even include truly ridiculous tantrums like forcing clerks to take turns reading the text of legislation out loud for days on end.

It's not simply a matter, then, of bringing bills to the floor. Republicans intend to paralyze the legislative process, even more so than they have been for two -- arguably four -- years.

And so then it becomes a matter of choosing among priorities. For the White House, my sense is New START trumps DADT repeal, though the West Wing strongly supports both. Lieberman and others would flip the two. The questions that come up don't necessarily have good answers: could the arms treaty be ratified in the next Congress? Could Dems count on the courts to scrap DADT for them? Would tackling DADT before New START doom ratification, or is it the other way around? What are the odds of some kind of filibuster reform, and would that make any difference on other measures like the DREAM Act and the 9/11 health bill?

But Josh's last point is the one that resonates with me -- most of the challenges with the calendar are based on assumptions about wrapping up before Christmas (in other words, next week). That's a target Republicans hope to exploit to force items from the to-do list.

I can't say this with certainty, but I suspect many Senate Democrats don't want to work every day leading up to Jan. 4, and Harry Reid is doing his best to accommodate their concerns. But if I'm the Majority Leader, I'd be inclined to make it abundantly clear to GOP obstructionists that the Senate will vote on all of its major priorities before the next Congress begins.

How long that takes is entirely up to Republicans.

Steve Benen 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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OBNOXIOUS DELAYS FOR THE SAKE OF OBNOXIOUS DELAYS.... The irony is, those who've been whining the loudest about the poor politicians who have to work in mid-December are the same ones dragging out the process, preventing members from going home.

Yesterday, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) was quite candid about the motivations for his shameless obstructionism: "What I'm trying to do is help run out the clock."

And here's how that effort plays out on the floor:

Republicans will paralyze the Senate floor for 50 hours by forcing clerks to read every single paragraph of the 1,924-page, $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill.

Senate clerks are expected to read the massive bill in rotating shifts around the clock -- taking breaks to drink water and pop throat lozenges -- to keep legislative business on track, according to a Democratic leadership aide.

The bill is so long that it took the Government Printing Office two days to print it.

The Senate is currently debating the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty. It is expected to take up the omnibus spending bill on a separate and parallel track later Thursday.

If Republicans follow through on their threat, legislative business couldn't resume until late Saturday in order to give the staff enough time to read the bill aloud, according to a Democratic leadership estimate.

This is, of course, DeMint's little tantrum. Once the reading is complete, the right-wing senator will vote against the omnibus anyway, and while claiming it's "sacrilege" to ask public officials to do the people's business in December.

And if the gambit pays off, and the omnibus fails, it's likely Republicans will shut down the government over the weekend.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) appears to be sick of the GOP whining. "The irony, the hypocrisy of us sitting here with them standing up and saying 'Oh my Gosh, it's the last minute,' " he said. "It's the last minute because they haven't let us do anything. The game plan is usually to keep preventing things from happening."

For his part, Vice President Biden isn't impressed with Republicans' Christmas rhetoric, either.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy


Steve Benen 2:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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CHANGING THE WAY THE SENATE DOES BUSINESS.... As the 112th Congress draws closer, the talk of reforming the way the Senate operates gets louder.

This morning, I joined a conference call with Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who are helping take the lead with their proposed "constitutional option."

The plan, roughly: on January 5, when votes are taken to organize the Senate, get 51 votes to reform cloture so that objecting to legislation forces continuous debate.

"I think all of you have observed that we've done no appropriations this year," said Merkley, setting up fundamental filibuster reform as a necessity, good for all sides. "It's very much damaging our advise and consent function."

Udall argued that the filibuster could be reformed because "there have been precedents by three vice presidents that you can cut off debate and move to a majority vote." He had a caveat: "We don't want to make any rules changes that would hurt our ability to speak out in a minority situation."

In theory, a cloture vote is intended to cut off debate -- thus allowing for more debate. But it's become a procedural sham. It's not like the failure on a cloture vote leads to more discussion; it leads to moving on to other issues entirely.

"There's nothing to compel senators to engage in the debate that they've said they want to have," Merkley said, adding, "The advantage of continuous debate is that it honors the premise of the cloture vote. Here is my position. Here is why I'm not ready to vote yet. Here is my case. Senators can stand on the floor to make that case, and their colleagues can say 'you're a hero' or 'you're a bum.'"

After the call, the two were prepared to take their case to the rest of the Democratic caucus, where they suggested there might be a generation gap of sorts -- the "old guard," with members who've been around for a long while, are likely the most reluctant to change, while newer members are more inclined to make the Senate less dysfunctional.

Of course, the more the public is engaged on this issue, the more likely senators will feel pressure about changing the way the chamber does business.

With that in mind, Greg Sargent noted earlier, "It's worth noting that for the first time, the push to reform the Senate and change the filibuster is taking on the feeling of a real movement -- one with real institutional support on the left and a growing power base within the Senate itself."

The point is to make this reform push mainstream -- which it should be. The Senate wasn't designed to work this way; the Senate never used to work this way; and the Senate quite literally doesn't work this way.

There's obviously quite a few developments unfolding at the same time on Capitol Hill right now, but these reform efforts will be ongoing, just below the surface. They're worth keeping an eye on -- the Senate's ability to govern in 2011 may depend on it.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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DON'T BOTHER PAWLENTY WITH FACTS, HE HAS A CAMPAIGN TO RUN.... Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) isn't making much of an effort to hide his presidential ambitions, and to that end, he's writing op-eds like these that bash public-employee unions.

That's annoying enough on its own, but what really rankles is the blatant dishonesty.

"The majority of union members today no longer work in construction, manufacturing or 'strong back' jobs," Pawlenty wrote. "They work for government, which, thanks to President Obama, has become the only booming 'industry' left in our economy. Since January 2008, the private sector has lost nearly 8 million jobs while local, state and federal governments added 590,000."

At least to me, there's a higher standard for accuracy when it comes to published pieces. It's easy for someone to get tripped up during an interview, and flub a detail that hasn't been checked, but when writing an op-ed for a national newspaper, there's an expectation that the author -- especially someone who intends to be the president of the United States -- will try to tell the truth.

It matters, then, that Pawlenty was blatantly lying.

In January 2008, total private-sector employment in the United States stood at 115,562,000. By November 2010, the most current month available, that number had sunk to 108,278,000 -- a drop of roughly 7.3 million jobs. That pretty close to the "nearly 8 million" figure that Pawlenty cited. (Almost two-thirds of those job losses, incidentally, happened while George W. Bush was president.)

But Pawlenty's public-sector figures were problematic. The BLS has a category called government employment -- which encapsulates local, state and federal employment, just as Pawlenty had defined it. Over the same period, the number of government jobs went from 22,379,000 to 22,261,000 -- a decrease of 118,000, rather than an increase of 590,000, as Pawlenty had written.

At first we were flummoxed about how Pawlenty got the numbers so wrong. We called BLS to make sure we weren't overlooking another data set that measured the same subject, and spokesman Gary Steinberg confirmed that we were using exactly the same numbers he would use.

We also looked at federal employment trends over the same period, on the guess that Pawlenty might have meant to refer to federal jobs, rather than all government jobs. By this calculation, the number of jobs did increase, rather than decrease, but the amount was only one-sixth of what Pawlenty had indicated. Over that period, federal employment rose from 2,739,000 to 2,837,000 -- 98,000 jobs in all.

When PolitiFact asked Pawlenty's office to explain the error, the governor's spokesperson refused to comment. Imagine that.

I guess this is the kind of campaign Tim Pawlenty intends to run -- the kind that flubs facts, misleads the public, and avoids accountability.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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

* In Pennsylvania, a new Quinnipiac poll shows Sen. Robert Casey (D) with a lukewarm approval rating of 39%. However, looking ahead of 2012, the same poll shows Casey leading a generic Republican challenger, 43% to 35%.

* On a related note, Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) has begun "informal" discussions about taking on Casey.

* Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), looking ahead to 2012, will chat with Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chair Patty Murray to discuss his re-election bid, but that doesn't necessarily mean he has any interest in seeking the party's nomination.

* More than a half-dozen House Democrats who lost last month are already planning rematches in 2012. Among those eyeing a comeback are Reps. Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire, Phil Hare of Illinois, Dina Titus of Nevada, Frank Kratovil Jr. of Maryland, Alan Mollohan of West Virginia and Glenn Nye of Virginia.

* In Ohio, Rep. Jim Jordan (R) is arguably one of the strongest possible challengers to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) in 2012, but he doesn't sound interested in the race.

* It seems very likely state officials in Indiana will eliminate Rep. Joe Donnelly's (D) district after the lines are redrawn, and with that in mind, Donnelly appears quite likely to run for governor in 2012.

* In Ohio, the latest Public Policy Polling survey shows President Obama's approval rating down to just 42%, but in hypothetical match-ups against likely Republican challengers, the president leads the GOP field. The margin ranges from one point (against Huckabee) to seven points (against Palin).

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

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BROWN BACKS DADT REPEAL.... There's no longer any question as to whether the votes are there.

Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown today voiced his support for a stand-alone repeal of the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, bringing the bill one vote over the 60-vote threshold that it will need to reach if and when the Senate votes on the measure in the coming weeks.

"Sen. Brown accepts the Pentagon's recommendation to repeal the policy after proper preparations have been completed. If and when a clean repeal bill comes up for a vote, he will support it," said Brown spokesperson Gail Gitcho.

The use of the word "clean" is pretty important -- Brown doesn't want to see a bunch of amendments added to the legislation, which puts him entirely in line with what proponents of repeal want, too. In other words, this is exactly what we wanted to hear from him.

Just to recap, last week, repeal garnered 57 votes. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) was at the dentist, but she'll be on hand for the next vote, and she'll support repeal. That's 58.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) said she'd oppose repeal until after the vote on the tax deal, but now that the Senate has approved the policy, she announced yesterday she's a "yes" on this, too. That's 59.

And Brown's announcement this morning makes 60. The ABC report added that Alaska's Lisa Murkowski is also on board, and while I haven't seen official confirmation of that elsewhere, her vote would presumably be the 61st.

At this point, it appears the only thing standing between the repeal effort and success is the leadership finding time to bring this to the floor.

However, Reid has warned that bringing the bill to a vote in the Senate is not an issue of support, but rather of time. With just over a week before Christmas, the Senate is only now kicking off debate on the START nuclear treaty and a massive $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill. It will likely be early next week before the Senate wraps up work on those two measures - and numerous GOP senators have voiced stern opposition to both bills, preferring instead to fund the government into early next year and go home for the holidays. That leaves little time for the Senate to pass the Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal.

If this effort falls short because of a crowded calendar next week, and senators' desire not to work the week between Christmas and New Year's, the response will not be kind.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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HUCKABEE FIBS ABOUT HAVING BEEN REASONABLE.... It's not clear exactly who he was referring to, but former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee issued a statement yesterday, defending himself against a "recent Internet post." Apparently, someone noted that the Fox News personality, during his presidential campaign, supported a cap-and-trade policy.

"To put it simply, that's just not true," Huckabee wrote yesterday.

The problem, of course, is that it is true. Dave Weigel flagged remarks Huckabee made at the Clean Air Cool Planet conference in Manchester, New Hampshire, just a few months before its presidential primary:

"I also support cap and trade of carbon emissions. And I was disappointed that the Senate rejected a carbon counting system to measure the sources of emissions, because that would have been the first and the most important step toward implementing true cap and trade."

Part of the problem here is Huckabee's misstatement of fact. Perhaps he forgot, but three years ago, he supported this policy. Now he denies ever having supporting this policy. Huckabee's new line clearly isn't true.

But what I find even more interesting is the larger significance of the party's shift. It wasn't too long ago -- within the last decade -- that there was a basic spectrum of policy positions Republicans accepted on a range of national issues. Not every candidate agreed across the board with every position, but the GOP's general approach was fairly easy to identify.

On health care, for example, the Republican mainstream envisioned a system involving an individual mandate. On arms control, the Republican mainstream embraced policies along the lines of the original START treaty.

And on energy policy, the Republican mainstream loved cap and trade. Indeed, just two years ago, the ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin vowed to establish "a cap-and-trade system that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions" and pursue "alternatives to carbon-based fuels."

The point, of course, isn't just that the Republican mainstream has shifted sharply to the right, it's that the mainstream has fallen off a right-wing cliff with surprising speed. Positions that were widely accepted by Republicans just a few years ago are now considered communist plots to destroy the American way of life.

The result is a politician like Huckabee pretending not to have taken positions we already know he took. Expect to see a lot of similar instances like these pop up as the 2012 race gets closer.

Steve Benen 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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AMERICAN POLITICS' MOST IMPORTANT 'FALSE EQUIVALENCE'.... At a certain level, the "No Labels" initiative sounds fairly reasonable. We're talking about a group of well-intentioned folks interested in problem solving, without regard for party or preconceived ideological preferences. The same participants like the idea of lowering the rhetorical temperature a bit, which also strikes me as a sensible thing to do.

So why did I find myself reacting to this week's "No Labels" gathering with a combination of annoyance and boredom? For the same reasons E.J. Dionne Jr. did.

The basic difficulty arises from a false equivalence they make between our current "left" and our current "right." The truth is that the American right is much farther from anything that can fairly be described as "the center" than is the left. [...]

I am still devoted to moderation but reject a cult of the center that defines as good anything that can be called bipartisan. Some of the same centrists who just a few weeks ago called for bipartisan efforts to slash the deficit now praise Obama's tax deal with Republicans, even though it increases the very same deficit by around $900 billion. Exactly what principle is at work here other than a belief that any deal blessed by Republicans deserves praise?

For many of the participants at the inaugural No Labels gathering, the problem that needs reconciling is the fealty to labels themselves. But that strikes me as a naive misjudgment -- labels, parties, ideologies, and principles aren't what stand in the way of constructive policymaking. The extremism and abuses of one of the major parties are what stand in the way of constructive policymaking.

A search for an elusive "center," meanwhile, is a fool's errand when one side becomes radicalized. If the No Labels folks were focused on addressing this, I'd be delighted, but that doesn't seem to be the point at all.

As Dionne concluded, "The No Labelers can yet be a constructive force if they remind us of how extreme the right has become and help broker an alliance between the center and the left, the only coalition that can realistically stop an ever more zealous brand of conservatism. But they will have to admit that labels aren't the real problem. What lies behind them is."

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

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THE IMPORTANCE OF TELLING FRIEND FROM FOE.... Last week, a unanimous Senate Republican caucus blocked, and likely killed, the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. It's the bill that intended to pay health care costs for 9/11 rescue workers, sickened after exposure to the toxic smoke and debris. The vote was entirely along party lines -- every Democrat supported the measure, and every Republican opposed it.

Yesterday, 9/11 responders and their families, desperate for the bill to pass, started blaming ... Democrats.

Responders blame [Republicans] most, but are getting tired of Democrats putting it all on the GOP -- noting Democrats control the Senate, where New York Sen. Chuck Schumer is in charge of policy.

"I simply cannot fathom that a Democratic-controlled House, Senate and White House cannot get our bill passed," [John Feal, founder of the Feal Good Foundation] said.

I suspect the public has this reaction fairly often. If there's a Democratic House, a Democratic Senate, and a Democratic White House, why do worthwhile measures keep failing? Why do they keep blaming Republicans at a time when there are Democratic majorities?

The assumption is based on an idea -- Congress operates by majority rule -- that should be true but isn't. For much of the country, procedures like "filibusters," "secret holds," and "cloture votes" are completely foreign. Indeed, it's very likely this contributes to public disgust with Congress -- when majorities can't even vote on their own priorities, a lot of folks throw up their arms in frustration and assume the Democratic majority is incompetent. Pointing to procedural abuses -- which are the actual heart of the problem -- only sounds like excuses to those who have little patience for legislative tactics.

This, in turn, creates an added motivation for Republicans to keep up their obstructionism.

Feal added that Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer "need to grow a set, slap a baby bib on Republicans and force-feed them our bill."

Again, for much of the country, this probably sounds feasible. If Dem leaders got "tough," they could just "force" Republicans to approve legislation they're against.

Toughness, alas, is irrelevant. The problem remains institutional rules that are (a) broken; and (b) allow for abuses like the ones we've seen in recent years. The frustration and outrage for proponents of the 9/11 health bill makes all the sense in the world. Blaming Dems for Republican opposition doesn't.

Post Script: As long as we're on the subject, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a likely presidential candidate, conceded yesterday that he and his GOP colleagues considered tax cuts more important than the health needs of 9/11 heroes. What a guy.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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COUNTING VOTES (AND IGNORING GOHMERT).... [Update: Revised head count here.]

The floor of the U.S. House offered quite a debate yesterday on repealing the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, including some beautiful speeches from Democrats on the importance of respect and equality.

On the other end of the spectrum, there was Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas). Hoping to defend the status quo, the confused Texan insisted that "the military is inconsistent with American values," adding that other powerful nations throughout history moved "toward the end of their existence" when they allowed "homosexuality to be overt."

Soon after, Gohmert's colleagues ignored his hysterics and easily approved the freestanding repeal legislation.

The House voted 250 to 175 to repeal the 17-year-old law; 15 Republicans voted for the bill, and 15 Democrats voted against it.

The 75-vote margin was wider than a similar House vote in May, when language ending the ban was part of the annual defense authorization bill. That bill failed a procedural vote in the Senate last week, requiring another vote in the House on a separate measure to end to the gay ban.

President Obama heralded the vote, saying in a statement that ending current military policy "is not only the right thing to do, it will also give our military the clarity and certainty it deserves. We must ensure that Americans who are willing to risk their lives for their country are treated fairly and equally by their country."

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said Wednesday night that he wants to bring up the bill, but warned, "We are very quickly running out of days in this Congress. The time for week-long negotiations on amendments and requests for days of debate is over. Republican senators who favor repealing this discriminatory policy need to join with us now."

The message from Reid's office wasn't subtle -- the Majority Leader supports the bill and wants it to pass, but if GOP supporters insist on yet another lengthy, time-killing debate, the repeal push will very likely fail again.

We'll probably learn more today about how the process is likely to shake out, but as of right now, there's reason for guarded optimism. Last week, repeal garnered 57 votes. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) was at the dentist, but she'll be on hand for the next vote, and she'll support repeal. That's 58.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) said she'd oppose repeal until after the vote on the tax deal, but now that the Senate has approved the policy, she announced yesterday she's a "yes" on this, too. That's 59.

To get over this last hurdle, proponents will need one more vote, which would likely come from a group of relative GOP moderates that includes Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Richard Lugar (Ind.), and George Voinovich (Ohio). To be clear, Dems don't need all four of them -- they just need one.

The question is what kind of demands we can expect. On the massive defense authorization bill, Brown and Murkowski wanted a lengthy debate with a lot of amendments, but there's no reason for them to make similar conditions on this bill -- it's a clean and simple repeal measure.

If these GOP senators support the change in policy, as they say they do, this should be a relatively painless success. If they make unreasonable demands about process, intended to run out the clock on the session, the last, best shot at repeal will suffer yet another heartbreaker.

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

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December 15, 2010

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

* With impressive speed, the U.S. House this afternoon approved the standalone bill repealing the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. The final vote wasn't close: 250 to 175.

* If the Senate can bring the bill to the floor, clearing the 60-vote hurdle should be pretty easy: Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) endorsed repeal today.

* Iraq has until Dec. 25 to form a new government. Today, with Ayad Allawi's announcement, it appears that the obstacles have been removed for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. Caveats, however, abound: "Mr. Allawi did so grudgingly and with conditions, warning that an agreement brokered by the United States to form a broad power-sharing coalition government under Mr. Maliki's leadership could still unravel."

* No end in sight: "As President Obama prepares to release a review of American strategy in Afghanistan that will claim progress in the nine-year-old war there, two new classified intelligence reports offer a more negative assessment and say there is a limited chance of success unless Pakistan hunts down insurgents operating from havens on its Afghan border."

* Blue Girl has more on the latest out of Afghanistan: "Reality comes knocking."

* Heartbreaking: "Santa Claus and his elves are seeing more heartbreaking letters this year as children cite their parents' economic troubles in their wish lists. U.S. Postal Service workers who handle letters addressed to Santa at the North Pole say more letters ask for basics -- coats, socks and shoes -- rather than Barbie dolls, video games and computers."

* Suing BP: "The Department of Justice has filed a civil lawsuit in New Orleans against the oil giant BP and eight other companies over the enormous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Although the complaint does not specify the damages that the administration is seeking, the fines and penalties under the laws that are cited in the complaint could reach into the tens of billions of dollars."

* POTUS chats with CEOs: "President Barack Obama and 20 business leaders worked through lunch Wednesday on ways to boost anemic U.S. job creation and improve their own testy relations amid rising anxiety over the slow economic recovery. The president said he wants ideas from business leaders on how to 'seize the promise of this moment.'"

* Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos thinks gay soldiers could lead to additional battlefield casualties. He's wrong.

* Here's hoping this is true: "Doctors in Berlin, working with an American patient with both HIV and leukemia, have declared in a peer-reviewed journal that they believe they have cured both illnesses. It would be the first time an HIV patient has been cured."

* Dana Milbank has a message for Tea Party voters: "You've been had."

* I'll at least give Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) credit for consistency. In a caucus filled with hypocrites, at least he's sticking to his principles when it comes to earmarks.

* Why the Supreme Court will make it harder for college students to buy cheaper textbooks.

* Alas, Fox News has apparently sided with godless heathens in the War on Christmas.

* And Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia really will appear at Rep. Michele Bachmann's (R-Minn.) first "class" for House lawmakers. A spokesperson for the high court told Greg Sargent that Scalia "accepted an invitation to be a guest speaker," and will reportedly speak on the separation of powers.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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AN UNEXPECTED MOMENT OF CANDOR.... Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) talked to Fox News this afternoon, and reflected on his shameless obstructionism:

"What I'm trying to do is help run out the clock."

Finally, we get the truth.

This is an unusually straightforward exercise -- Senate Democrats have a list of things they want to do before the Congress wraps up for the year; Senate Republicans oppose those things. As a result, Dems keep trying to advance their priorities, while conservatives like DeMint make a mockery of the legislative process with nonsensical obstructionism.

If you approve of these priorities, you probably find this exasperating. If not, you might like DeMint's antics, at least in an ends-justify-the-means kind of way.

But in either case, the players should at least be grown-ups about what's transpiring. This has nothing to do with Christmas, winter breaks, overworked staffers, or "sacrilege." This is simply about right-wing senators hoping that if they just make the legislative process a little more ridiculous, Democrats will give up and go home without having completed the people's business. It's a simple game of chicken, and irresponsible conservative senators think more tantrums will cause Dems to blink. So far, that's not the case.

By his own admission, DeMint is trying to do is "help run out the clock." If Jon Kyl and others want to know why they, like most of their constituents, are having to work throughout December, they need look no further than the junior senator from South Carolina.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... The bad news is, Rep.-elect Allen West (R-Fla.) was elected and will have a voice in shaping federal law in the United States for the next two years. The good news is, as one of Congress' most ridiculous members, he's very likely to offer quite a bit of fodder for blog posts.

Take this week, for example. West told a radio audience that U.S. officials "should be censoring the American news agencies which enabled" WikiLeaks, and that such media outlets were "aiding and abetting" a "crime." It's not common for elected lawmakers to call for the "censoring" of major media outlets -- especially when the lawmaker characterizes himself as a "constitutional conservative" -- but West's extremism is almost limitless.

After this generated some attention, West responded, not with an apology, but by claiming he was misunderstood.

On his Facebook page, West responded with a note claiming that he never called for censoring the media. "I am heard on the African-American Conservative Radio Show saying the media should be censured- meaning 'harshly criticized,'" wrote West.

So, West would have us believe he said U.S. officials should be "censuring" American news organizations, not "censoring."

In addition to the fact that this doesn't really make sense, there's the inconvenient fact that the audio of his remarks has been published online. Listeners are free, of course, to draw their own conclusions, but I think most reasonable people would agree he said "censoring."

Stepping back, though, what I find interesting is that West felt compelled to lie. Part of me just assumed he'd stick with his anti-First Amendment line and take the heat. It's not like he and his supporters really care that much about constitutional principles anyway.

Steve M. added, "I've listened to the clip a few times, Mr. West. You did say 'censor.' You know you did. You know you used the word. Now be a man and own up to it."

Steve Benen 4:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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NEW START INCHES FORWARD.... Eight months after the nuclear arms treaty known as New START came together, the Senate finally began a floor debate this afternoon. The first hurdle, the motion to proceed, was cleared this afternoon, but the margin wasn't exactly overwhelming.

The Senate has moved ahead on a U.S.-Russia nuclear arms treaty, President Barack Obama's top foreign policy priority.

Democrats prevailed in a test vote, 66-32, winning the backing of eight Republicans to begin debate on the treaty.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) had said he'd force the clerk to read the entire treaty, wasting up to 12 hours for no reason, but this afternoon, that plan was scrapped.

With that out of the way, how is the vote shaping up? Looking at the roll call from today, eight nine Republicans -- Bennett (Utah), Brown (Mass.), Collins (Maine), Graham (R-S.C.), Lugar (R-Ind.), McCain (Ariz.), Murkowski (R-Alaska), Snowe (Maine), and Voinovich (Ohio) -- broke ranks and sided with the Democratic majority to move the process forward.

That's the good news. The bad news is 66 votes probably won't be enough.

To ratify, the Senate will need a two-thirds majority, which means 67 votes. However, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who hasn't raised any concerns about the treaty thus far, did not vote today for reasons I don't know. If Bayh is there for the final vote, and sides with the bipartisan majority, New START is a done deal.

For that matter, both Sens. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) voted for the treaty in committee, so presumably they approve of it on a substantive level. They balked on the motion to proceed, but when it comes to a final vote, if either one of them supports ratification, that will give proponents 67 votes.

The Democratic leadership appears optimistic. Stay tuned.

Steve Benen 3:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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SENATE APPROVES TAX DEAL, 81 TO 19.... Given the initial reaction to the tax policy agreement reached by the White House and congressional Republican leaders, it was unclear at first whether the bill would crash and burn on Capitol Hill.

And yet, this afternoon, the proposal cleared its first hurdle with relative ease.

The Senate on Wednesday approved the $858 billion tax plan negotiated by the White House and Republican leaders -- the first concrete product of a new era of divided government and acid compromise.

The vote was 81 to 19, as Democrats yielded in their long push to end the Bush-era lowered tax rates for high-income taxpayers, and Republicans agreed to back a huge economic stimulus package, including an extension of jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed and a one-year payroll-tax cut for most workers, with the entire cost added to the federal deficit.

The roll call is online. Of the 19 opponents, there were 13 Democrats, five Republicans, and Independent Bernie Sanders.

Oddly enough, looking back over the last two years, I don't recall any major pieces of legislation passing with a majority this large. For much of the chamber, the allure of tax cuts is just that strong.

Of course, the bill now goes to the House, where support is unlikely to be as one-sided. Some of the agreement's most ardent critics in the House still expect it to pass, but opposition, especially among liberal Dems, remains pretty intense.

That said, circumstances have been less than kind to Democratic detractors in the House. The caucus was gearing up for a fight, but had the wind taken from their sails by multiple national polls showing broad public support for the tax deal, including from self-identified liberal Dems. What's more, the outcome in the Senate also didn't do the left flank in the House any favors.

As Greg Sargent noted after yesterday's cloture vote, "The overwhelming support for the tax deal -- even among Senate liberals -- gives House Dem leaders less maneuvering room to make any substantial changes to the bill. They don't want to risk making changes that wouldn't have support if the bill were kicked back to the Senate, because they don't want to risk imperiling the deal."

Steve Benen 2:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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WHAT JIM DEMINT CONSIDERS 'SACRILEGIOUS'.... The Senate is set to move on ratification of the pending arms control treaty, New START, but the chamber's most right-wing member is intent on bringing the process to a crawl. Today, he announced his plan to force the Senate clerk to read the entirety of the treaty, out loud, just to delay for the sake of delay.

The stunt is expected to waste seven to 12 hours, on purpose, just to make the man-child from South Carolina feel better.

But it's his stated rationale that truly rankles.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) called Democrats' push to force through an arms control treaty and an omnibus spending bill right before Christmas "sacrilegious," and warned he'd draw the process out to wage his objections.

"You can't jam a major arms control treaty right before Christmas," he told POLITICO. "What's going on here is just wrong. This is the most sacred holiday for Christians."

I'm beginning to wonder if there's just something wrong with this guy. Today is December 15 -- it's not sacred, it's not a holiday, and it's not "sacrilegious" for public officials to do the jobs we pay them to do. Americans nationwide are working this week and next, as are U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Maybe conservatives need to suck it up and stop whining about having too much homework before winter break.

What's more, no one is "jamming" anything -- senators have been talking about this treaty since April.

If DeMint wants to blow off the entire national security apparatus and vote against New START, that's his prerogative. If he doesn't care about monitoring Russia's long-range nuclear arsenal, that's up to him. But playing the Christmas Card is more than a little pathetic, and something of an embarrassment to the institution.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called DeMint's nonsense a "new low in putting political stunts ahead of our national security.... Every minute that the START Treaty is being read on the Senate floor increases the time that we lack verification of Russia's nuclear arsenal."

Update: Several readers have noted that DeMint's description of Christmas as "the most sacred holiday for Christians" is completely absurd. That's clearly true -- Easter has always been considered the holiest of Christian holidays. For adherents, a virgin birth is a big deal, but resurrection from the dead is a more notable development.

With that in mind, when drawing up a list of things Jim DeMint is deeply confused about, we can add "his own religion" to the list.

Steve Benen 1:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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CARRYING WALL STREET'S WATER.... The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission is nearing completion of its work, but as is usually the case, the panel's Republican members are rejecting the bipartisan findings.

They've apparently been a joy to work with.

During a private commission meeting last week, all four Republicans voted in favor of banning the phrases "Wall Street" and "shadow banking" and the words "interconnection" and "deregulation" from the panel's final report, according to a person familiar with the matter and confirmed by Brooksley E. Born, one of the six commissioners who voted against the proposal.

I generally find the Republican worldview to be incomprehensible, but I'm not even sure what the point of an effort like this would be. Some of these words and phrases are pretty integral to understanding the industry crisis. As Kevin Drum noted earlier, "It's like writing about the New Testament without mentioning Jesus. I guess you could do it, but what's the point?"

The larger takeaway, at least for me, is that the GOP is getting more brazen when it comes to these issues. It was discouraging enough when Republican leaders partnered with Wall Street lobbyists to try to kill financial regulatory reform.

But it keeps getting worse. Just this week, Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), who is poised to become chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, announced, "In Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated, and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks."

That said, exit polls from the midterm elections found that a plurality of voters believed the financial industry deserves the most blame for the recession -- and those voters strongly preferred Republicans to Democrats.

Why? Because sometimes politics doesn't make sense.

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

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THE GOP'S GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN MAY HAPPEN SOONER THAN EXPECTED.... There's been ample discussion in recent months about whether congressional Republicans would use their vastly improved numbers in the next Congress to force a government shutdown.

But we may not have to wait that long -- Republicans might shut down the government this weekend.

Republican and Democratic leaders are now engaged in a brinksmanship that could result in a temporary shutdown of the federal government. After the election, Republicans voted among themselves to eschew all earmarks for two years, and now they have to make good on their pledge. Yesterday, Democrats' chief appropriator, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI) unveiled what's known as an omnibus spending bill -- a bundled up package of appropriations legislation, earmarks, and other measures -- which would keep the government running for a year.

In response, most Republicans -- even those whose multimillion dollar earmark requests are included in the legislation -- are saying, "Hell no you can't!"

That puts them all in an awkward position.... Democrats will try to use the impending deadline to pass the omnibus. If it fails, they can take up a piece of legislation passed by the House known as a "continuing resolution," which will keep the government funded at current levels through next year.

Republican leaders reject both plans.

The GOP demand is for a short-term spending bill that would keep the lights on until early next year, at which point far-right lawmakers could use their new strength to do more damage. In true hostage-taking style, Republicans are effectively saying, "Pass our short-term measure or we'll shut down the government."

If you're wondering why you haven't heard much about this until now, it's probably because few expected it to come to this. The omnibus bill, unveiled yesterday, includes spending Republicans themselves asked for. Indeed, the omnibus was supposed to pass with bipartisan support.

But it's not. Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and John Thune (R-S.D.) tried to explain this morning why Republicans have to kill the spending measure because of pet projects, but struggled badly when asked why they put their own pet projects in the bill they intend to reject.

In one of my favorite exchanges in recent memory, Fox News asked Cornyn this morning, "Now, you yourself have asked for earmarks, too, according to this list, some $16 million for your home state. Can you defend that, senator?" Cornyn replied, "Well, I believe I can. But I'm not going to."

Brilliant.

Making matters slightly worse, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) will demand that the clerk read the entire omnibus bill, out loud, from start to finish, just to delay for the sake of delay. Given the size of the bill, the gambit could take up to 60 hours.

As is nearly always the case, the bill will need 60 votes. Whether those votes will be there remains to be seen, but it's worth noting that Dems are already splintering -- Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said this morning she intends to support the Republican filibuster.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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

* With Michael Steele announcing his desire to stay on as RNC chairman, some prominent Republican donors have warned they "will not raise money for the party if the controversial chairman wins another term."

* On a related note, Politico tried to find a Republican senator willing to support Steele's candidacy for another term at the RNC. It couldn't find one.

* A federal judge said yesterday that, despite the ongoing wrangling in the unresolved U.S. Senate race in Alaska, voters should have a senator in place by the time the new Congress convenes next month.

* Just a month after running and winning as Democratic candidates, two members of the Texas state House have switched parties. Republicans now have a legislative supermajority.

* In Minnesota, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) will seek re-election in 2012, and according to the latest Public Policy Polling survey, Republicans hope to see unhinged Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) run against her. In a hypothetical match-up between the two, Klobuchar leads by 15 points.

* Speaking of PPP surveys, the pollster finds Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) struggling a bit in Ohio in advance of his 2012 re-election bid. In hypothetical match-ups against largely unknown GOP challengers, Brown leads, but by narrow margins.

* In Wisconsin, PPP shows Sen. Herb Kohl (D) looking pretty safe at this point, though he has not yet committed to running for re-election, and Sen. Russ Feingold (D) looked safe two years out, too.

* And in Connecticut, expect a fairly large field in the U.S. Senate race when Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I) seeks another term. The latest likely candidate is Rep. Joe Courtney (D), who said this week he'll decide early next year about whether to run.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (3)

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HENRY HUDSON'S YEARS OF 'ACTIVE SERVICE TO THE REPUBLICAN PARTY'.... Federal District Judge Henry Hudson caused quite a stir this week with his odd ruling on the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate. Matt Finkelstein reports today on Hudson's explanation of how he earned a lifetime appointment to the federal bench in the first pace.

After Congress created a new judgeship for the Richmond Division in the Eastern District of Virginia in 2001, Hudson expressed his interest and picked up the support of the state's two Republican senators.

Hudson's description of the selection process candidly acknowledges its political nature. "Campaigning for a federal judgeship is almost as challenging as running for political office," he writes. "Rather than court voters, aspirants solicit endorsements from influential political activists with close ties to the senators, particularly the activists who raise the big money.

"That is where 20 years of active service to the Republican party, and helping in the various campaigns of each senator, paid dividends and gave me the edge," he said.

I realize it can get tiresome to see folks like me say "imagine if a Democrat had done this," but once in a while, I think these comparisons have real merit.

Consider a hypothetical. Imagine if an important court case came before a federal judge nominated by President Obama and confirmed by a Democratic-led Senate. Then imagine we learned that this same judge owns part of a political operation that attacks the same law about which he/she was hearing arguments.

Making matters worse, that Democratic judge admits to having campaigned for the seat on the bench, earning it through 20 years of active service to the Democratic Party, helping the various campaigns of Democratic candidates.

And then to top it off, imagine if that judge's ruling, an obvious example of judicial activism, was premised on a bizarre legal analysis that no one of any ideology was prepared to defend.

Is there any doubt at all that, if this scenario actually happened, the right would be apoplectic? That the judge's name would be on every Fox News broadcast as an example of courts run amok? That we'd hear some congressional Republicans raising the specter of impeachment against that judge?

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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THE MISSING MANDATE.... After the 1994 midterms, when congressional Republicans making massive gains, the public was strongly inclined to back the GOP. At the time, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that Republicans on the Hill enjoyed a 15-point advantage over President Clinton when Americans were asked who they trusted more to cope with the nation's problems. When it came to who was taking a "stronger leadership role," the GOP had a whopping 34-point advantage over Clinton.

Boehner, McConnell, and their cohorts may feel as if they have a similar wind at their backs now. They don't.

Republicans may have made major gains in the November elections, but they have yet to win the hearts and minds of the American people, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The midterm elections -- in which Republicans gained 63 seats to take control of the House and added six seats to their Senate minority -- were widely seen as a rebuke to President Obama. Still, the public trusts Obama marginally more than they do congressional Republicans to deal with the country's main problems in the coming years, 43 percent to 38 percent.

The poll suggests that the election, while perhaps a vote against the status quo, was not a broad mandate for Republicans and their plans. The survey also underscores the degree to which Americans are conflicted about who they think is setting the agenda in Washington.

When it comes to dealing with national challenges, the public prefers the president over congressional Republicans by five points. On the specific issues, the two are roughly tied on handling the economy, terrorism, and taxes; Republicans lead on deficit reduction; and Obama has a sizable advantage on health care and "helping the middle class."

It's impossible to deny the fact that Republicans had a very strong year electorally, but if the GOP thinks it has a strong national mandate to pursue a far-right agenda, the party is fundamentally confused about what happened last month.

Elsewhere in the poll, Americans said they are concerned about the deficit, but when asked about nine different ideas for deficit reduction, the public opposed all nine. Try not to be surprised.

As for heightened progressive criticism of the White House, polls like these continue to defy expectations. The president's approval rating among liberals remains steady at 87%, and only 11% of the country thinks Obama is negotiating too much with Republicans.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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UNAMBIGUOUS PUBLIC SUPPORT FOR REPEALING DADT.... Congressional Republicans may not care about the wishes of the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs, the White House, or House and Senate majorities, but they should at least take note of the fact that Americans overwhelmingly support ending the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

Nearly eight in 10 Americans favor allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The results signal continued widespread public support for ending the military's 17-year ban on gays in the military and come as Congress prepares to vote again on legislation ending the military's "don't ask, don't tell" law.

Overall, 77 percent of Americans say gays and lesbians who publicly disclose their sexual orientation should be able to serve in the military. That's little changed from polls over the two years, but represents the highest level of support in a Post-ABC poll. The support also cuts across partisan and ideological lines, with majorities of Democrats, Republicans, independents, liberals, conservatives and white evangelical Protestants in favor of homosexuals' serving openly.

That last part strikes me as especially interesting. Two-thirds of self-identified conservative Republicans support repeal, though on Capitol Hill, exactly zero self-identified conservative Republicans support repeal.

Overall, 77% of Americans don't agree on much, especially when it comes to hot-button social issues. This is about as close as we get to "consensus."

And yet, Republicans might kill repeal anyway. A vote is expected in the House today on a standalone repeal bill, which should pass with relative ease. It will then move to the Senate where its fate is uncertain, though there are hints of optimism.

Regardless, as far as GOP senators are concerned, the proposal with overwhelming public support doesn't even deserve an up-or-down vote. Republicans could vote against repeal, of course, but that's not good enough -- they have to stop the Senate from even considering the issue, regardless of public attitudes or requests from the Pentagon.

(This morning, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid outlined priorities for the rest of the lame-duck session, and didn't mention DADT. I've been told by a reliable source that Reid simply misspoke, and omitted this by accident.)

Soon after the midterms, Republicans went around insisting that policymakers need to "listen to the American people." I guess that sentiment doesn't apply when Republicans don't like what they hear.

Steve Benen 10:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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FOX NEWS GETS INSTRUCTIONS ON CLIMATE TALK.... About a year ago, Fox News correspondent Wendell Goler delivered a live report from Copenhagen and told viewers the truth. The United Nations' World Meteorological Organization, Goler said, had announced that that 2000-2009 was "on track to be the warmest [decade] on record."

Not quite 15 minutes later, another memo was sent by Fox News Washington managing editor Bill Sammon.

In the midst of global climate change talks last December, a top Fox News official sent an email questioning the "veracity of climate change data" and ordering the network's journalists to "refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question." [...]

Sammon's orders for Fox journalists to cast doubt on climate science came amid the network's relentless promotion of the fabricated "Climategate" scandal, which revolved around misrepresentations of emails sent to and from climate scientists at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit.

It's almost as if Fox News' managing editor in D.C. has some kind of political agenda or something. (Sammon's marching orders were sent to the network's news division, not its opinion shows.)

Of course, these propaganda efforts have been quite effective. Sammon not only has Fox News' on-air talent spinning climate reports the way Republicans prefer, but it's also having the intended effect on viewers. Remember, as recently as a few years ago, Republican voters, by and large, believed what the mainstream believed when it came to climate science. Then they were told to believe something new, as Sammon's memo helps demonstrate.

None of this is even remotely surprising, but when memos like Sammon's come to public light, it helps add additional weight to the larger indictment against the ridiculous cable news outlet.

Also note that this is the second interesting revelation in as many weeks about Sammon's political agenda at Fox News. Last week, it was his memo about how the network should characterize the public option during the health care debate. This week, it's reports on global warming.

In both cases, the stories were driven by Media Matters reports, suggesting the organization has a helpful source within the network. That's good news.

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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MITCH MCCONNELL'S SHORT MEMORY.... One of the first fights after the midterm elections occurred within the Senate Republican caucus, with a dispute over whether to impose a moratorium on earmarks.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) opposed the move, but on Nov. 15, threw in the towel. He explained on the floor, "I've talked with my members. I've listened to them. Above all, I have listened to my constituents. And what I've concluded is that on the issue of congressional earmarks, as the leader of my party in the Senate, I have to lead first by example."

That was four weeks ago. As of yesterday, the Senate was set to consider an omnibus bill to keep the government running for the rest of the fiscal year. The $1.2 trillion spending measure includes more than 6,000 earmarks totaling $8 billion. Among the senators inserting earmarks: Mitch McConnell.

Formerly a member of the committee that doles out earmarks, McConnell reluctantly embraced a moratorium on the practice last month to send a signal that Republicans are serious about curbing spending.

Yet the legislation includes provisions requested this year by McConnell, including $650,000 for a genetic technology center at the University of Kentucky, according to an analysis of the bill by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog.

Saying he was now "vigorously in opposition" to the legislation, McConnell said Tuesday that rushed consideration of the bill "here on Christmas Eve" compelled him to try to block the bill through a filibuster. "I'm going to vote against things that arguably would benefit my state. I do not think this is the appropriate way to run the Senate," he said.

But McConnell, like other new earmark opponents, stopped short of asking for his projects to be removed from the bill.

So much for "leading first by example."

McConnell intends to filibuster a spending bill because of earmarks -- including earmarks that he put in the bill. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said something very similar, demanding that the measure be rejected because of the pet projects, one of which is there at his behest.

Republicans said they don't see a contradiction in opposing a bill over earmarks while pushing earmarks in the same bill. Then again, Republicans don't see a lot of things.

The Senate is likely to move on this tomorrow, and it's not entirely clear how much opposition it will muster. Expect Dems to emphasize a few key points, including the fact that the earmarks represent less than 1% of the total spending bill, and the fact that earmark spending is down 75% since Republicans held the Senate majority -- a minor detail the GOP hopes no one remembers.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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KYL'S CONCERN FOR HIS CHRISTMAS VACATION.... Given all the work the Senate still has to do before wrapping up for the year, it's a given that members will be on the job next week. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), to his credit, has said it's possible the chamber will be voting the following week, too.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) seems chiefly concerned with the holidays. (via Rachel Slajda)

Mr. Kyl said that Mr. Reid's effort to do too much was inconsiderate of the Senate as an institution and also of senators, staff and their families hoping to celebrate Christmas. [...]

Mr. Kyl added, " It is impossible to do all of the things that the majority leader laid out without doing -- frankly, without disrespecting the institution and without disrespecting one of the two holiest of holidays for Christians and the families of all of the Senate, not just the senators themselves but all of the staff."

There are a few angles to consider here.

First, no one is talking about having senators or their aides work on Christmas, "one of the two holiest of holidays for Christians." I'm not a theologian, but I'm comfortable with the observation that modern Christianity places no spiritual significance on Dec. 27 through Dec. 31. The "respect" Kyl demands for his religious holiday appears to be intact.

Second, Kyl might want to take a peek outside his DC bubble -- the vast majority of American workers will be on the job the week after Christmas, and places of business nationwide will be open. (Does Kyl think all of these employers are "disrespecting" Christianity?) Asking senators to work when most of their constituents are working hardly seems unreasonable.

And third, the Senate is perfectly capable of getting its work done before Christmas, but that appears unlikely because Kyl's Republican colleagues are deliberately bringing the legislative process to a crawl. It's not Reid's fault the GOP is forcing needless, petty delays.

As it turns out, Kyl just happens to be the Minority Whip, which in theory puts him in a position of some influence. Instead of complaining about Reid, maybe he should have a chat with some of his obstructionist colleagues.

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

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December 14, 2010

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

* Retail sales rose for a fifth straight month in November, including the biggest jump in department store sales in two years.

* Regardless of hints of encouraging data, the Fed isn't changing course: "The Federal Reserve will continue to buy bonds and keep short-term interest rates near zero, the central bank said after a policy meeting Tuesday, reflecting the nation's weak economy."

* Senate action on New START ratification could begin as early as tonight, but more likely tomorrow. The leadership is confident it has 67 votes, it's not a done deal.

* The House will vote on the standalone "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" bill tomorrow.

* The State Department is clarifying Richard Holbrooke's final words, adding additional context.

* The individual mandate in Massachusetts' health care policy is working really well. Of course, Mitt Romney can't talk about his successful policy, because primary voters will hate him for it.

* The latest report from the Pew Research Center shows broad bipartisan support for the tax deal negotiated by the White House and congressional Republicans, heated debate on the Hill notwithstanding. Oddly enough, the strongest support comes from self-identified liberal Democrats.

* Try not to be surprised: "Rep.-elect Allen West (R-Fla.) may have proven himself a prime pupil for fellow Rep. Michele Bachmann's forthcoming constitutional classes, when he recently displayed selective reverence for the Tea Party's most sacred document by calling for American news outlets to be censored for running stories based on the recent WikiLeaks cable dump."

* They did what? "When the Federal Bureau of Investigation needed a press expert to talk to its media representatives in 1984, the bureau's top leadership turned to a conservative columnist who once wrote that 'the Negro race, as a race, is in fact an inferior race.'"

* I'm prepared to start hearing rumors about Jon Bon Jovi's burgeoning career in politics. Who's with me?

* If a University of Kentucky astronomer questions the basis for modern biology for religious reasons, can the school pass him over and hire someone else to be the university's observatory director, or is that religious discrimination?

* And not content to say nonsensical things in the United States, former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin (R) spent some time confusing people in Haiti yesterday.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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THE VACANCY CRISIS AND THE NEED FOR SENATE REFORM.... There are still political observers, in the media and out, who seem to think the status quo on filibusters, holds, and judicial nominees is normal. Dems do it under Republican presidents; Republicans do it under Democratic presidents. It's just how the process goes.

Except those assumptions are tragically wrong. What we're seeing now just isn't normal.

As the first congressional session of Obama's presidency draws to a close, what began as a slow process of confirmation has ballooned into a full-blown judicial crisis. The Senate has overseen the slowest pace of judicial staffing in at least a generation, with a paltry 39.8 percent of Obama's judges having been confirmed, according to numbers compiled by Senate Democrats. Of the 103 district and circuit court nominees, only 41 have been confirmed.

By this time in George W. Bush's presidency, the Senate had confirmed 76 percent of his nominees. President Clinton was working at a rate of 89 percent at this point in his tenure. [...]

Ronald Reagan had twice as many judges confirmed by this time in his presidency, with his 87 confirmations dwarfing Obama's total. George H.W. Bush had moved 70 judges through the Democratic-controlled Senate.

With fewer judges on staff, those left must take on that many more cases. For example, each judge on a Denver panel two robes short is responsible for 593 instead of 430 cases. The slow pace of confirmations has led to a federal judiciary with nearly one in eight seats empty, as a foreclosure crisis fueled by rampant fraud floods the courts.

For Senate Republicans, none of this matters. The key is to prevent a Democratic president from putting qualified jurists on the federal bench, and make it easier for the judiciary's shift to the right to continue unabated. As a result, qualified judicial nominees who enjoy broad bipartisan support get stuck by secret holds and pointless filibusters, not because they're undeserving, but because GOP senators would rather have a vacancy crisis than judges nominated by Obama.

As even conservative judges have insisted, these tactics are undermining the way the American system of justice functions -- or in this case, doesn't. That makes Republican petty and hyper-partisan tactics more than just a nuisance; this is arguably quite dangerous.

With that in mind, now is also a good time to mention that there's a growing push for the Senate to reform the way the institution operates, and a new initiative was launched this week called Fix the Senate Now. Among the groups involved are SEIU, the AFL-CIO, and other leading labor organizations, as well as the Sierra Club, Daily Kos, and Common Cause.

In the meantime, on the Hill, Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) are taking the lead on reforming the way the Senate does business. I'll have more on their efforts later in the week.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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REID REMINDS GOP: 'CONGRESS ENDS ON JAN. 4'.... We've seen a fair number of instances lately in which the parties play a game of chicken -- waiting to see which side will blink first. The latest has to do with the Senate calendar, and at this point, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is saying exactly what he should be saying.

To briefly summarize, there are several key priorities the majority intends to tackle in this lame-duck session. Several Senate Republicans believe if they use enough obnoxious delaying tactics, Democrats will simply give up and go home.

In the latest example of this, the Senate is preparing to vote on an omnibus spending bill that would fund the federal government through the rest of the fiscal year. Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), the chamber's most right-wing members, intend to demand that the clerk of the Senate read the spending bill, out loud and in its entirety, before it's voted on.

The omnibus is 1,924 pages.

Coburn and DeMint aren't just motivated by "dickishness" -- though that's part of it -- the goal is to slow things down to prevent votes on other bills.

It's important, then, that the Democratic leadership makes clear that the tactics won't work. The notion of wrapping up the session this Friday has already been thrown out the window; the next step is Reid making clear that he's more concerned with getting everything done than he is with going home.

Senate Democrats are preparing to stay in session right up to Christmas Day to try to finish their work.

Democratic staff directors warned staffers Monday not to make any plans to travel next week, according to one top Democratic source. Christmas Eve is Friday and Christmas Day is Saturday.

"The only way to get everything done is to stay longer -- unless Republicans will allow time to be pulled back," the Democratic source said.

It's already assumed that members will be working next week. More to the point, Reid also said that coming back after Christmas is a real possibility if next week doesn't go as smoothly as it should.

"There's still Congress after Christmas. We're not through," Reid told reporters today. "Congress ends on Jan. 4."

Good for him. If it's up to Dems, the to-do list could be tackled quite quickly. But if the likes of Coburn and DeMint want to drag this out, Dems have to be prepared to call their bluff.

Steve Benen 3:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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ROGER SIMON GIVES A STRAW MAN QUITE A LASHING.... The headline on Roger Simon's latest Politico column -- "Class warfare is not the ticket" -- was the first hint of trouble. As is probably clear to everyone, when the media establishment refers to "class warfare," they're invariably complaining about tax rates for the wealthy, overlooking Republican policies to redistribute wealth upwards.

Of course, moving past Simon's headline, we get to the lede.

The rich are different from you and me. They are swine.

So say many of the Democrats in the House of Representatives who would rather that jobless people lose their unemployment checks and middle-class people lose their income tax breaks than that the rich get a dime extra.

Some Democrats hate the rich. Most Americans, on the other hand, would like to become the rich.... Congressional Democrats want us to hate the rich for being rich.

Simon supports these observations by pointing to ... nothing in particular. There are "many" congressional Democrats who consider the wealthy "swine," but Simon doesn't quote or mention any of them. "Some" Dems, we're told, "hate the rich." Which Democrats? Simon doesn't say. I guess we're just supposed to take his word for it.

I don't. This kind of analysis is lazy and wrong, and Simon really ought to know better than to peddle such cliches.

There's a meaningful debate underway over taxes, economic inequalities, and how best to generate growth, sparked in part by the disagreement over the tax policy agreement reached by the White House and congressional Republicans. I happen to think the deal, despite glaring and offensive flaws, is probably worth passing. But I also know better than to think those on the left who disagree with me are motivated by some anti-wealth spite. There's a reasonable, persuasive progressive case against this deal; to chalk it up a Democratic desire to convince Americans to "hate the rich for being rich" is ridiculous.

Simon's column went on to argue, "Only half of the wealthiest people in America inherited their wealth. The rest earned it. But whether their wealth is earned or inherited, I just want the rich to pay their fair share of taxes, not some kind of punitive share."

Jon Chait could hardly contain his annoyance.

Isn't it great how you can use words like "only" to do the entire work of your argument for you? Another way to phrase that first sentence would be, "Only half of the wealthiest people in America earned their wealth. The rest inherited it." I'm especially tickled by Simon's disclaimer that he wants the rich to pay a "fair share" of the taxes, not a "punitive" share. Right -- that's the whole debate. What is a fair share? Are Clinton-era tax rates on the rich fair or punitive? Simon has nothing to say about this at all.

Steve Benen 3:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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DADT REPEAL STRATEGY COMING TOGETHER.... I've lost count of how many twists and turns the debate over repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has taken over the last several months. But as of this minute, there's a credible strategy coming together on the Hill to actually get this done.

As became evident overnight, the Senate leadership believes House action on a freestanding bill could expedite the process. While there were some false starts, this afternoon, House Dems made the right call.

A House Democrat on Tuesday will introduce standalone legislation to repeal the military's ban on openly gay service members in a last-ditch attempt to get rid of the policy.

Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) -- a longtime supporter of repeal -- will introduce the legislation, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) announced at his daily press briefing and on Twitter. Hoyer also said he would co-sponsor the bill.

"I'm hopeful that it will pass handily through the House," Hoyer told reporters at the Capitol Tuesday, "and then I'm hopeful that the Senate will take it up."

The language of the House measure is identical to the Lieberman/Collins freestanding bill in the Senate, which is important to the extent that it will make a conference committee unnecessary.

Similarly, as Igor Volsky explained, the House is likely to send its bill as a "message," with "privileged status," will also help the Senate skip some procedural steps and expedite the process.

The schedule is still unclear, but the House could act quite quickly, possibly as early as today. But as Greg Sargent notes, House Dems, among others, are looking for some reassurances from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that the Senate will follow up if the House acts.

Senate aides involved in the discussions want Reid to make it clear that this vote is a certainty before the end of the lame duck session, not just something on the wish list. They want the White House to urge Reid to commit. They point out that repeal got a major reprieve today, when the House agreed to introduce its own bill -- and they want Reid and the White House to capitalize on this momentum. [...]

All indications are that Reid genuinely wants repeal to happen. Indeed, aides say he is the one who asked House Dems to hold their own vote, to make it easier for the Senate to move. But if repeal is going to have any chance, it would be helpful if Reid would indicate right now that it's definitely going to happen.

The magic number, for those keeping score, is two. Last week, repeal had 57 votes, which would have been 58 had Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) not been stuck at the dentist's office. That includes Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

So, to get this done, repeal proponents need two more votes. They're likely to come from some combination of Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), and possibly Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), if they're to be found at all.

Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) appears convinced that the votes are there, and I've heard from a variety of folks who actually sound optimistic. We'll know more soon.

Steve Benen 2:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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HUDSON'S INEXPLICABLE ERROR.... In the wake of yesterday's court ruling on the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act, federal district court Judge Henry Hudson has come under some scrutiny. The ruling wasn't a surprise -- Hudson is a conservative Bush nominee with a background as a Republican activist -- but it raised eyebrows when we learned the judge owns part of a political operation that attacks the same health care law about which he was hearing arguments.

But putting Hudson's background aside, it's the reasoning of his decision itself that continues to be the point of an even larger controversy. The crux of his ruling came down to this main point:

If a person's decision not to purchase health insurance at a particular point in time does not constitute the type of economic activity subject to regulation under the Commerce Clause, then logically an attempt to enforce such provision under the Necessary and Proper Clause is equally offensive to the Constitution.

That's a rather bizarre legal analysis.

The argument from the Obama administration is straightforward: the Commerce Clause empowers the federal government to regulate interstate commerce; the American health care system is interstate commerce; and the Affordable Care Act regulates the health care system. As such, the ACA fits comfortably within the confines of the Commerce Clause.

What about those who don't want to buy insurance, but would have to under the mandate? As Kevin Drum noted, "[S]ince individuals get sick and receive medical care whether or not they have healthcare coverage (and whether or not they can pay for it), a decision not to buy health insurance has a significant effect on the healthcare market. Therefore, forcing people to buy healthcare coverage is a reasonable provision in a bill meant to regulate the healthcare market."

But then there's Hudson, who dismisses the very idea with a contention that, as Brian Beutler noted this morning, even conservatives consider "an elementary logical flaw."

[Orin Kerr, a professor of law at George Washington University, on the generally conservative law blog The Volokh Conspiracy] notes that [Hudson's rationale] is all wrong. The Necessary and Proper Clause allows Congress to take steps beyond those listed in the Constitution to achieve its Constitutional ends, including the regulation of interstate commerce. Hudson's argument wipes a key part of the Constitution out of existence. Kerr says Hudson "rendered [it] a nullity."

Kerr's co-blogger, Case Western Reserve University Law Professor Jonathan Adler agreed, though he cautioned that Hudson's error doesn't necessarily imply that the mandate is constitutional.

In an interview with TPM this morning, Timothy Jost of Washington and Lee University, a supporter of the mandate, called the logic on this point "completely redundant."

"In Hudson's opinion he basically conflates the Commerce power and the Necessary and Proper power and says that each provision in a statute has to be looked at independently from every other provision, and each provision has to be independently authorized under the Commerce Clause," Jost said. "And if it isn't, the Necessary and Proper Clause doesn't grant any more authority."

It's safe to assume the appeal will emphasize this point quite a bit.

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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MAYBE ROMNEY SHOULD JUST STOP WRITING OP-EDS.... Former one-term Gov. Mitt Romney (R), in advance of his 2012 presidential campaign, has to identify ways to stay relevant. He doesn't have a job, and isn't on Fox News' payroll, so that tends to lead Romney to write op-eds to stay in the game.

This strategy would be more effective, though, if Romney's op-eds were any good.

A few months ago, Romney did his level best to pretend to understand foreign policy and counter-proliferation. The result was utterly humiliating.

Soon after, he ran another piece, this time writing an op-ed for the Boston Globe. It was largely incoherent, too.

Today it's USA Today's turn to publish a Romney piece. He argues against the tax policy agreement reached by the White House and congressional Republicans, insisting that we can't afford to help the unemployed with extended benefits, and jobless aid only encourages those lazy unemployed folks not to work anyway. Romney even suggests "individual unemployment savings accounts," so workers can pay for their own periods of unemployment.

Wait, it gets worse.

The piece goes on to complain about the deficit, while calling for tax cuts that would add to the deficit. Romney reconciles this contradiction the old fashioned way:

In many cases, lowering taxes can actually increase government revenues. If new businesses, new investments and new hiring are spurred by the prospects of better after-tax returns, the taxes paid by these new or growing businesses and employees can more than make up for the lower rates of taxation.

Oh, good, Mitt Romney believes in the tax fairy.

Remember this from the summer? It's the notion that the cost of tax cuts, without offsets, is irrelevant, because they necessarily pay for themselves. It's an idea so ridiculous that no credible economist takes it seriously. Even the Bush administration -- the most fiscally irresponsible in American history -- rejected it as nonsense.

And even if Romney didn't know any of this, he should at least recognize recent history -- Bush's tax cuts, the ones Romney seeks to protect, didn't "increase government revenues"; they helped create massive deficits.

There have to be better ways than this for unemployed politicians to stay relevant.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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

* As expected, Joe Miller (R), after a series of legal and electoral setbacks, is taking his case to the state Supreme Court. Miller still hopes to disqualify about 8,000 ballots that were cast for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R).

* Remember the secretive right-wing campaign outfit, Crossroads GPS? The Rove-backed attack operation is already taking steps to go after vulnerable House Dems, launching a $400,000 radio ad campaign this week, targeting 12 Democrats who narrowly won re-election last month.

* Former wrestling executive Linda McMahon (R) lost badly in her U.S. Senate campaign in Connecticut last month, but she's apparently not done trying. Perhaps eyeing the 2012 cycle, McMahon has scheduled a D.C. meeting with National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn.

* Recent polling suggests former Gov. John Engler is the strongest Republican candidate to take on Sen. Debbie Stabenow in 2012, but Engler said yesterday he's not interested in the race.

* In Virginia, a Clarus Research Group poll shows incumbent Sen. Jim Webb (D) with the narrowest of leads over former Sen. George Allen (R) in a hypothetical 2012 match-up. The poll showed Webb up by one point, 41% to 40%.

* Former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel (D) is talking to the Chicago Board of Elections this morning, hoping to establish residency and clear the way for his mayoral campaign.

* Outgoing Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) was, up until quite recently, considered a rising star in Democratic politics. But after a surprisingly awful showing in Alabama's Democratic gubernatorial primary earlier this year, Davis lashed out at his party, and now wants to see an independent party in his Southern state.

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

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THE ANNUAL PLEDGE DRIVE WRAPS UP.... Yesterday, the Monthly's editor-in-chief, Paul Glastris, posted a very kind item, referencing my work in the context of the magazine's annual pledge drive. I'd like to personally thank Paul for the praise, and all of you who responded to his message so generously.

With that, I'll note that the pledge drive is ending today, so you'll no longer have to put up with these reminders. For those of you who've contributed, please know you have our most sincere thanks. For those who need one last reminder, this is it: your tax-deductible donation can make a big difference.

If you're a regular, you know that the Washington Monthly offers the kind of cutting-edge reporting and analysis the country needs now more than ever, breaking big stories well ahead of major mainstream outlets.

But to keep us going strong, we need a little help. Your donation will not only help the magazine, but also help support this blog.

While we already have print and online ads, this only covers part of our overall expenses, which means that we depend on contributions from readers to stay up and humming.

So for the last time, I hope we can count on your support. Just click here to help out. You can donate online, through PayPal, or through the mail.

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Steve Benen 11:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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RICHARD HOLBROOKE.... I'd be remiss if I neglected to mention the passing of a giant of American diplomacy, whose efforts will be sorely missed.

Richard C. Holbrooke, the Obama administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2009 and a diplomatic troubleshooter who worked for every Democratic president since the late 1960s and oversaw the negotiations that ended the war in Bosnia, died Monday evening in Washington. He was 69 and lived in Manhattan. [...]

Mr. Holbrooke's signal accomplishment in a distinguished career that involved diplomacy in Asia, Europe and the Middle East was his role as chief architect of the 1995 Dayton peace accords, which ended the war in Bosnia. It was a coup preceded and followed by his peacekeeping missions to the tinderbox of ethnic, religious and regional conflicts that was formerly Yugoslavia.

More recently, Mr. Holbrooke wrestled with the stunning complexity of Afghanistan and Pakistan: how to bring stability to the region while fighting a resurgent Taliban and coping with corrupt governments, rigged elections, fragile economies, a rampant narcotics trade, nuclear weapons in Pakistan, and the presence of Al Qaeda, and presumably Osama bin Laden, in the wild tribal borderlands.

The scope of the man's career -- from embassies to the U.N. to negotiating tables around the world -- was nothing short of extraordinary.

But it was Holbrooke's final words before being sedated for surgery that are likely to resonate: "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan."

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (6)

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SCALIA ACCEPTS BACHMANN'S INVITATION?.... A few weeks ago, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) talked up her plans for the new Congress, including "weekly classes" on the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights for like-minded lawmakers.

Asked who'll lead these "classes," Bachmann said she hoped to get conservative Supreme Court justices, but would probably settle for unhinged activists like David Barton, the pseudo-historian and Glenn Beck ally.

It never occurred to me Bachmann might actually get a sitting justice of the high court to participate in something like this, but the frightening Minnesotan appeared on Lou Dobbs' radio show late last week, and boasted about Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's decision to lead the first "class."

Dobbs: You've got a terrific idea that you're going to implement with the new Congress: a course on the Constitution for incoming Congressmen and women. Tell us about that.

Bachmann: We're going to do what the NFL does and what the baseball teams do: we're going to practice every week, if you will, our craft, which is studying and learning the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Justice Scalia has graciously agreed to kick off our class.

(Here's the video of the exchange.)

It's possible Bachmann is mistaken. I haven't seen confirmation of her claim elsewhere, and one never knows if the voices in her head lead her to say things that aren't true. Perhaps Scalia was invited, but has not yet said whether he'll attend.

But if Bachmann's right, this is truly bizarre, even for conservatives. A sitting Supreme Court justice is going to teach a class on constitutional interpretation to a separate branch of government? Seriously?

My friend Kyle at Right Wing Watch asked, "Am I the only one who senses a possible problem with having a sitting Supreme Court Justice essentially coaching members of Congress on how to vote in accordance with the Constitution?"

As a matter of fact, no, you're not the only one.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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SOMEONE TELL THE GOP MOST OF THE COUNTRY STILL HATES WALL STREET.... I realize that Big Business, and its enormous profits, feel put upon by federal officials, but it's worth emphasizing the fact that the American mainstream still doesn't look kindly on Wall Street and the banks.

More than 70 percent of Americans say big bonuses should be banned this year at Wall Street firms that took taxpayer bailouts, a Bloomberg National Poll shows.

An additional one in six favors slapping a 50 percent tax on bonuses exceeding $400,000. Just 7 percent of U.S. adults say bonuses are an appropriate incentive reflecting Wall Street's return to financial health.

A large majority also want to tax Wall Street profits to reduce the federal budget deficit. A levy on financial services firms is the top choice among more than a dozen deficit-cutting options presented to respondents.

With U.S. unemployment at 9.8 percent, resentment of bonuses and banking profits unites Americans across political, gender, age and income groups. Among Republicans, who generally are skeptical of business regulation, 76 percent support a government ban on big bonuses to bailout recipients, that's higher than backing among Democrats or independents.

And yet, in Washington, where congressional Republicans have made no secret of their affinity for Wall Street and its lobbyists, there's a noticeable disconnect. Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), who is poised to become chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, announced his belief this week, "In Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated, and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks."

Got that? The man Republicans tapped to oversee the banking industry believes it's his job to work for the banking industry.

Just for good measure, let's also note that House Republicans assigned Rep.-elect Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) to serve under Bachus on the Financial Services Committee. What's Stivers' background? He's a former bank lobbyist who helped try to kill Wall Street reform, and received $225,750 from Wall Street interests for his campaign.

I wonder if this is what the "populist" Tea Partiers had in mind when they rallied behind GOP candidates and helped elect a Republican-led House.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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DADT REPEAL -- STILL NOT DEAD.... Last week, Senate Republicans once again refused to allow members to consider a defense authorization spending measure because it includes a provision clearing the way for the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." It looked as if those waiting for the end of the policy would have to count on the courts.

But almost immediately after the failed Senate vote, there was talk of a stand-alone bill, championed in the Senate by Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), which could muster 60 votes. The problem is the calendar -- there's just not much time left in the lame-duck session.

Moving forward, there's clearly a desire to get this done, but the legislative maneuvers are a little tricky. Part of any strategy would be House action on a stand-alone bill, which could expedite the process in the Senate. Josh Gerstein reported overnight that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) are poised to move on this.

By evening, it appeared that identically-worded bills would be moved independently in each body depending on the flow of business, rather than moving from one body to the other. House action still seemed likely to precede Senate action on the legislation, however, because of the likely need for a cloture petition and associated debate on the Senate side due to the filibuster expected from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)

Repeal advocates view the standalone bill as their best hope for enacting legislation to set in motion a repeal of the ban on openly gay servicemembers. Advocates had pinned their hopes on the broader defense authorization bill, which already contains conditional repeal language, but it fell three votes short last week of the 60 needed to move to the floor. However, during that process it appeared that there were more than 60 votes for repeal itself, so backers quickly shifted their focus to passing a standalone bill.

At this point, it seems pretty clear that the votes are in place. Even Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) has said he's "sympathetic" to the stand-alone repeal bill, and may vote for it once the Senate has dealt with the tax issue and New START ratification.

Dave Weigel added that the process may hinge on how quickly the House deals with the tax policy agreement. If it moves quickly, it's likely DADT repeal will get the time it needs.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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STEELE STILL MANAGES TO SURPRISE.... When the DNC seems absolutely delighted to see the RNC chairman seek a second term, it's probably a bad sign.

In the face of overwhelming criticism about his stewardship of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, the party chairman, declared Monday evening that he had no intentions of quietly stepping aside and vowed to seek re-election to lead the party into the 2012 presidential campaign.

Mr. Steele made the announcement in a conference call with members of the Republican committee, some of whom have already pledged their support to one of the half-dozen candidates vying to replace him. He did not take questions in the 40-minute call or address many of the challenges facing his candidacy, including the financial management of the committee that is ending the year $15 million in debt.

"Yes, I have stumbled along the way but have always accounted to you for such shortcomings," Mr. Steele said, according to participants on the call, who later received a prepared statement. "No excuses. No lies. No hidden agenda."

All available evidence suggested Steele knew better, and would gracefully step aside. It's why many part officials were stunned and dismayed by last night's announcement -- they were counting on this reign of error to finally come to an end.

To be sure, it still might. Just because Steele will seek another two-year term is hardly a guarantee that RNC members will actually give him one. In fact, it's hard to keep up with all of the party officials who will challenge his bid.

But the fact that Steele would even try to keep his job raises legitimate questions about his connection to reality. Steele hasn't just been an awful party chairman -- arguably the worst in either party in modern times -- but he's also become a laughingstock. The near-constant gaffes are humiliating enough, but even more striking is the mismanagement, weak fundraising, questionable spending, massive debts, hemorrhaging of staff and low morale, and strained ties between the chairman, party leaders on the Hill, and state affiliates. At times, Steele has appeared willing to use his position only to enrich himself.

Indeed, it's not a coincidence that major party figures have already endorsed other candidates for RNC chair, hoping to make clear that they don't want Steele sticking around.

In fairness, Steele will no doubt point to the significant party gains in the midterm elections, and it's true that the GOP fared extremely well this year. But under the circumstances, those gains appear to have come despite Steele's shocking incompetence, not because he displayed any wisdom or leadership skills.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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WHEN 'THE DAILY SHOW' PICKS UP THE SLACK.... Last week, a unanimous Senate Republican caucus blocked, and likely killed, the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. It's the bill that intended to pay health care costs for 9/11 rescue workers, sickened after exposure to the toxic smoke and debris. For the GOP, it was a simple calculus -- they'd consider bills like this, just as soon as they'd secured tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires.

Even for a party that routinely dabbles in callousness, this was pretty stunning. But Republicans were willing to gamble that the country probably wouldn't hear a word about this, and they were right -- Eric Boehlert noted that ABC, CBS, and NBC blew off the story entirely.

As is often the case, "The Daily Show" was willing to pick up the slack, and aired a pretty devastating segment last night.

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It's worth watching in full, but among the gems from the segment was Stewart showing a CNN segment on Senate Republicans blocking three bills over a couple of days: DADT repeal, the DREAM Act, and the 9/11 health bill. It led Stewart to ask, "I get the other two, but since when does the Republican Party make 9/11 first responders stand over in the corner with the gays and Mexicans?"

The segment also noted that the Senate GOP, in an act of cowardice, was willing to unanimously block consideration of the bill, but not one was willing to speak on the subject: "They won't be so cowardly as to not vote without justifying their actions -- just cowardly enough not to do it on camera."

The host concluded: "So, guess what Republicans? Here's the deal: the whole we're-the-only-party-that-understands-9/11-and-its-repercussions monopoly ends now.... No more coopting 9/11 imagery to get yourselves elected. No more using 9/11 as the date when magically all your policies became right. No more using 9/11 to micro manage Manhattan's zoning decisions. No using 9/11 as an excuse for why your Bush tax cuts never stimulated the economy in the first place. Or 9/11 as an excuse to do what you were going to be doing anyway."

For what it's worth, I suspect the GOP will ignore Stewart's admonition -- they're a shameless bunch -- and go on pretending that they somehow "own" the terrorist attacks. But I'm glad Stewart took them to task anyway. Someone had to.

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

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December 13, 2010

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

* Just a reminder, the Monthly's annual pledge drive is underway. We sincerely appreciate those of you who've already shown generous support, and hope other readers will take a moment to help out.

* Afghan insurgent killed six American troops at the entrance of a joint NATO-Afghan base over the weekend. Several suspects have been arrested.

* Afghan President Hamid Karzai reportedly considers the United States one of his "main enemies," and recently told U.S. officials, "If I had to choose sides today, I'd choose the Taliban."

* Richard C. Holbrooke, the Obama administration's top envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, remains in critical condition after lengthy surgery for a torn aorta.

* The latest intelligence out of Afghanistan conclude the war will be unwinnable "unless Pakistan roots out militants on its side of the border."

* International climate negotiations in Cancun turned out to be far more constructive than appeared likely.

* A suicide bomber in Stockholm killed himself and injured two others over the weekend. The attack would have been far more devastating, but the apparent terrorist botched the plot.

* President Obama signed the overhaul of child nutrition standards into law this morning.

* Arloc Sherman, an expert on poverty at the progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, has concluded that benefits for middle- and lower-income working Americans in the tax deal would "keep more than 2 million Americans above the poverty line and reduce the severity of poverty for 19 million more."

* George Will reflects on Bush v Gore 10 years later. It doesn't go well.

* I should probably care about the "No Labels" initiative, but I'm having a hard time figuring out why.

* Right on cue, the incoming House Republican majority opposes stronger regulations of the for-profit college industry.

* In presidential history news, Dwight Eisenhower took his warnings about the "military-industrial complex" very seriously, and Richard Nixon was, in his private moments, an over-the-top bigot, lashing out at Jews, blacks, Italians, and the Irish, among others.

* I love "The Simpsons." When the show mocks Fox News, I really love "The Simpsons."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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SENATE MOVES CLOSER TO APPROVING TAX DEAL.... The Senate's goal today was reaching 60 votes on the tax deal struck by the White House and congressional Republicans. That turned out to be fairly easy.

The Senate on Monday advanced the tax-cut package agreed to between President Obama and congressional Republicans, virtually assuring that the Senate will approve the bill on Tuesday and send it to the House ,where Democrats are threatening to make changes to a provision granting a generous tax exemption to wealthy estates.

The vote in the Senate was not finished, but shortly after 4 p.m. the tally showed more than 60 senators agreeing to end debate, cut off any filibuster and move to a vote on passage.

The vote was 61 to 7, with a whole lot of senators still returning from their home states this afternoon. The leadership agreed, without GOP opposition, to hold the vote open to allow members more time to reach the floor.

The only Republican to oppose the measure, at least so far, is Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.). Everyone else is from the Democratic caucus, including Vermont's Bernie Sanders (I).

Rumor has it that final passage will come early on Wednesday.

Of course, as we discussed this morning, the Senate was always going to be the easier chamber on this agreement, and House Democratic leaders continue to demand changes. I've heard some fascinating rumors this afternoon on how the lower chamber intends to proceed, but before I could write anything up, Greg Sargent beat me to it.

Here's the challenge for House Dem leaders right now, as I understand it: Come up with a way for Dem members to vent their disapproval of the deal, so they don't feel too stiffarmed and marginalized by the process, without it resulting in changes significant enough to cause Republicans to walk away. The deal is expected to clear the House with a combination of strong GOP support and some backing among moderate Dems. Tweaking the bill in a way that drives away Republicans could imperil its survival.

The result could be a situation in which Dems hold a vote on amendments to the bill that are likely to fail. House Dems are particularly angry about the deal's estate tax provision; Dem leaders could hold a vote amending that provision, allowing Dem members to register disapproval. But the amendment would likely be opposed by almost all Republicans and some moderate Dems. So it would likely lose.

I heard the exact same thing. The House could vote on the deal as-is, and at the same time, Dems who want to make their voices heard could save face -- pushing principled amendments that reflect the kinds of changes they'd like to see, even if they'd come up short.

I also heard that as far as House Dems are concerned, they feel as if they've already delivered a message loud and clear to the White House -- the party's rank and file expect more hardball and fewer concessions from the president going forward. They feel as if their response over the last week, even if it comes up short on killing the agreement, has been ferocious enough to stick in the president's memory for next time.

Steve Benen 4:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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CHEERING A VICTORY OVER THEIR OWN IDEA.... Many on the right are, not surprisingly, delighted with today's federal district court ruling on the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate. That's to be expected -- they're hoping to gut the law. The two previous legal defeats notwithstanding, today's dubious ruling represents a win for the right, at least for now.

But it seems entirely appropriate under the circumstances to remind folks, once again, who came up with the individual mandate in the first place.

This nonsense from Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) was especially jarring.

"Today is a great day for liberty," said Hatch. "Congress must obey the Constitution rather than make it up as we go along. Liberty requires limits on government, and today those limits have been upheld."

Look, I get that Hatch is worried about facing a primary challenger in 2012, and on health care policy in general, he's been a pretty shameless hack. But while he's applauding this victory for "liberty," I hope it's not rude to point out that Orrin Hatch literally co-sponsored a health care bill with an individual mandate.

Maybe he was against liberty before he was for it?

The record here may be inconvenient for the right, but it's also unambiguous: the mandate Republicans currently hate was their idea. It was championed by the Heritage Foundation. It was part of Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign platform*. Nixon embraced it in the 1970s, and George H.W. Bush kept it going in the 1980s.

For years, it was touted by the likes of John McCain, Mitt Romney, Scott Brown, Chuck Grassley, Bob Bennett, Tommy Thompson, Lamar Alexander, Lindsey Graham, John Thune, Judd Gregg, and many others all notable GOP officials.

My personal favorite is Grassley, who proclaimed on Fox News last year, during the fight over Obama's plan, "I believe that there is a bipartisan consensus to have an individual mandate." (A year later, Grassley signed onto a legal brief insisting that the mandate is unconstitutional.)

This is probably obvious, but in case there are any doubts on this, Republicans are cheering today's ruling, but it's not because they have a problem with the mandate. It's not even because they have a substantive problem with the Affordable Care Act itself.

This is about cheap politics. Republican pollsters no doubt told GOP officials that the mandate is a potential vulnerability to the signature Democratic polity priority, so that's where the party is focusing its attention, hoping that the public simply doesn't pay attention to the fact that they're attacking their own idea.

No one, least of all reporters covering this today, should fall for such cheap tactics.

* Correction: Dole incorporated the individual mandate into his reform plan in '94, not '96 -- he supported the policy, just two years beforehand. My apologies for the error.

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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THE JUDICIARY MATTERS.... Regular readers may have noticed that I've been fixated for a long while on the vacancy crisis on the federal bench, and the fact that Senate Republicans have used tactics unseen in American history to prevent votes on President Obama's judicial nominees. Today, however, this problem seems especially relevant. Josh Marshall noted:

A year ago, no one took seriously the idea that a federal health care mandate was unconstitutional. And the idea that buying health care coverage does not amount to "economic activity" seems preposterous on its face. But the decision that just came down from the federal judgment in Virginia -- that the federal health care mandate is unconstitutional -- is an example that decades of Republicans packing the federal judiciary with activist judges has finally paid off.

Quite right. This isn't a sexy or high-profile issue, but conservatives have made a concerted effort over the last couple of decades to shift the judiciary sharply to the right, in part with very conservative nominees from Republican administrations, and in part by doing everything possible to block nominees from Democratic administrations.

And today's ruling helps make the motivations for such an approach clear.

On a related note, there are currently 38 pending judicial nominees who've already been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Nearly all of them were approved with bipartisan support, but Republicans have balked at allowing floor votes on any of them in the lame-duck session.

With the prospect of recess appointments hanging overhead, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are working on some kind of deal that would allow floor votes on 19 of these 38 -- exactly half of the jurists awaiting confirmation -- with the most progressive nominees being left out of the mix.

Jamelle Bouie is entirely correct: "With a huge number of vacancies on the nation's lower courts, some judges are better than none, but it doesn't hurt to note that this is a bad deal."

And just for good measure, I'd like to reemphasize an item from a month ago. Given that the Democratic majority in the Senate won't be able to legislate much with a Republican-led House anyway, it would make a lot of sense if next year's Senate makes judicial confirmations a very high priority.

To be sure, Senate Republicans will do what they've been doing -- slowing everything down, blocking as many nominees as they can. But don't forget, the Senate will have nothing else to do for the better part of two years. Over the last two years, Reid and the Democratic leadership had a lengthy to-do list, and couldn't eat up the calendar on nominees. GOP obstructionism meant it took three days for the Senate to consider one nominee, during which time the chamber could do nothing else, so more often than not, Reid just didn't bother.

But that won't be much of a hindrance in 2011 and 2012, when the entire lawmaking process goes from difficult to impossible. Why not use that time to start dealing with the vacancy crisis on the federal courts?

Steve Benen 3:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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AS LONG AS IT TAKES.... As of a week ago, the Senate Democratic leadership hoped to wrap up the lame-duck session by this Friday, December 17. Among the issues leaders have every intention of trying to address before going home are the tax deal, New START ratification, DADT repeal, defense authorization, the DREAM Act, a revised food-safety bill, and probably a few other things I'm forgetting.

In other words, something's gotta give. Either the Senate delays the end of the session or it dramatically scales back its to-do list, leaving key priorities undone.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), to his credit, told C-SPAN over the weekend that he'd like to see the chamber remain in session after Christmas to help get its work done. What I found odd, though, is Levin argue that it's a "problem" that President Obama hasn't called "urged the Senate to stay in, right up to New Year's."

The more the president is prepared to fight for these priorities, the better. But with due respect to Levin, since when is it the White House's job to help set the Senate's legislative schedule? Can't members figure this out on their own?

Fortunately, there were some fresh indications that Friday will not be the end of the session. CQ had this piece today on ratifying the pending nuclear arms treaty.

"We'll be here as long as it takes to get it done," Regan LaChapelle, spokeswoman for Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Dec. 10. Her comments echoed White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, who earlier that day said, "Congress won't leave before START is done."

What's more, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) asked Reid this morning about the likelihood of weekend work. The Majority Leader replied, "We need to stay here until we finish."

That's exactly the right attitude to have -- and it suggests it's probably safe to ignore last week's talk about wrapping up the year by Friday.

The longer they're in session, the more they can at least try to do. It also helps shift the onus onto Republican obstructionists -- they can go home sooner if they simply let the chamber function at a reasonable pace.

Steve Benen 2:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (6)

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MEET JUDGE HENRY HUDSON.... Federal district court Judge Henry Hudson ruled the way conservatives wanted him to earlier today, finding the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act to be unconstitutional. Republicans are applauding the outcome, which will be appealed, and which declares unconstitutional an idea they came up with in the first place.

It's worth pausing to note why Virginia's hyper-conservative attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli (R), hoped Hudson would hear this case, and why health care reform advocates expected this outcome.

That prediction is built partly on Hudson's roots in Republican politics. He was elected Arlington's commonwealth attorney as a Republican, briefly ran against U.S. Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.) in 1991 and has received all of his appointments -- as U.S. attorney, as a Fairfax County Circuit Court judge in 1998 and to the federal bench in 2002 -- from Republicans. [...]

It is somewhat unusual for a federal judge to give an interview in the midst of a major case. But Hudson has always been known for his willingness to step into the public light.

In the 1980s, President Reagan appointed him chairman of the Meese Commission, a controversial group that investigated the effects of pornography.... In the 1990s, Hudson had his own radio show and made regular appearances as a television legal analyst.

Under the circumstances, today's ruling wasn't exactly a shocker.

Update: On the other hand, it's only fair to note Hudson did show some restraint. His ruling, for example, rejected the plaintiff's request to block implementation of the law, and more importantly, refused to go along with a push to find the entire Affordable Care Act unconstitutional. Instead, he targeted the mandate exclusively, reassuring some reform proponents.

Second Upate: Right Wing Watch takes a look at Hudson's ties to the right, which are pretty extensive.

Steve Benen 1:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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VIRGINIA COURT RULES AGAINST HEALTH CARE MANDATE.... Conservative opponents of health care reform have been largely counting on the courts to undo what they couldn't defeat in Congress, but they haven't had much luck. That changed today.

In October, a federal judge in Michigan found the law constitutional, ruling that the individual mandate -- originally a Republican idea, incidentally -- is entirely legal through the Commerce Clause. In November, a federal judge in Virginia came to a nearly identical conclusion.

These victories weren't unexpected. As Jonathan Cohn noted a while back, the only way to reject the mandate is to take a "fairly radical" reexamination of the Commerce Clause.

But a fairly radical Republican, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, carefully chose a court with some fairly radical judges, hoping to get a fairly radical ruling. And that's exactly what happened this morning.

A federal district judge in Virginia ruled on Monday that the keystone provision in the Obama health care law is unconstitutional, becoming the first court in the country to invalidate any part of the sprawling act and insuring that appellate courts will receive contradictory opinions from below.

Judge Henry E. Hudson, who was appointed to the bench by former President George W. Bush, declined the plaintiff's request to freeze implementation of the law pending appeal, meaning that there should be no immediate effect on the ongoing rollout of the law. But the ruling is likely to create