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Tilting at Windmills

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February 28, 2011

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

* Libya: "Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi's forces struck back on three fronts on Monday, using fighter jets, special forces units and regular army troops in an escalation of hostilities that brought Libya closer to civil war."

* The Pentagon has "begun repositioning Navy warships to support possible action against Libya," at least as part of a "range of options." Also, President Obama used an executive order to freeze of $30 billion in Libyan assets, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. stands ready to offer "any type of assistance" to Libyans seeking to oust Moammar Gadhafi.

* For his part, Gadhafi talked to ABC's Christiane Amanpour today and, with a straight face, denied there were demonstrations against him anywhere in Libya. "My people love me. They would die for me," he said.

* Speaking to the nation's governors, President Obama today urged them not to vilify public workers. "I believe that everybody should be prepared to give up something to solve our budget challenges," Obama said. "In fact, many public employees in your respective states have already agreed to cuts. But let me also say this: I don't think it does anybody any good when public employees are denigrated or vilified or when their rights are infringed upon."

* In Wisconsin, a moderate Republican state senator considered a compromise with unions and Senate Democrats. In response, his GOP caucus considered expelling him from the Republican Party.

* If you want to make the job market even worse, pass the Republicans' Medicaid block-grant proposal.

* Hmm: "A group of six senators hashing out a bipartisan plan on deficit and debt reduction will meet for 'very important' discussions on Tuesday, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said Monday."

* Is the high-speed rail project in Florida officially dead? Not quite yet.

* We can add the "Arab youth movements" in the Middle East to the list of things neocons don't fully understand.

* The next time you hear some hacks talking about a presidential "apology tour," remember, they're lying.

* Over the weekend, there was a brief flurry of talk about Roger Ailes getting indicted. It's still possible, I suppose, but the story behind the story is extremely thin.

* Best wishes to Andrew Sullivan as he makes the transition from The Atlantic to The Daily Beast.

* Speaking of online media, Salon.com is on the market, but merger talks with Newser.com have reportedly collapsed.

* I've given up on Rasmussen polls.

* And despite what you may have seen on some far-right sites today, Greg Sargent does not actually advocate violence at the hands of union thugs. Only someone with no familiarity with sarcasm could think otherwise.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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MORE BUREAUCRATS, PLEASE, CONT'D.... Earlier today, we linked to a new story in the print edition of the Washington Monthly, arguing that the Republicans' desired cuts to the federal workforce would, counter-intuitively, only drive government spending further through the roof. A big part of that argument rests on the government's history with outside contractors in recent years. Contractors can be very useful and efficient; but it's not as if you can simply replace X amount of in-house labor with X amount of contract labor and then call it a day. The very complex job of coordinating and overseeing contractors is one of the least appreciated and most overburdened functions in government today, thanks to major staffing cutbacks in the 1990s. The result: we spend way more than we need to on contracts.

The Monthly story provides a wealth of recent historical examples on this front. But a fresh trove of new evidence came out today in a report (pdf) from the bipartisan Congressional Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The commission estimates that "tens of billions of dollars have failed to achieve their intended use in Iraq and Afghanistan," in large part because of "federal failure to control the acquisition process." And a lot of this has to do with undermanned offices that oversee contracts.

"For many years the government has abdicated its contracting responsibilities -- too often using contractors as the default mechanism," the report says, "without consideration for the resources needed to manage them." In Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of government contractors in the field has often surpassed the number of people in uniform, while the workforce of "acquisitions" professionals -- the technical term for people who manage contracts -- has remained puny. "War by its nature entails waste. But the scale of the problems in Iraq and Afghanistan also reflects the toxic interplay of huge sums of money pumped into relatively small economies and an unprecedented reliance on contractors. This interplay is aggravated by a decimated federal acquisition workforce."

The result is a river of red ink: "When government agencies lack experienced and qualified workers to provide oversight, the potential for waste, fraud, and abuse in contract performance increases exponentially." And so to save money and tamp down security risks, what does the commission recommend? Adding more acquisitions staff.

The idea of hiring more workers to save money may sound counter-intuitive, but it isn't surprising at all to many people who actually know the state of our government today.

Steve Benen 5:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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LEAVE THE VEGETABLES ALONE.... One of the sadder political articles of the weekend ran in the L.A. Times, covering the right's anger over Michelle Obama's desire to combat childhood obesity.

Former First Ladies Barbara and Laura Bush worked to end illiteracy. Nancy Reagan famously took on teenage drug use. Lady Bird Johnson planted flowers. But none of them have been seared for something as seemingly benign as calling for kids to eat more vegetables, as Michelle Obama has.

Just about everyone will agree that the nation's children are getting fatter and that obesity is a serious health problem. But the first lady's push for healthier meals and more exercise, which marked its first anniversary this month, has provoked a backlash from the right, who complain that the only thing here that's supersized is Big Brother.

The piece included all kinds of attacks against the First Lady, from the likes of Limbaugh, Bachmann, Romney, and Palin, among others.

Myra Gutin, an expert on first ladies and politics at Rider University in New Jersey, said, "Some of the criticism [of Obama], quite frankly, has really shocked me," Gutin said. "There is a certain line with first ladies. You can take a shot, but I don't think people like it a lot. We're not talking about the war; we're not talking about the economy. At some level it begins to sound peevish and almost inappropriate."

You think?

Kevin Drum's response to this rang true:

So that's where we are. A first lady campaigning against obesity and in favor of breast feeding is now the target of all-out war from the right. I imagine that if she were taking on illiteracy, teenage drug use, or planting flowers, the Republican Party would suddenly find itself opposed to reading, defending Mexican drug cartels, and in favor of vacant lots. And yet we're supposed to take these people seriously.

Yeah, I don't understand it, either.

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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THE PRESSURE STARTS TO GET TO ORRIN HATCH.... Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah is no doubt worried about facing a credible primary challenge next year, and is eager -- perhaps a little too eager -- to pander to the GOP's far-right base.

But it appears some handle this kind of pressure better than others. Hatch is starting to crack.

GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) reportedly directed a few profane insults toward President Obama's healthcare law in a speech late last week.

During at an appearance at an event sponsored by the Utah State University College Republicans, Hatch was asked whether he thought the nation's healthcare system needs serious reforms. He acknowledged that states have different problems when it comes to healthcare, but called the federal law Democrats passed last year a "dumb-ass program" that will not solve them.

"Every state has different demographics, every state has different problems," Hatch said, according to a Utah Statesman report published Monday. "It's good to allow them to work out their own problems rather than a one-size-fits-all federal government, dumb-ass program. It really is an awful piece of crap."

As a substantive matter, Hatch probably doesn't realize states will be able to craft their own policies if they decide to come up with an alternative to the Affordable Care Act.

Indeed, Hatch doesn't realize a lot of things. Very few senators were as confused as Hatch over policy details during the debate over health care reform, and the senator routinely repeated pure gibberish on national television, at one point even descending into Beck-like conspiracy theories.

But as a rhetorical matter, is Hatch really comfortable with phrases like "dumb-ass program" and "awful piece of crap"? He was speaking in Utah, after all.

Orrin Hatch, as far to the right as he is, has generally tried to maintain a certain degree of stature and respect. As his party becomes even more hysterical, and the senator feels the need to score cheap points with right-wing activists, Hatch is apparently willing to trade some dignity for some primary votes.

It's kind of sad to watch.

Update: An alert reader reminds me of the point, in late 2009, when Hatch was asked about pro-reform activists who appeared at a district office, urging him to support Democratic efforts. Hatch told a national television audience he was inclined to kick his concerned constituents "in the teeth." Like I said, he doesn't appear to respond to pressure well.

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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MITCH DANIELS HAS A 'SO BE IT' MOMENT.... Earlier this month, House Speaker John Boehner conceded thousands of Americans would lose their jobs as a result of Republican spending cuts, adding, "So be it." Asked exactly how many American workers would be left unemployed as a result of the GOP plan, Boehner said he didn't know. Apparently, he didn't care, either.

As it turns out, the Speaker isn't the only Republican leader thinking along these lines. Today, NPR's Steve Inskeep asked Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) a worthwhile question.

INSKEEP: I want to ask something that a lot of people are confronting right now, as they deal with the federal deficit as well as state and local deficits that need to be closed. Are budget cuts -- government budget cuts -- worth it, even if they end up seriously costing a lot of jobs right now?

DANIELS: The answer is yes.

I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around the state of the debate on this. We now have three separate independent analyses of the Republican proposal, all of which say the same thing: if approved, the GOP plan would hurt the economy and make unemployment worse. We now have two prominent Republican -- one is currently the nation's most powerful GOP official, the other hopes to be -- conceding publicly that the party's spending-cut priorities would force more Americans out of work.

How are we even having this conversation? I'd genuinely love to know exactly how many American voters are thinking, "You know, maybe what we need is higher unemployment, lower wages, and slower growth -- it's a good thing Republicans are working on this."

For his part, the perpetually-confused House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor (R-Va.), said the latest analysis from Moody's Analytics economist Mark Zandi doesn't count. Zandi found that the GOP proposal would likely force 700,000 American workers into unemployment, but Cantor said we shouldn't believe him -- because Zandi backed the 2009 Recovery Act, which necessarily forfeits his credibility.

First, Cantor may not be able to understand this, but the stimulus was a success, and did exactly what it set out to do. Republican repetition about "failure" demonstrates tremendous message discipline, but also demonstrates striking ignorance about current events.

Second, before Cantor blows off Zandi, let's note that Zandi was an advisor to the McCain/Palin campaign in 2008. Besides, even if Republicans don't like the Zandi analysis, what's the response to the Goldman Sachs report from last week?

And third, if Cantor & Co. don't care for any of the independent analyses showing the GOP plan making unemployment worse, why don't they offer a competing analysis? They think 700,000 job losses is too high a number fine. Where does Cantor put the number? Can Republicans offer anything in the way of economic projections? Anything at all?

I can't remember the last time the political discourse made this little sense. We have Americans demanding action on job creation; we have congressional Republicans deliberately trying to make unemployment worse; and we have a media that prefers to pretend that the deficit matters more than the economy.

Steve Benen 3:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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OBAMA CALLS GOP BLUFF ON HEALTH CARE, STATE FLEXIBILITY.... President Obama has endorsed minor tweaks to the Affordable Care Act since its passage -- most notably the "1099 problem" -- but today's announcement reflects an openness to a more significant kind of change.

Seeking to appease disgruntled governors, President Obama announced Monday that he supported amending the 2010 health care law to allow states to opt out of its most burdensome requirements three years earlier than currently permitted.

In remarks to the National Governors Association, Mr. Obama said he backed legislation that would enable states to request federal permission to withdraw from the law's mandates in 2014 rather than in 2017 as long as they could prove that they could find other ways to cover as many people as the original law would and at the same cost. The earlier date is when many of the act's central provisions take effect, including requirements that most individuals obtain health insurance and that employers of a certain size offer coverage to workers or pay a penalty.

Specifically referencing a proposal from Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.), the president endorsed the kind of flexibility Republicans say they want. "[I]f you can come up with a better system for your state to provide coverage of the same quality and affordability as the Affordable Care Act, you can take that route instead," Obama said, adding, "If your state can create a plan that covers as many people as affordably and comprehensively as the Affordable Care Act does, without increasing the deficit, you can implement that plan and we'll work with you to do it."

The White House has a fairly detailed fact-sheet on this, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius has a related post on the White House blog.

So, how big a deal is this? It marks a fairly significant departure from the administration's status quo, but at its root, what we're seeing is the White House call Republicans' bluff. The GOP is convinced it can offer comparable coverage at comparable prices using Republican-friendly policies. Today, in effect, the president said, "Be my guest." Why? Because Obama knows it'll take more than tort reform and HSAs to make the system work, and he sees a political upside to watching GOP officials scramble to actually craft their own plans, rather than bash his.

One thing to keep an eye on: how this might affect states that want ambitious, liberal health care systems, most notably Vermont, where a single-payer plan has the support of the newly-elected governor, Peter Shumlin (D). In theory, Vermont and perhaps Oregon would be the only states with a credible shot at making this work -- meeting the standards established by the Affordable Care Act, and reaching the same goals, but from a liberal direction, rather than a right-wing one.

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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FUN AT ROMNEY'S EXPENSE.... We'll get to the White House's announcement today on health care policy shortly, but before we do, let's take a moment to appreciate how much fun the president and his team are having at Mitt Romney's expense.

In a moment that Mitt Romney's future GOP opponents couldn't have scripted better themselves, President Obama Monday issued a full-throated embrace of the former Massachusetts governor's stance on health care.

"I know that many of you have asked for flexibility for your states under this law," Obama said during a speech to a governors meeting at the White House. "In fact, I agree with Mitt Romney, who recently said he's proud of what he accomplished on health care by giving states the power to determine their own health care solutions. He's right."

It's safe to assume the video of this quote will be turned into campaign ads in GOP presidential primaries. It's also safe to assume that was the point.

Indeed, just a month ago, David Axelrod also praised Romney for his work on health care policy during his gubernatorial tenure. "We got some good ideas from him," Axelrod said of the former governor.

And yesterday, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D), Romney's successor and a close ally of the president, also heaped praise on Romney's health care work, saying his predecessor "deserves a lot of credit'' for the state law. "One of the best things he did was to be the coauthor of our health care reform, which has been a model for national health care reform,'' Patrick said.

Asked afterward whether politics had motivated the praise, Patrick scoffed. "It's just the truth,'' he said.

Needless to say, this is not the kind of praise Romney's looking for, but it's nevertheless an issue that will follow the GOP presidential hopeful for the foreseeable future.

Steve Benen 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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THE GOP PLAN TO MAKE UNEMPLOYMENT MUCH WORSE.... The number one issue on the minds of most Americans is job creation. With that in mind, it seems rather important that congressional Republicans are pushing a plan that would make unemployment much worse, on purpose.

A Republican plan to sharply cut federal spending this year would destroy 700,000 jobs through 2012, according to an independent economic analysis set for release Monday.

The report, by Moody's Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi, offers fresh ammunition to Democrats seeking block the Republican plan, which would terminate dozens of programs and slash federal appropriations by $61 billion over the next seven months.

Zandi, an architect of the 2009 stimulus package who has advised both political parties, predicts that the GOP package would reduce economic growth by 0.5 percentage points this year, and by 0.2 percentage points in 2012, resulting in 700,000 fewer jobs by the end of next year.

Zandi also had bad news for liberal Democrats who are resisting sharp spending cuts: Bringing deficits down to sustainable levels will require more than a growing economy.

If this seems familiar, it's because it's not the first report to raise this point. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank, relying on data compiled by the Center for American Progress, found that the Republican budget plan would force roughly 975,000 Americans from their jobs. What's more, just last week, economists at Goldman Sachs estimated that the GOP proposal would reduce economic growth by as much as 2% of GDP, which would cause the unemployment rate to go up about a point.

How is it this isn't at the heart of the debate over the budget? How far off track is the public discourse when an entire chamber of Congress, in the midst of a jobs crisis, approves a plan to make the crisis much worse, and this is considered only tangentially relevant?

Greg Sargent, noting the Zandi and Goldman Sachs analyses, added:

Even if you disagree with these analyses, you'd think the fact that there are now two of them reaching similar conclusions would be newsworthy enough to break through the din of Beltway deficit-reduction fetishizing. The argument about budget cuts is too often framed solely as an argument between so-called deficit "hawks" and "doves," as a dispute between those who say steep cuts are necessary and those who say they're cruel and extreme. The fact that outside analysts think that budget cuts could actively hamper the recovery deserves to be part of the discussion.

I couldn't agree more. For weeks, the larger policy conversation has focused almost exclusively on spending cuts and deficit reduction, with a striking disregard for the consequences. The debate itself is so detached from reality, it's hard to even believe the extent to which we're stuck in the wrong conversation -- Republicans ran on a "where are the jobs" platform, got elected, and are aggressively pushing a plan that they know will make unemployment much worse.

We can have a debate about why the GOP is doing this -- irrational fear of inflation, politically-motivated economic sabotage, etc. -- but after multiple reports, the effects of the Republican plan themselves are no longer a mystery.

This deserves to be the lead story for every major news outlet covering the debate. There's no more important angle to the electorate that still says economic growth and job creation trump everything else.

I would, by the way, gladly note the Republicans' response to this, but as far as I can tell, the GOP doesn't have one. The House majority has seen these multiple projections, showing steep job losses, that Republicans have responded with nothing -- no projections, no competing sets of numbers, no hearings on the effects of their cuts, nothing.

If midterm voters aren't feeling some buyer's remorse right about now, they're just not paying attention.

Update: Also, don't forget that as far as Republicans are concerned, the ultimate attack on any policy is to call it "job-killing." If Dems don't start using this in the budget fight, they're missing an important opportunity.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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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 Texas, the Republican field for the open U.S. Senate seat got more interesting late Friday, when former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert (R) launched his campaign. He joins former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz, former Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams, and Texas Railroad Commissioners Michael Williams and Elizabeth Ames Jones in the GOP field, and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R) is expected to announce soon.

* Despite damaging questions about his mental health, Rep. David Wu (D) has filed for re-election in Oregon, and will seek another term next year.

* Florida Republicans insist they will not move their presidential primary date from January 31. As a result, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) is poised to move up the date of its caucuses, currently scheduled for February 6, which will in turn cause New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina to move up their contests.

* Disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) will reportedly announce a presidential exploratory committee on March 8, which is a week from tomorrow.

* The DCCC had hoped to see former Rep. Betsy Markey (D) seek a rematch in 2012 against Rep. Cory Gardner (R), but over the weekend, Markey ruled out the possibility.

* In Hawaii, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) will support Sen. Daniel Akaka's (D) re-election bid next year, but he's being surprisingly candid about Akaka's lackluster fundraising and commitment to the race. [fixed]

* Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) ruled out any presidential ambitions in his future.

* A Tea Party Patriots gathering held a presidential straw poll over the weekend in Arizona. Oddly enough, Herman Cain, a former pizza company executive, won, followed by Tim Pawlenty and Ron Paul.

* Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), one of Congress' more ridiculous members, has been in office for nearly two months, and has already said he'd consider a vice presidential nomination, were one offered.

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

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MORE BUREAUCRATS, PLEASE....It is widely understood that a possible government shutdown could put hundreds of thousands of federal employees temporarily out of work. Less well known is the fact that congressional conservatives plan to make that state of affairs permanent.

The influential House Republican Study Committee, home to many Tea Party freshmen, has called for a long-term 15% cut in the federal workforce. Their ostensible aim is to reduce government spending and deficits. But as John Gravois makes clear in the upcoming March/April issue of the Washington Monthly, slashing the federal work force will likely have the opposite effect: it will drive spending and deficits further through the roof.

Looking back over the past 20 years, Gravois shows that major cuts to the federal bureaucracy in the 1990s led to many of the cost overruns and expensive disasters we've seen in recent memory. Again and again, federal agencies have seen their responsibilities increase as their workforces dwindle, resulting in breakdowns that cause a hemorrhage of red ink. As strange as it may sound, if we really want to save money, what we desperately need is a set of targeted increases in the federal workforce -- which hasn't really grown since the 1960s.

Read Gravois' story "More Bureaucrats, Please."

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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BARBOUR ISN'T DOING HIMSELF ANY FAVORS.... Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R), a very likely GOP presidential candidate, is aware of the criticism he's received lately, but has an explanation. As the governor sees it, "some people on the left" don't like "conservative Christian Republicans from the Deep South."

Just what we need, a corporate lobbyist with a persecution complex running for president.

Jon Chait argues, persuasively, that there's something to this as a political strategy: "If he is seen to be under attack from the left on spurious grounds, this makes him a right-wing racial martyr, a powerful source of attraction on the right. And that is indeed the angle Barbour pushes here: They're attacking me because they hate people like you -- white, Christian, Southern. Barbour is not the perpetrator but the victim of bigotry."

Of course, as a matter of reality, Barbour has come under fire, particularly on matters related to race, because of a genuinely horrendous record, as evidenced by his recent praise for White Citizens Councils -- known for touting "racial integrity" and fighting for segregation through economic coercion -- and his belief that the civil rights era in Mississippi just wasn't "that bad."

Over the weekend, that record got just a little worse.

Gov. Haley Barbour recalled hearing Martin Luther King Jr. speak at the old fairgrounds in his hometown of Yazoo City in 1962. "I was there with some of my friends," Barbour told the Weekly Standard. "We wanted to hear him speak."

Asked what King had said, Barbour replied, "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."

A search of the King Papers at the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute and the papers of David Garrow, author of the definitive biography on King, Bearing the Cross, failed to find evidence King spoke in Yazoo City in 1962.

Former NAACP chairman Julian Bond responded, "Haley's history is as reliable as Glenn Beck's."

In fairness, the number of Americans from that era who falsely claim to have heard Dr. King speak is probably pretty high. Some may have even convinced themselves that they actually attended an event they did not.

But the context is particular importance as it relates to Barbour -- sensitive to allegations of racism, the far-right governor very likely claimed he "wanted to hear [MLK] speak" as a way of diffusing some of the allegations. If he'd grown up as a racist in the segregated South, the argument goes, then Barbour wouldn't have attended an event to hear King's remarks. Except, we now know he didn't.

What's more, this isn't a case in which Barbour said he heard King in 1962, but meant 1963 -- King never delivered a public speech in Yazoo City.

To be sure, on the controversy richter scale, this doesn't move the needle much, and it pales in comparison to Barbour's praise for Citizens Councils. That said, if the governor was hoping to use the King event as some kind of cover, this is an embarrassing revelation.

Update: Ben Smith reports that King did speak in Yazoo City in 1966, and that may be what Barbour was referring to. But I think this breezes past the details too quickly -- King did not make a public appearance at the time, and instead offered a private talk with civil-rights marchers. Barbour "was there" with some of his friends? His memory is way off.

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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WHY THE RIGHT MIGHT BALK AT A 'GRAND BARGAIN'.... There's been a fair amount of chatter this month about a "grand bargain" on the budget. Indeed, there have been ongoing, bipartisan talks between six senators who envision a sweeping compromise that tackle entitlements, tax reform, and deficit reduction, all at the same time.

The bargain, if one ever actually comes together, is very likely to be seen as ugly from the left, but negotiators at least seem to appreciate the fact that any serious deficit reduction plan has to include both sides of the ledger. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) isn't exactly a moderate, but he conceded a few weeks ago that tax increases will have to "be a part of the mix."

Guess how that's playing out on the Hill.

Some [Senate Republicans] are concerned that a deficit reduction package being negotiated by Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), two of the chamber's leading conservatives, could include hundreds of billions of dollars worth of tax hikes. [...]

Some conservatives in the Senate worry that Coburn, Crapo, and a third negotiator, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), might endorse tax reforms that would increase the total amount the federal government collects in taxes.

"The Republicans involved in this are miscalculating the environment right now," said a GOP aide. "We're marching on with the House and Senate Republicans united over reducing government spending, shrinking the size of government.

"We have the wind at our backs," said the aide. "The best way to stop that momentum is have some Republicans and respected conservatives break off and talk about tax increases," said the aide.

And we're reminded once again why it's so difficult to take the right seriously on fiscal issues. We're on track to have a $1.5 trillion deficit this year, which conservatives believe threatens the very fabric of civilization. But told that some tax increases might be in the mix, these same conservatives are already balking.

The federal tax burden is already at the lowest levels we've seen in generations, and elimination of the Bush-era tax breaks could make a huge difference in bringing down the deficit in a hurry. But the right is already unhappy with talk of a "grand bargain," the details of which don't even exist yet. Any tax increase on anyone at any time is necessarily unacceptable.

This isn't going to turn out well.

Steve Benen 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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PAWLENTY SAYS U.S. 'NEEDS' A GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN.... By all appearances, the federal government won't shut down this week, after a compromise measure came together late Friday. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), the increasingly-silly presidential hopeful, is likely to be disappointed by the progress.

ThinkProgress caught up with Pawlenty following his speech this weekend at the Tea Party Patriots Policy Summit in Phoenix, Arizona. Pawlenty declared that shutting down the federal government is "an option I think Republicans have to consider."

The former Minnesota governor went further in the interview with ThinkProgress, declaring that the current shutdown showdown was a "line-in-the-sand moment," the likes of which "are what we need." Pawlenty called for a shutdown lasting a month or longer -- "a dramatic month," as he termed it -- in order to force Congress to make tough decisions.

Pawlenty may not care, but the most "dramatic" aspect of a shutdown would be the effect it has on the economy, veterans' benefits, and Social Security services.

As part of the same appearance, the former governor also lauded the right for "standing up to the ruling class." As Steve M. explained, "[T]he Koch brothers and BP and Rupert Murdoch aren't in this 'ruling class.' Teachers in Wisconsin are."

I almost feel sorry for Republican presidential candidates. The truly ridiculous things they're forced to say to pander to the unhinged right are just cringe-worthy.

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

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SHUTDOWN LIKELY TO BE AVERTED (AT LEAST FOR TWO WEEKS).... As recently as Friday morning, it seemed almost inevitable that congressional Republicans would shut down the federal government on March 4. By late Friday afternoon, however, a plan for a reprieve came together.

Over the weekend, bipartisan support coalesced around the plan, making it quite unlikely we'll see a shutdown this week.

The spotlight returns to Capitol Hill today, where lawmakers are trying to forge a compromise spending bill and avert a government shutdown after a recess that saw the nation riveted by acrimonious budget battles in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

House Republicans and Senate Democrats began negotiating a short-term continuing resolution last week when it became clear five days were insufficient to resolve differences over a larger spending bill for the remainder of fiscal 2011 that cleared the House on Feb. 19. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid signaled Friday that he was inclined to support a short-term CR proposed by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), although the Nevada Democrat attempted to couch his position as a Republican capitulation.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), whose opinion as Senate Budget Committee chairman matters quite a bit, told CNN the two-week package is "acceptable," though he's still looking for a compromise that lasts longer than two weeks.

If you missed the news over the weekend, the breakthrough happened when Republicans changed their demands -- they had asked for a package of $4 billion in cuts over two weeks, a prorated version of their larger spending plan. On Friday, GOP leaders instead called for $4 billion in cuts that Democrats had already requested, most of which came from earmarks in the current budget.

The compromise required some movement from both sides. Senate Democrats said they wanted to temporarily maintain current spending levels while negotiations continued on a larger package of cuts, but they felt compelled to go along with a set of cuts they'd already requested. House Republicans wanted their $4 billion in cuts, but had to shift gears to accommodate Dems.

While the debate continues as to who blinked first, the bottom line remains the same: the House is expected to pass this temporary extension, probably tomorrow, giving the Senate just a couple of days to pass it and send it to the Oval Office. If approved, as now appears likely, the new shutdown deadline will be March 18.

But before we move, it's worth reemphasizing how unserious Republicans have been about the budgeting process itself. The House GOP came up with a way to break the impasse, and I'm glad, but note the way in which the caucus went about achieving their goals. They picked an arbitrary number -- $4 billion in cuts over 2 weeks -- and then set out to shape a policy that met the capricious target.

The GOP's point wasn't to achieve some policy ends, it was to reach the arbitrary goal. Indeed, the $4 billion target became the objective because of a related arbitrary goal (the $100 billion in cuts) chosen for a campaign document.

In other words, this new plan allows Republican leaders to say they cut $4 billion just for the sake of cutting $4 billion, all as part of some larger, ideological vanity exercise.

I'm more than willing to give Republicans credit for shifting their demands and adopting Dems' ideas about cuts, and I'm delighted the government probably won't shut down, at least not this week. But that doesn't change the fact that when it comes to the GOP's approach, there's just no seriousness of purpose here.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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YOU CAN'T STOP THE SIGNAL IN MADISON.... At a few minutes past 4 p.m. local time, an announcement came over the sound system in Wisconsin's capitol building in Madison: "The Capitol is now closed." There are competing rationales for why this move was made, but the goal was to move the thousands of pro-worker protesters out of the building after two weeks of around-the-clock demonstrations.

And to be sure, after that announcement was made, thousands of activists did make their way outside. Hundreds chose to stay, however, and risk arrest. As it turns out, that didn't happen.

In a victory -- at least a symbolic one -- for Wisconsin's public employee unions, the Capitol authorities announced on Sunday that demonstrators could continue their all-night sleepovers in the building and would not be forcibly ejected or arrested.

Just one day earlier, the state agency that oversees the Capitol police had said that the overnight protests, which have occurred continuously for almost two weeks and have been the heart and soul of the demonstrations in Madison, would cease on Sunday. The agency is led by an appointee of Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, whose plan to strip public employee unions of nearly all of their collective bargaining rights has led to huge rallies in opposition, with as many as 70,000 demonstrators marching around the Madison Statehouse.

Union officials, who had denounced the plan to close the Capitol overnight as an effort to silence critics, called the reversal a capitulation by Mr. Walker's administration.

By all accounts, law enforcement officials weren't inclined to forcibly remove peaceful, law-abiding protestor, and as the deadline came and went, the ejections proved unnecessary.

Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs told reporters yesterday afternoon that the decision to let protesters stay was made after he saw something interesting: the activists were more than willing to move aside while cleaning crews went about doing their work, including mopping and polishing the Capitol's floors. If the rationale for clearing the building was to allow it to be cleaned, the protestors' willingness to be cooperative made it easier for them to stay.

As for the underlying dispute, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) appeared on "Meet the Press" yesterday and refused to even consider a compromise, even with state employees offering to accept less compensation and fewer benefits. The governor added that he will feel "forced" to start laying off workers unless his union-busting bill is approved by the state legislature.

In case anyone's forgotten, eliminating collective-bargaining rights won't save Wisconsin any money, and the state's budget troubles are largely the result of Walker pushing through tax breaks he couldn't pay for. The union-busting crusade is punitive and partisan, and the layoffs would be more of the same.

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

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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:

* The most important aspect of the budget fight isn't who's up or who's down; it's appreciating just how damaging the House GOP's plan really is.

* Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R-Ind.) doesn't want to talk about his tenure as Bush's budget director. Given the severity of his failures, I don't blame him.

* Sometimes, the Sunday shows actually host worthwhile guests and panels. Most of the time, not so much.

* George Will thinks it's a mistake for Congress to cut the Teach for America program. I agree with him, but I wish he'd mentioned that it's the GOP that's to blame.

* Efforts to equate Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's (R) anti-union crusade with Reagan's presidency are extremely silly.

* Don't be surprised if the next labor battleground is in Maine.

* If the right is looking forward to pro-worker protests in Wisconsin waning, conservatives are likely to be disappointed.

And on Saturday, we talked about:

* Nearly as important as President Obama's partisan combat with Republicans in Congress? His partisan combat with Republicans in governors' offices.

* When Newt Gingrich starts offering lawmakers advice about shutdowns and impeachment, run in the other direction.

* Republicans think the U.S. should emulate British austerity measures. Given what's happened to the British economy, that's insane.

* In "This Week in God," we covered, among other things, Glenn Beck's assault on Reform Judaism (or as Beck calls it, "reformed" Judaism).

* Mike Huckabee would reduce poverty by pushing people into marriages. He has no idea what he's talking about.

* As of late Friday, a plan appeared to be in place that would push off a shutdown deadline to March 18. More on this later this morning.

Steve Benen 7:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (3)

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February 27, 2011

CUTS AND CONSEQUENCES, CONT'D.... With the threat of a government shutdown still very much a possibility, there's been a fair amount of discussion about what both sides of the aisle want. There's been far too little talk about what would happen if one side succeeds.

It's reminiscent of horse-race journalism during a campaign -- the media tells us who's up and who's down, but not whose ideas have merit and what electoral victory would mean for the rest of us.

The budget fight is frustrating in identical ways. The discussion has generally focused on what House Republicans want (their $61 billion in brutal spending cuts), why they want it (they allegedly want to address the fiscal mess they created during the Bush years), and what they're prepared to do to get their way (shut down the government).

But the discourse rarely gets around to that other question: what would happen if Republicans actually got their way? It's heartening, then, to see the New York Times editorial board take a look at the consequences of the GOP plan.

In a recent report, economists at Goldman Sachs estimated that the House cuts would reduce economic growth by 1.5 percentage points to 2 percentage points in the second and third quarters of 2011. That would devastate employment. As a rule of thumb, each percentage point drop in growth means a loss of 1.2 million jobs. [...]

[M]ost of the cuts would be counterproductive. Annual spending on education through high school is cut by 12 percent, or nearly $6 billion (since the cuts would be squeezed into the rest of the current budget year, they are even deeper on an annualized basis).

Those cuts include reductions to Head Start that would remove 218,000 children from the program and cuts to elementary education that would hit 2,400 schools and nearly one million students. Pell Grants for college would also be cut by nearly $6 billion. Transportation investments would be cut by 9 percent, or $8.1 billion, including $2.7 billion from rail, $1 billion from highway spending and $675 million from public transit. Americorps and other community-service programs would be eliminated, although their benefit to society surely exceeds their $1.2 billion cost. Since national service programs are matched by $800 million from foundations and other sources, that would be lost, too.

The list goes on. Small businesses would be hit by a 9 percent cut, or $84 million, to the Small Business Administration. Homeowners facing foreclosure and other Americans with legal problems would be hurt by a $70 million cut to legal aid. Financial regulators would endure deep cuts that would cripple their ability to carry out the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. That's asking for another financial crisis.

Who's up and who's down in the midst of the budget fight certainly matters, but so does the fact that the Republican plan, by any objective measure, is an abject disaster and a recipe for a much weaker economy. For all the silly "job-killing" references during the health care debate, we're talking about a GOP spending plan that would make unemployment worse, on purpose.

What's more -- and here's the kicker -- Republicans really aren't disputing any of this. Told hundreds of thousands of workers would lose their jobs if the GOP succeeds, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said, "So be it." Told Goldman Sachs projects the Republican plan pushing the U.S. economy back towards a recession, GOP officials blow if it off, and offer no competing projections of their own.

It's possible political reporters, in general, don't consider this especially important, since they know full well that the Democratic Senate and Democratic White House won't approve the Republican plan as-is. Their assumptions are right.

But the House did approve the GOP plan, and Republicans are still sticking to their proposal during ongoing negotiations.

It matters, in other words, that the House majority is pushing a ridiculous plan that would hurt the country. The public should be made aware of it.

Steve Benen 12:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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THE RECORD MITCH DANIELS DOESN'T WANT TO TALK ABOUT.... A couple of days ago, David Brooks praised Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) for his record of fiscal responsibility. That record, in Brooks' vision, starts in 2004 when Daniels was elected to statewide office.

But there's also that inconvenient period in which Daniels was Bush's budget director, and the U.S. government began the most fiscally irresponsible period in American history. Amanda Terkel reports this morning:

On "Fox News Sunday," host Chris Wallace pressed Daniels on this point. "When you came in, this country had an annual surplus for the first time in 30 years of $236 billion. When you left, two and a half years later, the deficit was $400 billion. You were also there when President Bush launched his Medicaid drug benefit plan that now cost $60 billion a year. I know there was a recession, but do you think it was wise -- at a time when we were fighting two wars -- to have two tax cuts and launch a huge new entitlement?"

Daniels said deficits during that time were inevitable. "It was a recession, two wars and a terrorist attack that led to a whole new category called homeland security," he said. "So nobody was less happy than I to see the surplus go away, but it was going away."

This fails on a whole lot of levels. It's true that Daniels, as Bush's budget director, was helping shape the books during an economic downturn, but I seem to recall Republicans concluding that these details are irrelevant -- Obama inherited the worst economy since the Great Depression, but as far as the GOP is concerned, that's not a good excuse for large deficits.

For that matter, Daniels is correct that his tenure also included 9/11 and the launch of two wars, but every president in American history raised taxes to help pay for previous U.S. wars, to prevent deficits from spiraling out of control. Bush, with Daniels' blessing, approved two massive tax cuts that ultimately added $5 trillion to the debt in just eight years.

It's that same debt that Daniels believes will destroy the country. Funny, he didn't think that way when he was directly responsible for making the problem worse.

Daniels went on to tell Fox News this morning that we shouldn't even count his record from this era: "[I]f you want to know what I think about fiscal issues, don't look at 2 1/2 years when I was in the supporting cast with no vote. Look at six years where I was in a responsible position, submitting budgets and fighting for them."

In other words, when evaluating Daniels for federal office, just pay no attention to his only federal experience.

That's not going to work. Daniels backed tax packages that didn't work and were a disaster for the budget; he backed putting the costs of wars onto the national charge card in a way no previous administration ever had; and he backed expanding the federal role in health care without paying for it.

What's more, when Daniels has tried to brush all of this aside, he's used "stunningly fraudulent" excuses.

I realize Daniels has somehow become the "thinking man's" preferred GOP presidential candidate, but I'm afraid this crowd is backing the wrong horse.

Steve Benen 11:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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WHEN SUNDAY SHOWS GET IT RIGHT (AND WHEN THEY DON'T).... On ABC's "This Week," viewers will see host Christiane Amanpour report live from Tripoli, including an important interview with Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, the son of Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi. It's followed by Jake Tapper hosting a roundtable discussion with four governors: Arizona's Jan Brewer (R), Massachusetts' Deval Patrick (D), Colorado's John Hickenlooper (D), and South Carolina's Nikki Haley (R).

For all the complaining I do about the Sunday shows, this is a strong lineup. Amanpour's reporting from the Middle East has been great, and Tapper's panel features the kind of diversity -- party, gender, race, region -- that these panels too often lack.

CNN's "State of the Union" also deserves some credit for steering clear of an all-Republican lineup. The five guests are all white guys, but at least there's party diversity -- two governors (one Dem, one Republican) and three senators (one Dem, one GOP, and one independent).

Faiz Shakir, however, is right to draw attention to the other three.

Last Sunday also tilted heavily toward GOP voices. This Sunday the trend continues. Three Sunday shows -- Fox, CBS, and NBC -- locked out Democratic voices as featured guests:

Fox News Sunday: Gov. Mitch Daniels (R-IN), former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR)

CBS Face the Nation: Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ)

NBC Meet the Press: Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI), Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)

"Meet the Press" included one Democrat and one labor leader -- the latter thrown in under pressure late in the week -- for its roundtable, but when it came to feature interviews, it's yet another Sunday in which Republican guests dominated.

This comes just two weeks after the Sunday shows featured two Republican senators, three Republican House members, three likely Republican presidential candidates ... and zero Democrats from Congress or the Obama administration.

Liberal media, indeed.

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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PARTY POLITICS AND TEACH FOR AMERICA.... George Will's column today sings the praises of Teach for America (TFA) and its CEO, Wendy Kopp. It's one of those rare Will columns that I have no trouble agreeing with, but it's the conclusion that's important.

Will explains in the piece that TFA helps direct graduates of elite universities into teaching positions in difficult-to-staff schools in areas of urban and rural poverty. It's been a striking success, and Kopp clearly deserves enormous credit -- this program and its participants are making a remarkable difference that will pay dividends for all of us for years to come.

So, what's the catch? Take a wild guess.

Government funding -- federal, state, local -- is just 30 percent of TFA's budget. Last year's federal allocation, $21 million, would be a rounding error in the General Motors bailout. And Kopp says that every federal dollar leverages six non-federal dollars. All that money might, however, be lost because even when Washington does something right, it does it wrong.

It has obtusely defined "earmark" to include "any named program," so TFA has been declared an earmark and sentenced to death. If Congress cannot understand how nonsensical this is, it should be sent back to school for remedial instruction from some of TFA's exemplary young people.

I'm delighted George Will is shining a light on this, but note his use of passive voice -- Teach for America "has been ... sentenced to death." That's true, but it's incomplete.

The word Will doesn't want readers to see is "Republican." This successful, innovative education program was on track to receive $18 million in federal funding, but under the Republican budget plan, this has been reduced to zero. As GOP lawmakers see it, Teach for America, which used to enjoy bipartisan support, doesn't deserve a single penny from the federal budget. It's part of a brutal effort to gut federal education investment at every level.

It's a classic example of painfully ridiculous priorities. The same Republicans who put $858 billion in tax cuts on the national charge card in December now believe we can't afford $18 million for a simple program that puts bright young people to work teaching in low-income schools.

Will's right to call this "nonsensical," but he's wrong to go out of his way to avoid assigning blame.

"TFA has been declared an earmark and sentenced to death"? Here, George, let me fix that for you: Republicans have declared TFA an earmark and sentenced it to death.

Steve Benen 10:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried.

Gov. Scott Walker's (R) push for collective bargaining reform in Wisconsin is akin to the accomplishments of Presidents Lincoln and Reagan, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said Friday evening. [...]

"I'd say it's a new revolution going on over there," Bachmann said. "We saw the great Ronald Reagan pushing back the Soviet Union in the eastern bloc nations. We saw Abraham Lincoln push back the Confederacy in Atlanta. And now we're seeing the Republicans in Wisconsin causing the Democrats to retreat to Rockford, Ill., so I'd say we're winning!"

I'm tempted to note the dramatic differences between quorum avoidance and grand national conflicts, but I don't imagine Bachmann would understand anyway.

That said, it's worth noting that Bachmann isn't the only one with delusional notions of Walker's union-busting crusade. Dana Milbank noted that Walker himself has similar ideas in his head.

Of course, Washington knows all about tribalism, as both sides giddily await a possible shutdown of the government. But Walker's excesses show where this leads. It leads to hypocrisy: He called President Obama's health-care reform an "unprecedented power grab," but once in office he launched his own grab by attempting to end collective bargaining for public workers. It leads to falsification: He claims he campaigned on ending collective bargaining, but a Politifact analysis found that he did no such thing. And now, it's leading to fantasy.

Walker told the faux Koch that "before we dropped the bomb," he showed his Cabinet a picture of Ronald Reagan and proclaimed that "one of the most defining moments of his political career [was] when he fired the air traffic controllers." That, Walker said, "was the first crack in the Berlin Wall." And now, "this is our time to change the course of history."

It takes some creativity to liken the air traffic controllers to Wisconsin's public workers, who are not on strike and have offered concessions. It takes even more creativity to credit the firing of the controllers (rather than, say, Reagan's military buildup) for the fall of the Berlin Wall. And it takes gall for Walker to claim the mantle of Reagan, who compromised with Democrats and Soviets alike.

Milbank equates Walker's tactics to those of a "hooligan." That's perhaps not the first label I'd come up with, but it'll do.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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MAINE'S LEPAGE EYES WALKER-LIKE PLAN.... When looking at the national landscape and GOP union-busting efforts, we obviously start with Wisconsin. Ohio, Florida, and Tennessee are likely labor battlegrounds, too.

Yesterday, Maine's buffoonish governor, Paul LePage (R), signaled his interest in waging a related fight.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage said Saturday he would push forcefully ahead with right-to-work legislation in his state, even if it means a Wisconsin-style fight with unions.

In an interview at the National Governors Association, the Republican praised Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and couched his own proposal in the language of liberty loved by tea partiers.

"He's got a big challenge, and quite frankly, once they start reading our budget they're going to leave Wisconsin and come to Maine because we're going after 'right to work,'" LePage told POLITICO.

Maine, like Wisconsin, not only recently elected a right-wing governor, but also created Republican majorities in the state House and state Senate. That said, much of the state GOP is fairly moderate, and may not be eager to embrace LePage's scheme.

The governor predicted yesterday, "You know, it's going to be a battle."

This has, by the way, been another interesting week for LePage. State policymakers are exploring the effects of the chemical bisphenol-A, a common additive to plastics, accused of being dangerous to children. The Republican governor declared this week that he's not inclined to care.

"Quite frankly, the science that I'm looking at says there is no [problem]. There hasn't been any science that identifies that there is a problem," LePage said, overlooking the science that suggests there may be a problem. He added, "The only thing that I've heard is if you take a plastic bottle and put it in the microwave and you heat it up, it gives off a chemical similar to estrogen. So the worst case is some women may have little beards."

Maine voters elected quite a governor, didn't they?

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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TEMPERATURES DROP IN MADISON, BUT THE POLITICAL PRESSURE HEATS UP.... Last Saturday's massive protests in Madison against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's (R) union-busting measure brought tens of thousands of activists to the state capitol. Yesterday, by some estimates, the crowd was twice as big.

Peaceful and passionate, the pro-union crowd rallied against a bill that has left the Legislature in gridlock and triggered a walkout by 14 Senate Democrats, who fled the state for Illinois and left the Capitol in political chaos.

The crowd heard from labor leaders, religious leaders, teachers, an actor and a snowplow driver. Thousands of people stood on snow and ice and poured onto two blocks of State St., while thousands more kept up a steady parade around the Capitol Square.

It was Angela Aldous, a 30-year-old nurse from Madison, who drew the loudest cheers. She sought to cast doubt on Walker's suggestion, made last week, that many people from out of state were joining the large protest crowds in Madison.

"Governor Walker, I'm not faking this Wisconsin accent," Aldous said. "I was born in Wisconsin. I live in Wisconsin. And I came back early from my ice-fishing trip to tell you, 'You are not going to crush Wisconsin.' "

She then led the crowd in a chant: "We are Wisconsin."

According to estimates from local law enforcement, upwards of 100,000 protestors were on hand yesterday, roughly double the totals from a week ago. What's more, Eric Kleefeld noted some noteworthy context to this -- last weekend the weather was fairly nice, whereas yesterday it was 17 degrees and snowing.

"[T]ake this as a clear sign that even if the Wisconsin Assembly has passed Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill, with its anti-public employee union proposals, the passion of demonstrators here is not dying down," Kleefeld added.

Howard Fineman, meanwhile, has a good item noting the anti-labor crusade, inside Wisconsin and elsewhere, in the context of the 2012 campaign.

For all of the valid concern about reining in state spending -- a concern shared by politicians and voters of all labels -- the underlying strategic Wisconsin story is this: Gov. Scott Walker, a Tea Party-tinged Republican, is the advance guard of a new GOP push to dismantle public-sector unions as an electoral force.

Last fall, GOP operatives hoped and expected to take away as many as 20 governorships from the Democrats. They ended up nabbing 12.

What happened? Well, according to postgame analysis by GOP strategists and Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi -- who chaired the Republican Governors Association in 2010 -- the power and money of public-employee unions was the reason.

"We are never going to win most of these states until we can do something about those unions," one key operative said at a Washington dinner in November. "They have so much incentive to work hard politically because they are, in effect, electing their own bosses -- the Democrats who are going to pay them better and give them more benefits. And the Democrats have the incentive to be generous."

This is how top Republicans see the matter: a vicious cycle of union-to-Democrat-to-union power that they are determined to break.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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February 26, 2011

A PARTISAN WAR ON TWO FRONTS.... To pay even passing attention to American politics is to notice that contemporary congressional Republicans are as right-wing as they've ever been. The GOP caucuses in both chambers have embraced a hysterical, borderline-nihilist worldview, which is often terrifying in its scope and severity.

In recent years, though, as Republicans in Washington have driven off a right-wing cliff, there have been GOP governors who've been far less ridiculous. At the state level, Republican chief executives have more serious governing responsibilities, and are considerably closer to those who feel the effects of their policies, so it's been fairly common to find occasional examples of GOP sanity in governors' offices nationwide.

That, alas, is changing, too. National Journal's Ron Brownstein explained this week that President Obama "finds himself fighting a two-front war," one in Congress with right-wing lawmakers, and one at the state level with a new breed of right-wing governors.

Republican governors came out swinging against many of Obama's initiatives at the opening bell. Moderates Charlie Crist in Florida and Arnold Schwarzenegger in California supported Obama's 2009 economic-stimulus package, but almost all of their GOP colleagues lobbied congressional Republicans to oppose it. After the stimulus bill passed, several GOP governors (along with a few Democrats) rejected the increased unemployment aid it offered, arguing that the strings attached would force them to increase state spending.

On the same grounds, Republican governors in Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin have also renounced federal money to build high-speed rail. Seventeen states -- all but two headed by Republicans -- are suing to block Obama's effort to regulate carbon emissions. GOP governors led the drive to resume offshore drilling after Obama suspended it following last year's BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. From the other direction, the president did his part to heighten tensions by suing Arizona over its immigration law and conspicuously siding with public-employee unions in their struggle with GOP governors (the most notable so far led by Wisconsin's Scott Walker) over collective-bargaining rights.

The mother of all disputes, though, remains over health care. Twenty-seven states—all but two of them boasting Republican governors and all but four GOP attorneys general -- are suing to dismantle the law's foundation: the mandate on individuals to purchase insurance, most with help from government subsidies. The majority of Republican governors are also resisting the law's provisions requiring them to maintain state spending on Medicaid and to establish exchanges where the uninsured can shop for coverage. Put it together and it's fair to say, without drawing any moral equivalence, that health care reform is facing more-extensive resistance from conservative states than any federal initiative since Brown v. Board of Education.

Keep in mind, it's ideology, not practical concerns, that lie at the heart of these governors' reactionary moves. The states turning down investments for high-speed rail, for example, were effectively handed a gift -- jobs, economic development, improved infrastructure -- but Republicans like Rick Scott and Scott Walker turned down the benefits because of a philosophical opposition, deliberately hurting their state in the process. The administration was effectively throwing a life-preserver to a Republican who's drowning, only to be told, "We don't like government life-preservers."

The same is true of health care, which would be a boon to states, but which far-right governors resist for reasons that have nothing to do with public policy.

President Obama, in other words, not only has to resolve crises unlike anything his predecessors have dealt with in generations, he has to do so with a ridiculous Republican Party in Washington that approaches public policy with all the sophistication of a junior-high student government, and Republican governors who resist effective policies for purely ideological reasons.

"One had the sense in the mid-1990s that conservative governors were doing whatever was in the best interest of their state," a senior administration official told Brownstein. "This time, the Republican governors appear determined to make an ideological point, even if it costs their state a great deal."

The result, Brownstein concluded, is a political landscape that "increasingly resembles a kind of total war in which each party mobilizes every conceivable asset at its disposal against the other. Most governors were once conscientious objectors in that struggle. No more."

I found myself nodding my head quite a bit reading Kevin Drum's related thoughts.

Even after writing about this for most of the past decade, it's hard to fathom. When Ronald Reagan was elected, it seemed at the time like the ultimate triumph of hardcore right-wing politics. It was the Reagan Revolution! He was going to slash taxes, institute supply-side economics, bust the unions, appoint uncompromising judges, give the Christian right a seat at the table, and declare war on the welfare queens.

It couldn't get any worse, could it? Well, yes, it could: in the 90s we got the Republican Party of Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist, and they made Reagan look like the jolly old man he's since been mythologized as. Taxes? They wanted a blood oath against ever raising them for any reason whatsoever. Gingrich gleefully led an assault on a Democratic Speaker of the House that destroyed his career, something no previous leader of either party had ever tried to do. The GOP flatly refused to negotiate on healthcare reform, they shut down the government in 1995, and then did their best to impeach Bill Clinton over a blow job. This was a take-no-prisoners party like we'd never seen.

But the Newt Gingrich of 1995 was, as Clinton said, still somebody you could deal with. He may have been right wing, but he cared about policy and he cared about getting things done. Today even that's gone. Obama got virtually zero support for a stimulus bill designed to help get us out of the worst recession since World War II, he got no support for rescuing GM and Chrysler, he got no support for healthcare reform, and he got no support for financial reform even after a decade in which big banks were so far out of control they nearly wrecked the entire global economy. He's been attacked from Day 1 as non-American, non-Christian, and non-patriotic. The filibuster became not just a tool of intense opposition to big legislation, but an everyday tool of obstruction. Tea partiers and Glenn Beck accused him of being a socialist for sure, maybe a Muslim too, and quite possibly a fifth columnist as well. Rush Limbaugh mocks his wife and prominent GOP leaders make jokes about whether he was born in Kenya. A government shutdown isn't just something that might happen if Obama and Congress can't find a workable compromise on the budget, it's actively viewed as a positive goal.

I don't know how this story ends, exactly, but I'm confident the last chapter will be awful unless the electorate begins to appreciate what's transpiring. The vast majority of the public -- the folks who don't even know if the health care reform law still exists -- have no idea what's become of the modern Republican Party.

The only way a once-credible GOP can return to some semblance of sanity is for voters to bring the party back to reality. I don't know when or if that'll happen, but I'm fairly sure it will keep getting worse until it does.

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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A VOICE OF EXPERIENCE ON SHUTDOWNS AND IMPEACHMENT.... Disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) feels comfortable giving the new House GOP majority advice, and for some reason, thinks he still has some credibility.

With this in mind, Gingrich is telling Republicans not to worry about the political fallout from shutting down the government. That whole mess from 1995 and 1996 that made Gingrich a national pariah was just misunderstood -- "distorted," he said, by the "liberal media." (Would that be the same liberal media that hangs on Gingrich's every word for no apparent reason?)

In other words, Newt is effectively telling the current GOP leadership, "Take it from me, shutting the government works out fine." Why anyone would take his advice seriously, especially on this, is a mystery.

And in case this wasn't quite ridiculous enough, there's additional evidence that Gingrich is trapped in some kind of odd '90s flashback.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who plans within two weeks to announce if he will run for president, said today that if President Obama doesn't change his mind and order his Justice Department to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act, Republicans in Congress should strike back and even consider impeachment proceedings.

"I believe the House Republicans next week should pass a resolution instructing the president to enforce the law and to obey his own constitutional oath, and they should say if he fails to do so that they will zero out [defund] the office of attorney general and take other steps as necessary until the president agrees to do his job," said Gingrich. "His job is to enforce the rule of law and for us to start replacing the rule of law with the rule of Obama is a very dangerous precedent."

He didn't call for immediate impeachment hearings, but didn't rule them out if Obama balks at any congressional demands to enforce the law.

Ah, yes, shutdowns and pointless impeachment crusades -- two subjects Gingrich knows quite a bit about, even if he remains painfully confused about both. Why wouldn't contemporary Republicans want to listen to the advice of the former Speaker, who was driven from Congress 13 years ago by his own party after having listened to his guidance on shutdowns and impeachment?

Now, in fairness, Gingrich's office quickly walked this back, saying "impeachment is clearly not an appropriate action" under these circumstances. How tolerant of him.

But it's worth noting that the rest of Gingrich's take is hardly any better. The Obama administration didn't say it would stop enforcing DOMA, it said it would stop defending DOMA against pending lawsuits. The former Speaker is easily confused, but he should at least be sharp enough to appreciate the difference.

For that matter, it's not that unusual for administrations to take steps like these -- and Gingrich never got hysterical when Republican presidents did the same thing. Obama isn't setting "a very dangerous precedent"; the precedent has already been set, and it's not dangerous at all.

And finally, before Gingrich lectures us on the importance of the "Defense of Marriage Act," perhaps he could help offer a "defense" of his own "marriage" background. After a series of wives and mistresses, does Newt really want to be out front and center on this?

Steve Benen 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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THE BRITISH MODEL THE GOP HOPES TO EMULATE.... About a month ago, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama urged President Obama to follow the lead set by our friends across the pond: "We need a budget with a bold vision -- like [the one] unveiled in Britain." Last week, Sessions praised British Prime Minister David Cameron's "leadership" on cutting spending.

This isn't an uncommon sentiment on the right. British officials are pursuing policies similar to those Republicans are demanding in the United States, so GOP praise for Cameron and his austerity agenda is often incorporated into the party's talking points.

And how's that British model working out?

Britain's economy shrank by 0.6% in the final quarter of last year, a sharper fall than previously thought.

The previous four quarters, by the way, had shown modest growth.

Remind me again why Republicans want to follow Britain's lead?

Or for that matter, why the right is so enamored with the German model, which is arguably even worse?

Update: And as Atrios reminds us, let's also not forget what happened after Irish officials bailed out the bankers and cut public spending.

Steve Benen 9:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is the latest faith-based assault from Fox News' Glenn Beck, who's already blasted Islam and Catholicism's commitment to "social justice" in the recent past. This week, it was Judaism's turn.

Last month, 400 rabbis signed an open letter from Jewish Funds For Justice to Rupert Murdoch requesting that Glenn Beck be sanctioned for his false claims that George Soros collaborated with the Nazis.

Today, rather than apologizing, Beck lashed out at the rabbis. Beck falsely claimed that "all" of the rabbis who signed the letter came from the Reform movement of Judaism. Beck asserted that Reform Judaism is "more about politics" than about faith. Beck went on to liken Reform Judaism to "radicalized Islam."

Making matters slightly worse, in addition to the attacks, Beck three times referred to "reformed" Jews, as opposed to the accurate "reform" Jews.

A day later, the Anti-Defamation League condemned Beck's "bigoted ignorance," describing his remarks as "highly offensive and outrageous." The ADL's Abe Foxman concluded, "Glenn Beck has no business discounting the faith of any people, and he should think twice before commenting on something he doesn't know much about. He owes the Reform movement an apology."

The deranged media personality ultimately agreed. "I was wrong on this ... and I apologize for it," Beck told his minions on Thursday. "In this case I did not do enough homework. Somebody has called me ignorant for what I said on Tuesday, and I think that's a pretty good description of what I said."

Also from the God Machine this week:

* Two right-wing lawmakers in Tennessee want to make it a felony to follow the Islamic code known as Sharia law. Specifically, state Sen. Bill Ketron (R) and state Rep. Judd Matheny (R) empower the state attorney general to investigate complaints and decide who's practicing Sharia, even in their own personal lives. If approved, the proposal would obviously violate the First Amendment, and its existence only reinforces suspicions that hysterical conservatives don't know what Sharia is. Imam Mohamed Ahmed of the Islamic Center of Nashville said, "What do you mean, really, by saying I can't abide by Shariah law? Shariah law is telling me don't steal. Do you want me to steal and rob a bank?"

* A hate crime conviction in Texas: "A Texas man pleaded guilty to a federal hate crime charge on Wednesday, admitting that he set fire to playground equipment at the Dar El-Eman Islamic Center in Arlington in July 2010." Henry Clay Glaspell, 34, did a series of other disgusting things, motivated entirely by his bigotry, and is the 50th person to be prosecuted for hate crimes towards Arab and Muslim Americans since 9/11.

* And presidential hopeful Rick Santorum (R) said this week that the Crusades got a bad rap. "The idea that the Crusades and the fight of Christendom against Islam is somehow an aggression on our part is absolutely anti-historical," Santorum told a South Carolina audience. "And that is what the perception is by the American left who hates Christendom." Conservative Jonathan Tobin argued that Santorum is right about the left hating everyone, but also explained that when it comes to history and the Crusades, Santorum has no idea what he's talking about. (thanks to D.J. for the tip.)

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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WHAT HUCKABEE DOESN'T UNDERSTAND ABOUT MARRIAGE AND POVERTY.... Mike Huckabee chatted about his book with the cast of "Fox & Friends" yesterday, and repeated one of his favorite talking points, which resonates loudly with the GOP's religious right base.

"Do you realize in America, we have a $300 billion a year 'dad deficit' in America," the former Arkansas governor said, adding, "If we talk about poverty, two-thirds of poverty in this country disappear [sic] if the mothers of children marry the fathers of those kids."

This is a powerful argument with the "compassionate conservative" wing of the Republican Party -- they get to care about poverty, which the right tends to ignore, and promote "family values" at the same time.

The problem, of course, is that Huckabee doesn't really know what he's talking about, and is relying on highly dubious research. As Andrew Jones noted yesterday, the claim was included in a popular memo crafted by a former Bush aide, but it "does not appear to be supported by the data."

"In a government report released last year, marriage (and programs promoting it) did not lead to a decrease in poverty, especially among single mothers. The study from May 2010 on the marriage promotion programs promoted by the previous administration found they had 'no effect on family economic well-being.'"

It's also interesting to consider what, exactly, Huckabee plans to do about this approach to policy. As he sees it, we can reduce poverty by pushing people into marriage. That's almost certainly wrong, but that's his position.

But if right-wing activists have thrown a months-long tantrum over Michelle Obama encouraging kids to eat healthier foods, how will these same activists perceive a presidential candidate who wants to press parents to get married, whether they want to or not?

By the standards of contemporary conservatism, isn't that none of the government's business?

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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BACKING AWAY FROM THE SHUTDOWN CLIFF (AT LEAST FOR NOW).... Just when it seemed a March 4 government shutdown was inevitable, a plan for a temporary reprieve came together. The shift will very likely buy policymakers some time, but only a little.

Under the [House Republicans'] proposal, the law now keeping the government open would be extended two more weeks, until March 18, at the price of $4 billion in new spending cuts. In the interim, House and Senate leaders would try to negotiate a broader plan to finance the government at reduced levels through Sept. 30. [...]

They came up with the $4 billion by ending eight education, transportation and other programs that President Obama had previously sought to close down, a savings of almost $1.2 billion. They also reclaimed nearly $2.8 billion set aside for earmarks in the current budget; both the House and Senate have agreed to ban such pet projects.

House Republicans had said they wanted $4 billion in cuts, prorated to reflect the brutal cuts the chamber approved a week ago. Senate Democrats said they wanted to temporarily maintain current spending levels while negotiations continued on a larger package of cuts. The new plan requires some concessions from both -- the GOP is getting a different $4 billion in cuts, which Dems were planning to push anyway.

Senate Democrats said they like the deal; Senate Republicans offered their endorsement; and House Republicans were the ones who crafted the proposal, so they're obviously on board.

The next step will come Tuesday, when the House is expected to pass this temporary extension, giving the Senate just a couple of days to pass it and send it to the Oval Office. By all indications, everyone appears optimistic, but (a) someone could still figure out a way to screw up the deal between now and Friday; and (b) all this does is create a new shutdown deadline of March 18.

Before we move on, let's also note how fundamentally unserious Republicans are about the entire budgeting process. The House GOP came up with a way to break the impasse, and I'm glad, but note the way in which the caucus went about achieving their goals. They picked an arbitrary number -- $4 billion in cuts over 2 weeks -- and then set out to shape a policy that met the capricious target. Earlier in the week, it was $4 billion in cuts the GOP liked; by yesterday they'd settled on $4 billion in cuts Democrats liked.

But Republicans' point wasn't to achieve some policy ends, it was to reach the arbitrary goal. Indeed, the $4 billion target became the objective because of a related arbitrary goal (the $100 billion in cuts) chosen for a campaign document.

In other words, this new plan allows GOP leaders to say they cut $4 billion just for the sake of cutting $4 billion, all as part of some larger, ideological vanity exercise.

I'm more than willing to give Republicans credit for shifting their demands and adopting Dems' ideas about cuts, and I'm delighted the government probably won't shut down, at least not this week. But that doesn't change the fact that the way in which the GOP is approaching this process is ridiculous.

Steve Benen 8:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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February 25, 2011

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

* On the streets of Tripoli: "Clashes erupted in Tripoli, Libya's capital, on Friday as security forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi used gunfire to try to disperse thousands of protesters who streamed out of mosques after prayers to mount their first major challenge to the government's crackdown."

* U.S. officials eye sanctions: "The United States moved to increase diplomatic pressure on the embattled Libyan government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi on Friday, suspending relations and preparing to impose unilateral sanctions because of the deadly violence the Libyan government has directed at protesters in the country."

* Iraq is not immune: "Demonstrations turned violent across Iraq on Friday, as protesters burned buildings and security forces fired on the crowds. At least 10 people have been killed, including at least two in Mosul and another in Ramadi. Thousands of Iraqis demanding better government services took to the streets in at least 10 cities."

* It continues to be a regional uprising: "Hundreds of thousands of protesters turned out in cities across the Middle East on Friday to protest the unaccountability of their leaders and express solidarity with the uprising in Libya that Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi is trying to suppress with force."

* Excellent advice: "Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates bluntly told an audience of West Point cadets on Friday that it would be unwise for the United States to ever fight another war like Iraq or Afghanistan, and that the chances of carrying out a change of regime in that fashion again are slim."

* A cowardly move from union-busting Republicans: "Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly took the first significant action on their plan to strip collective bargaining rights from most public workers, abruptly passing the measure early Friday morning before sleep-deprived Democrats realized what was happening."

* Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) wants to gut workers' rights, but that's not all he wants to do.

* The right doesn't want to hear this, but the massive, pro-labor protests in Madison have been remarkably peaceful.

* Polls continue to show support for labor, even if the media screws up the data.

* A must-read from David Cay Johnston: "When it comes to improving public understanding of tax policy, nothing has been more troubling than the deeply flawed coverage of the Wisconsin state employees' fight over collective bargaining."

* The recent GOP assault on women's rights has been relentless: "Virginia took a big step yesterday toward eliminating most of the state's 21 abortion clinics, approving a bill making rules so strict the medical centers would likely be forced to close, Democrats and abortion-rights supporters said."

* Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) suggested this week that union backers in Wisconsin may need to "get a little bloody" to win their fight. Yesterday, he apologized for his choice of words.

* Rachel Maddow reports on Wisconsin. PolitiFact thinks Maddow's wrong. Maddow proves PolitiFact wrong.

* A prime-time shake-up at CNN: "CNN is reformatting 'Parker Spitzer' as an ensemble program with Eliot Spitzer -- and without Kathleen Parker, who has been his co-host for the last four months. Effective Monday, the program will be renamed 'In The Arena.'"

* I'm occasionally surprised Fox News hasn't fired Shep Smith for flashes of reasonableness.

* And Ronald Reagan said he considered "the right to belong to a free trade union" one of "the most elemental human rights." I'll look forward to the right-wing denunciations of this radical leftist.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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FIRST READ CONNECTS COVERAGE TO CONFUSION.... The latest report from the Kaiser Family Foundation seems to have zeroed in a point that's too often left out of the discourse: the health care debate has all kinds of heat, but very little light.

In this case of the KFF data, we see that Americans not only don't know what's in the Affordable Care Act, nearly half the country doesn't even know if the law still exists. As we talked about yesterday, what kind of national debate can we have on health care policy if a combined 48% of the country thinks the law has already been repealed or isn't sure? This kind of detail is the bare minimum of public awareness. If nearly half the country knows the law is still on the books, there's no hope for a credible discussion of more complex issues like the individual mandate and medical loss ratio.

With this in mind, it was heartening to see this take from MSNBC's First Read:

As we said when yet another poll showed a sizable portion of the American public thinking that -- incorrectly -- President Obama is a Muslim, everyone deserves blame here. The politicians. The citizenry. And especially the news media. We aren't doing our jobs when the populace is this misinformed. As a collective, look at how the court decisions striking down the health law get covered vs. the decisions to uphold it. And then look at the conservative media outlets and their coverage of this issue. [emphasis added]

I've been trying to push this observation about media coverage of the court rulings, and it's encouraging to see First Read pick up on this.

Indeed, as Greg Sargent noted, First Read's take seems to offer "a subtle hint that conservative media is misinforming people, and that it's up to the rest of us to do all we can to set the record straight." Commenting on the disparity in coverage when it comes to the court rulings, Greg added:

In some ways, of course, it's understandable that decisions striking down the law are routinely deemed more newsworthy than those upholding it. The former represents a potential change, while the latter doesn't. Change=news.

But the simple fact is that both decisions have equivalent real world consequences, or an equivalent lack of them, since the law's fate is likely to be decided one way or the other by the Supreme Court. And as I noted here the other day, the disparity in coverage is a shame, if only because it seems to be leaving the public deeply misinformed about the law's legal status.

Kudos to First Read for noticing.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... Last night, Rachel Maddow did a segment on two of my favorite subjects: the success of the Obama administration's rescue of the American automotive industry, and projections, from Goldman Sachs among others, showing the House GOP's spending plan pushing the economy back towards a recession. (I especially liked the part of the segment in which she called me "wise.")

I'm including the clip below, but pay particular attention to the comments from the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson, the mild-mannered columnist who was slightly more animated than usual when discussing these issues.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

For those of you who can't watch clips from your work computers, I've included a partial transcript after the jump, but just as a teaser, note that Robinson characterized the Republican plan as "economically insane," adding, "To take two points off the top of economic growth at a time when we're trying to struggle out of the deepest recession since the Great Depression is insanity. Any economist will tell you it's insanity."

He then proceeded to raise the specter of GOP economic sabotage, which one of his Washington Post colleagues probably won't appreciate.

From the transcript:

MADDOW: Joining us now is Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for "The Washington Post" and an MSNBC contributor. Gene, it is great to see you, my wise friend.

ROBINSON: Rachel, great to be here.

MADDOW: Steve Benen at the Washington Monthly, who is wise himself, today said this report on the Republican budget should be the lead story in every news outlet in the country. Do you think this is a really big deal?

ROBINSON: I think it's a huge deal for a couple of reasons, Rachel. Number one, it shows how economically insane the Republican -- the House budget plan is, to take two points off the top of economic growth at a time when we're trying to struggle out of the deepest recession since the Great Depression is insanity. Any economist will tell you it's insanity.

And so, now we have Goldman Sachs, which cannot be accused of being some sort of front for international communism, or socialism or Kenyan anti-colonialism saying the same thing, that this is crazy.

Number two, you know, maybe this is the point of the House budget plan. Maybe the point of the plan is to depress economic growth to set up the Republican Party for 2012, so people will be angry with President Obama and maybe elect a Republican. So, I think this should be a huge deal.

MADDOW: Well, for all of -- I mean, the admitted stupidity and distraction in our politics, there is a big salient empirical question at the heart of it, which is: should we try to help the economy by cutting spending a lot? Do you think we've actually been having an empirical discussion about that, a quantitative factual conversation about the answer to that question?

ROBINSON: Oh, no, not even close. It's as if there are two dimensions. There's a real world of people and events and facts, and then there's -- there's a narrative world in which there is only storyline. [...]

MADDOW: Am I right to suspect, in terms of the difference between fact world and narrative world, am I right to suspect that the fact that the G.M. bailout worked, that that fact will not impinge at all on Republican candidates denouncing it as one of Obama's big mistakes for years to come?

ROBINSON: Not in the least -- it will certainly not factor in the Republican narrative of what's happened over the last 20 months. But in fact, it's been, as you noted, a great success. G.M. is making a profit. Even Chrysler has Eminem in the ads now, and they're kind of, you know, bumping up to respectability. I mean, you know, this was -- think about it. Saved the auto industry in the United States, which is one of the great, kind of, industrial machines of the world, or certainly was once and perhaps could be again. That's a great achievement. But I don't think that's a story that Republicans are going to tell.

Steve Benen 3:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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STEVE KING EYES JUSTICE DEPT BUDGET.... The Obama administration announced this week that it no longer considers the Defense of Marriage Act constitutional, and will no longer defend the law against court challenges. The right, not surprisingly, isn't happy, but there's a noticeable difference in the way different wings of the party are responding.

Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa, for example, offered this message via Twitter earlier today.

"If President Obama won't redirect Holder's DOJ to aggressively defend U.S. DOMA law, I will move aggressively to cut their budget."

It's certainly possible King will find some unhinged allies to pursue this, but I find it easier to just roll my eyes at his nonsense given the muted response from the rest of the party.

In the hours that followed [the Justice Department announcement], Sarah Palin's Facebook site was silent. Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, was close-mouthed. Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, released a Web video -- on the labor union protests in Wisconsin -- and waited a day before issuing a marriage statement saying he was "disappointed."

Others, like Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, and Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, took their time weighing in, and then did so only in the most tepid terms. "The Justice Department is supposed to defend our laws," Mr. Barbour said.

Asked if Mitch Daniels, the Republican governor of Indiana and a possible presidential candidate, had commented on the marriage decision, a spokeswoman said that he "hasn't, and with other things we have going on here right now, he has no plans."

To be sure, Mike Huckabee, who takes a back seat to no one when it comes to hating gays, was considerably more hysterical about this, but in general, much of the Republican Party effectively took a pass on Obama's DOMA move. It suggests the issue is losing its potency.

"The wedge," GOP strategist Mark McKinnon said, "has lost its edge."

The religious right, meanwhile, expects Republicans in Congress to do what the White House no longer wants to do -- defend DOMA in court. If lawmakers ignore it, the culture warriors are likely to go apoplectic, but it remains to be seen just how much the party intends to invest in this, Steve King's wild-eyed threats notwithstanding.

Steve Benen 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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THE GOP BASE WITH A DIFFERENT NAME IS STILL THE GOP BASE.... The latest Pew Forum national survey includes a comparison of the opinions of self-identified Republicans and self-identified Tea Partiers. Not surprisingly, on a variety of issues, the results were nearly identical.

It prompted Jon Chait to raise a point that comes up from time to time, but which is too often forgotten.

[I]t's clear once again that the movement is nothing more or less than conservative Republicans.... The Tea Party is essentially a re-branding campaign for the GOP base. It's a successful effort, and one that springs largely though not entirely from the grassroots itself. Conservatives like to imagine that the Tea Party is some incarnation of the popular will, asleep for many years and finally awakened under Obama, and bristle at any analysis that diminishes the world-historical import of the phenomenon. So let me be clear. The Tea Party represents a significant minority of Americans. It's influential. (It allowed conservatives to disown the failures of the Bush administration and to lend them a populist imprimatur.) But it's not anything more than an organizing rubric for the GOP base.

I'm not sure why the political establishment insists on pretending otherwise.

For many pundits, the Tea Party is something new -- a group of angry and disaffected voters who disapprove of both parties, and have no use for the political establishment or the failed "system." They're political free agents, the argument goes, willing to vote for those who speak to their fears. It even leads some to refer to these folks as a "movement."

The data to the contrary is overwhelming. Tea Partiers may not have any real affinity for the Republican establishment -- note these voters' habits in last year's GOP primaries -- but they're still just Republicans, with priorities indistinguishable from the party.

E.J. Dionne argued last year, "For some months now, I have been battling against the idea that the Tea Party movement is some brand-new thing in American politics, an independent movement akin to the rebellion led by Ross Perot in the 1990s. Tea Party people, I have been arguing, are simply right-wing Republicans organized under a new banner."

The GOP base with a different name is still the GOP base.

Steve Benen 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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CANTOR IN CAMBRIDGE.... House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) tends to struggle in forums where he's expected to discuss his ideology in any depth. In one of my favorite examples, the Virginia Republican attended The Economist's World in 2010 conference, and boasted that his Republican Party had plenty of "big ideas," especially on "jobs."

The moderator responded, "What is the big idea? 'Jobs' is not an idea." Cantor replied, "The big idea is to get, to get, to produce an environment where we can have job creation again."

He then changed the subject.

But one of the funny things about Cantor is that he's unaware of his lack of awareness. It's what leads him to accept an invitation to speak at Harvard, as he did last night, where he discussed the GOP's economic agenda. I didn't hear the speech or the Q&A, but this account stood out for me.

Students pushed Cantor to restore cuts to federal funding for HIV/AIDS prevention and AmeriCorps programs like Teach for America, which were included in the austere spending bill the House Republican majority approved last week. The legislation has yet to be enacted.

Cantor wouldn't budge.

"This is about tradeoffs. This is about that we don't have the money. We just don't," he told a student who asked whether he would "save one million lives" by restoring $1.5 billion in cuts to global HIV/AIDS funding.

I suppose it's accurate to say the budget choices are "about tradeoffs," but for Cantor to argue we can't afford $1.5 billion to save lives through HIV/AIDS prevention is just bizarre. Indeed, this and other programs like Teach for America that Cantor mentioned have the benefit of being both cheap and effective.

But Cantor is making "tradeoffs" -- he's comfortable with hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts, mainly benefiting people who don't need them, but when it comes to spending a small fraction of that total on HIV/AIDS prevention or getting teachers for low-income communities, "We don't have the money. We just don't."

Actually, we do. Cantor and his buddies just care more about breaks for millionaires and billionaires, and adding the cost to the deficit. If the Majority Leader wants to defend those priorities, fine, I'd love to hear it. But don't tell folks the country can afford an $858 billion tax-cut deal, all of which was put on the national charge card, but we can't afford $1.5 billion to save lives through disease prevention. It's callous; it's wrong; and it's insulting to our intelligence.

Steve Benen 1:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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DANIELS CAN RUN (FOR PRESIDENT), BUT HE CAN'T HIDE (FROM HIS RECORD).... In the latest pundit plea for Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) to run for president, David Brooks gushes that the governor "has spent his whole career preparing for this kind of moment." The columnist added, "Daniels's speeches are backed up by his record."

The "record," in Brooks' vision, apparently starts in 2004. As Paul Krugman noted, it's probably better to go back just a little further.

These days, Mitch Daniels is being held up as an icon of fiscal responsibility. There are a lot of reasons to question his actual stewardship in Indiana; but what I can't forget is his key role in the squandering of the fiscal surplus Bush inherited. It wasn't just that he supported the Bush tax cuts; the excuses he made for that irresponsibility were stunningly fraudulent.

So I just can't take his current pose of deficit hawkishness seriously.

I have the same thought every time Daniels talks about fiscal issues, which is often. It's an odd signature issue for a guy who led the Bush/Cheney budget office.

It was, after all, 10 years ago when George W. Bush signed his first massive tax-cut bill. At the time, he thanked three people for helping make it happen -- Dick Cheney, then-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, and his director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mitch Daniels.

It was that tax-cut package that helped eliminate the massive surplus Bush and Daniels had inherited from the Clinton administration, and began a sea of red ink that, ironically, Daniels is now concerned about.

When asked about this, Daniels tends to blame the end of the dot-com bubble for eliminating Clinton-era surpluses. The argument is utter nonsense, and has been thoroughly debunked.

For a guy who claims to consider the budget his top concern, Daniels doesn't seem to know much about his signature issue.

In theory, this seems like a deal-breaker for Daniels' presidential ambitions. The base already doesn't trust him after his proposed "truce" on social issues, and his credibility on deficit reduction and fiscal responsibility is severely undermined by his Bush administration failures.

Brooks chose not to mention any of this, but for those who take these issues seriously, it's a record Daniels can't run away from.

Steve Benen 1:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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BROUN (EVENTUALLY) DOES THE RIGHT THING.... Right-wing Rep. Paul Broun (R) of Georgia hosted a town-hall event in his district this week, and heard a constituent ask, "Who is going to shoot President Obama?" Based on local accounts, the congressman laughed in response, as did the audience. Broun replied by acknowledging the "frustration with this president."

Today, the congressman's office issued a statement, clarifying matters:

"Tuesday night at a town hall meeting in Oglethorpe County, Georgia an elderly man asked the abhorrent question, 'Who's going to shoot Obama?' I was stunned by the question and chose not to dignify it with a response; therefore, at that moment I moved on to the next person with a question. After the event, my office took action with the appropriate authorities.

"I deeply regret that this incident happened at all. Furthermore, I condemn all statements -- made in sincerity or jest -- that threaten or suggest the use of violence against the President of the United States or any other public official. Such rhetoric cannot and will not be tolerated."

I certainly give Broun credit for the condemnation. I hope it's sincere.

But at the risk of sounding picky, I have a couple of follow-up questions. First, when Broun argued he "chose not to dignify" the question, why do local media accounts have him offering a response?

Second, if Broun believes such rhetoric cannot and will not be tolerated, why did it take him three days to issue a denunciation? Is it just a coincidence that the congressman felt compelled to condemn the assassination "joke" after the media started covering it?

For what it's worth, it appears the Secret Service spoke to the person who asked the question at the event. Greg Sargent reports that this was an "elderly person," who now regrets making a bad joke, and the Secret Service now considers this "a closed matter."

Steve Benen 12:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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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 American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry's chief lobbying organization, "will start directly backing political candidates in the second quarter of this year. API, whose membership includes oil giants like Exxon-Mobil and Chevron, already spends tens of millions of dollars every year on lobbying, advertisements and Astroturf campaigns to support the oil industry agenda."

* On Montana, the latest Northern News Network poll shows next year's U.S. Senate race looking very competitive. Both incumbent Sen. Jon Tester (D) and Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) have approval ratings above 50%, but in a head-to-head match-up, Rehberg leads by three, 47% to 44%.

* In Pennsylvania, a new Municipoll survey shows Sen. Bob Casey (D) with double-digit leads over all of his potential Republican challengers next year. Pollster Ed Haggerty said, "Maybe Bob Casey isn't unbeatable but he's looking pretty darn good for a Democrat in a swing state."

* Speaking of Keystone State, voters in Pennsylvania weren't fond of former Sen. Rick Santorum (R) when they ran him out of office five years ago, and they have no interest in supporting his presidential campaign now.

* Conservatives in upstate New York continue to splinter over the upcoming special election in the 26th congressional district. Local GOP county chairs unanimously selected Assemblywoman Jane Corwin as the Republican nominee, but right-wing activists insist she's not radical enough. It won't help that she contributed $1,000 to Dede Scozzafava's 2009 special election campaign

* In Florida, Republican Mike Haridopolos, president of the state Senate, is gearing up for a U.S. Senate campaign against Sen. Bill Nelson (D) next year. But first, Haridopolos was admonished by a state ethics panel for failing to accurately disclose his finances.

* Indiana Democrats aren't interested in taking on Sen. Richard Lugar (R) next year, under the assumption that he's all but unbeatable. But with Lugar suddenly vulnerable to a right-wing primary challenger, Dems are giving the race another look. Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), for example, is reportedly reevaluating his interest in a possible Senate bid.

* With Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) noting her support for collective bargaining rights for public-sector workers, her GOP challengers -- Sarah Steelman and Ed Martin -- announced that they oppose those rights. Expect more of this throughout 2012.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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SMALL BUSINESSES SPEAK OUT, CONT'D.... Last week, Jeffrey Leonard, CEO of the Global Environmental Fund, talked to Stephen Colbert about his article in the latest issue of the Washington Monthly. The appearance generated some interesting responses.

If you missed the interview (and the article), Leonard is shining a light on a serious problem small businesses face, but which hasn't generated much in the way of attention: "Many small firms are handicapped by a new twist on an old parasitic business practice that large corporations are using in the wake of the 2008-09 financial crisis, one that has significantly reduced the cash available to small businesses to invest and hire new employees."

Leonard has several proposed changes, but the most straightforward is also the most effective: require companies with federal contracts pay their suppliers within 30 days of invoice. The shift would not only improve small business cash-flow, but would also help expand hiring.

After the interview, we heard from more than a few small businesses that could directly relate to what Leonard described. We started publishing some of their responses Tuesday, and we wrap up the week-long series today with this note to Leonard.

Thank you for writing about this unfair practice by big biz and it is gratifying to see this arcane issue get the attention of popular media from your appearance on the Colbert Report. I am writing to also bring to your attention another pernicious practice by online merchants, notably the gorilla among them, Amazon.com.

This is the abuse of a loophole created by a pre-internet era archaic Supreme Court ruling regarding "Nexus" which exempts out-of-state merchants from collecting sales tax. This presents a serious competitive handicap to small brick & mortar retail whose "Nexus" albatross makes their total prices with tax seriously uncompetitive with their remote online competitors.

Incidentally, Amazon.com has also been a boastful practitioner of stretching its payable days and highlighting its escalating cash-flow as a result, as proof of its operational vitality. Their Account Payable days, mostly to its hapless small biz vendors, have increased from 62 days in '08 to a current 72 days.

I hope in your writings in the future, you make a case for helping small business by plugging the sales tax loophole and promote a business ecosystem of free, fair and level playing field to flourish, bring back jobs and vibrancy to main street retail and much needed revenues to the state.

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

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PUTTING A LOVE OF SPENDING CUTS TO THE TEST.... Rep. Bobby Schilling (R) of Illinois, like his GOP brethren, was elected after making bold-but-vague promises about spending cuts. As is often the case, Schilling is discovering how much easier it is to talk about these issues than act on them.

Last week, for example, the freshman Republican voted for his party's spending bill, which included a provision to kill a $230 million federal grant to build an Amtrak line from Chicago to Iowa City. That means fewer jobs in his district and less economic growth.

Don't worry, Schilling is telling his constituents, his vote that would hurt his district will hopefully get fixed in the Senate.

"I don't believe it's dead," he said. But when asked if he would fight for its survival if it returns, he said, "I'm going to take a good hard look at it."

Ironically, Schilling said two players from opposite sides of the aisle will make sure the rail comes across his desk again.

"Durbin and [Sen.] Mark Kirk aren't going to let a lot of this stuff flow through, and then it's going to come back and then we break it down on an individual basis," he said. "You know, that's just how the process works."

That's quite a line for a member of Congress to take. He's effectively telling his constituents that he's voting against their interests, but it won't matter because others help clean up his mess.

Similarly, the Washington Post reports today on another freshman Republican, Rep. Frank Guinta of New Hampshire, who's also learning about the consequences of his actions.

The House spending bill would cut $1.3 billion in federal funding for community health centers. It would erase leftover stimulus funds that Exeter Hospital is counting on.

In a conference room at Exeter, chief executive Kevin Callahan told Guinta that the House bill would undercut one of the pillars of local health care: a community health center that treats low-income residents. If the center didn't exist, patients would go to the emergency room for basic services, at many times the cost.

"That is a way of providing health care that I think most people don't take advantage of," Guinta interjected.

Mark Whitney, the hospital's head of strategic planning, urged Guinta to seek out the people who run the center to learn more about their work. "I think that would be a great conversation," Whitney said.

Later, in an interview, Guinta said the House bill "is only step one."

"There are things that I prefer not be in there," he said, including the health center cuts.

As Brian Beutler joked the other day, "Life was more fun for Republicans when they could vote 'no' on job-creating bills like the stimulus, then go to ribbon-cutting ceremonies for stimulus projects in their districts."

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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AN ECONOMIC MODEL IN PRACTICE.... The previous estimates found that the U.S. economy picked up a little speed in the fourth quarter of 2010 -- October through December -- experiencing 3.2% GDP growth.

Revised estimates put the number a little lower. That's discouraging, of course, but for political purposes, it's worth appreciating why growth was more sluggish than originally thought.

Deeper spending cuts by state and local governments weighed down U.S. economic growth in the final three months of last year. The government's revised estimate for the October-December quarter illustrates how growing state budget crises could hold back the economic recovery.

The Commerce Department reported Friday that economic growth increased at an annual rate of 2.8 percent in the final quarter of last year. That was down from the initial estimate of 3.2 percent.

State and local governments, wrestling with budget shortfalls, cut spending at a 2.4 percent pace. That was much deeper than the 0.9 percent annualized cut first estimated and was the most since the start of 2010.

Just to clarify, the lower revised figure isn't reason to panic. There's no doubt that 2.8% growth isn't nearly good enough, but it still showed incremental progress -- the third quarter of 2010 was better than the second, and the fourth was better than the third.

What I found important about this, though, is the fact that the economy would have been stronger in the fourth quarter had it not been for "spending cuts by state and local governments." Those cuts were avoidable -- the federal government could have intervened to prevent them -- but Republican policy dictates that such intervention is outrageous and unacceptable. The GOP wants these cuts to occur; it's the foundation of the party's economic policy.

But let's also take the next step with this -- congressional Republicans see state and local governments cutting spending and believe federal officials should do the exact same thing.

It leads me to wonder if maybe Republicans in D.C. just aren't paying close enough attention to current events. In England, British policymakers cut spending and it slowed their economy. In Germany, German officials cut spending it slowed their economy. In American cities and states, officials cut spending, it slowed the broader national economy.

And now in the midst of a budget fight, congressional Republicans are absolutely convinced that what the country really needs is to follow the lead of the British, the Germans, and the states.

They feel so strongly about this, they're prepared to shut down the government to get what they want.

The Republican line is backwards, bogus, and blind.

Update: All of this, by the way, comes against the backdrop of independent estimates showing that GOP-approved cuts would push the U.S. economy back towards a recession -- data that Republicans haven't even tried to refute.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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ROMNEY TAKES HUCKABEE'S HEAT OVER HEALTHCARE.... During the 2008 presidential elections, former Govs. Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney didn't exactly get along, but the Arkansan never seemed especially interested in going after the Massachusetts health care reform law. It just wasn't much of a factor in the race.

Three years later, with both men considering the 2012 race, Huckabee has discovered he hates "RomneyCare" after all, and wants the former Massachusetts governor to apologize for his only major policy accomplishment.

"It could be argued that if RomneyCare were a patient, the prognosis would be dismal," Huckabee writes in his new book, A Simple Government.

Huckabee, who said yesterday that he is "seriously contemplating" another run for president, also points to the similarities between Romney's plan in Massachusetts and President Obama's plan for the nation.

"Ever since the debate over [Obama's] program began, it's been compared to RomneyCare, the failed statewide health-care program implemented by none other than my fellow GOP member Mitt Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts," Huckabee writes, under a heading, "The States as Laboratories: When Experiments Fail" "Any critical assessment of this program will show that it failed ... and yet the Obama administration decided to emulate it in its pursuit of a national health-care program."

Reinforcing the fact that Huckabee struggles with basic details about public policy, the former Arkansas governor added that Romney's policy constitutes "socialized medicine," which is absurd. (I know ol' Huck isn't the sharpest tool in the shed, but he should at least learn what socialized medicine is before writing about it.) His assessment of the policy in Massachusetts isn't close to being accurate, either.

But the ongoing area of interest is the response from the Romney camp. Asked about Huckabee's criticism, Romney's spokesperson said, "Mitt Romney is proud of what he accomplished for Massachusetts in getting everyone covered." He added that Romney still wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

I continue to find it ironic that Romney has flip-flopped on practically every issue I can think of, but the one position he's inclined to stick to is the one the GOP base finds wholly unacceptable.

The fact of the matter is, for all the right-wing hysterics about the Affordable Care Act being radical communism, the health care reform law is awfully similar to the reform package Romney championed in Massachusetts.

It was Romney's signature accomplishment during his one term as governor -- his only experience in public office -- and at the time, his success on health care cast Romney in a positive light. And why not? It demonstrated his ability to tackle major policy challenges and work with members of both parties to pass a sensible, mainstream legislative milestone. It was the sort of thing a governor can build a presidential campaign around.

This was fine in 2008, when the individual mandate was still a Republican idea, and Romney faced practically no criticism at all. It's not fine in 2011 and 2012, now that GOP officials and voters no longer like their idea.

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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TO SIT IN SILENCE WHEN BROUN SHOULD PROTEST.... Rep. Paul Broun (R) of Georgia, one of Congress' most right-wing members, hosted a town-hall event in his district this week. This wouldn't be especially noteworthy were it not for one of the questions he received from a constituent: "Who is going to shoot President Obama?"

The exact wording of the question is not clear because, the Athens Banner-Herald reports, there was a lot of noise at the event. Perhaps more significant than the question was the response of the crowd and Broun, who is a member of the Tea Party Caucus and one of the most right-wing members of Congress.

The question prompted a "big laugh" from the crowd, in Oglethorpe County, Ga., according to the Banner-Herald. Broun, for his part, did not object to the question. He said in response:

"The thing is, I know there's a lot of frustration with this president. We're going to have an election next year. Hopefully, we'll elect somebody that's going to be a conservative, limited-government president that will take a smaller, who will sign a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare."

Broun's office later confirmed that the question was about when someone was going to shoot the president.

In the immediate aftermath of the assassination attempt in Tucson last month, there seemed to be an effort to show restraint when it comes to language like this. Apparently, the grace period is over, and the viciousness is back.

Now, I don't know who asked that question in Georgia, nor do I know what that person is capable of. Maybe the constituent intends to commit acts of political violence, maybe not.

I do know that the threat of political violence is real, and that the question -- and the audience's reaction to it -- help create an even more toxic and dangerous political climate.

For his part, Broun had a chance to demonstrate some character and decency, making clear that talk about assassinating the president isn't acceptable. A simple, obvious condemnation would have sent a loud signal about boundaries of propriety in our society. Broun instead chose to let that opportunity go by.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox once said, "To sit in silence when we should protest makes cowards out of men." Someone ought to pass the quote along to Paul Broun.

By the way, if you're unfamiliar with Broun's work, the hysterical right-wing lawmaker has quite a greatest hits collection. It was, after all, Paul Broun who said cap-and-trade would kill people; the Affordable Care Act will dictate what kind of car Americans can drive; the health care reform effort reminds him of "Northern Aggression"; and that he considers President Obama to be a Hitler-like figure intent on establishing a Gestapo-like security force to impose a Marxist dictatorship on Americans.

Last fall, in the midst of the midterm elections, the Centers for Disease Control launched a public-service campaign on the benefits of a healthy diet, which included recipes people can try that incorporate fruits and vegetables. Broun responded that the CDC intended to "give all the power to the federal government to force you" to eat healthier foods. He added, "This is what the federal, CDC, they gonna be calling you to make sure you eat fruits and vegetables, every day. This is socialism of the highest order!"

He's quite a congressman.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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WITH ONE WEEK TO GO BEFORE THE SHUTDOWN DEADLINE.... Policymakers in Washington have exactly one week to steer clear of the government-shutdown iceberg, and as of yesterday, some of the relevant players weren't even trying to work on this.

Not only are the halls of Congress empty, but House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) spent the day playing golf in Florida. (In 1995, as a government shutdown loomed, Boehner blasted then-President Bill Clinton for playing a round while Congress continued its work. "Now is the time, not to play golf as the president did yesterday, now is the time to act," Boehner said at the time.)

In the upper chamber, though, Senate Democrats were tackling a new proposal to keep the lights on. For much of the week, the discussion has centered on how to shape a temporary extension that would give lawmakers time for additional negotiations. That's proved far more difficult than it should -- for Democrats, the line is, "Let's give ourselves more time to discuss budget cuts." For Republicans, the line is, "Give us budget cuts first, and then we'll discuss budget cuts."

So, yesterday, the Senate majority began work on a new tack.

With a political standoff over spending threatening to trigger a federal shutdown next week, Senate Democrats began drafting a plan Thursday to slice billions of dollars from domestic agency budgets over the next seven months, yielding to Republican demands to reduce the size of government this year.

The plan will involve accelerating some of the $33 billion in program terminations and reductions included in President Obama's proposed budget for next year, a senior Senate Democratic aide said Thursday. Democrats are also looking at cuts that have been adopted by the Republican-controlled House, such as a plan to strip $8.5 billion for pet projects known as earmarks out of a measure aimed at keeping the government running through Sept. 30.

"This would be a compromise," the aide said, "accepting something that they've already asked for."

This approach appears intended to simply wrap up the work for the rest of the fiscal year, bypassing the need for a temporary extension. To accommodate Republican demands, Senate Democrats would include extensive budget cuts, effectively taking cuts the White House proposed for next year's budget, and incorporating them into the remainder of this year's.

It's unclear exactly how deep these cuts would be -- they won't be $61 billion -- and House Republicans have not said whether they'd consider such a plan.

The strategy is not without risk. Democrats continue to move closer to the Republican position, in the hopes of appearing reasonable and open to compromise. This, in turn, would make the GOP even more responsible for a shutdown, should it occur next week. At the same time, if House Republican leaders see Dems already making concessions -- something the GOP has refused to do -- it wouldn't be surprising if Boehner & Co. continued to hold out and see how much further Democrats would be willing to go.

Once again, the inflexible deadline hasn't changed, and time is running short. Yesterday, I said there's an 85% chance of a shutdown. As of this morning, I'd put it at 87%.

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

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February 24, 2011

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

* Libya: "Thousands of mercenary and other forces struck back at a tightening circle of rebellions around the capital, Tripoli, on Thursday, trying to fend off an uprising against the 40-year rule of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, who blamed the revolt on 'hallucinogenic' drugs and Osama bin Laden."

* Late yesterday: "President Obama on Wednesday condemned Libya's violent crackdown against a widening anti-government movement, saying the 'suffering and bloodshed is outrageous, and it is unacceptable.' But Obama did not call for a change in Libya's autocratic government or announce specific sanctions that the United States would support to punish the country for actions that he said 'violate international norms and every standard of common decency.'"

* Below 400k is an encouraging number: "Fewer people requested unemployment benefits last week, pushing the four-week average of applications to its lowest level in more than two and a half years. The Labor Department says the number of laid-off workers applying for unemployment benefits dropped by 22,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 391,000." The four-week average is now at its best level since July 2008.

* Hardly a good use of police resources: "Wisconsin state troopers were dispatched Thursday to the doorsteps of some of the AWOL Democratic senators in hopes of finding at least one who would come back to allow a vote on a measure to curb the power of public-employee unions."

* On a related note, with Gov. Scott Walker (R) having admitted to considering placing troublemakers amid the crowd of protesters, the Madison police chief has some concerns.

* Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the American three-star general in charge of training Afghan troops, reportedly used "psy-ops" techniques on U.S. dignitaries -- including members of Congress -- during the visits to Afghanistan. Gen. David Petraeus has launched an investigation, which doesn't bode well for Caldwell. The allegations are pretty serious.

* Did Fox News chairman Roger Ailes encourage Judith Regan to lie to federal investigators? There are affidavits that suggest he did, and Regan even claims to have a recording to prove it.

* One of the dumbest "controversies" in recent memory: "A Commerce Department inspector general investigation into the 'Climategate' controversy finds that government scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration did not manipulate climate change data."

* Hawaii joins the list of states to legalize civil unions for same-sex couples.

* Matt Miller considers New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's (R) candor: "For Christie to be rhapsodized for saying we need to reform entitlements without adding that federal taxes will have to rise as America ages makes him a half-truth-teller at best. And half-truths are all we have from the GOP so far."

* I'm reminded why I don't bother to read James Glassman's columns.

* It's easier for the Department of Education to want to define college credits, used to determine federal financial aid, than to actually do it.

* Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) heard Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) call for the end of legal prostitution in their home state, but he disagrees. Perhaps, given his sex scandals, he should have left this issue alone?

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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'A VETERAN DEAL-MAKER'.... A long-time regular, reader G.S., emailed the other day with a question about the prospects of a government shutdown next week. (I'm reprinting the email with permission.)

"I don't know what will happen. Time will tell. But last night on the NewsHour, John Harwood (whose grasp of politics and policy is, in my view, negligible) speculated that a shutdown would not occur, given 'John Boehner's reputation as a deal maker and a legislator.' Do you know what Harwood could possibly be talking about?"

I looked up the transcript, and Harwood, whom I hold in higher regard than G.S. does, said, "John Boehner, as a veteran deal-maker and legislator in the Congress, knows that he's not going to get $61 billion in cuts." In context, Harwood suggested the crisis can be averted because the Speaker will go into the talks with a pragmatic attitude.

I don't share that optimism, but putting that aside, let's unpack this a bit. First, on the notion that Boehner realizes he's not going to get everything he wants, he's offered no hints of such awareness, at least not publicly. His opening bid was, "Give us everything we want." This was followed by, "Give us everything we want, or we'll shut down the government." As of yesterday, his line is, "Let's compromise. Give us everything we want on a prorated basis, or we'll shut down the government."

Second, to the question from G.S., what's this stuff about the Speaker being a "veteran deal-maker"? That's not necessarily an outlandish claim. Boehner has been in Congress for two decades, and his reputation as someone capable of negotiating with his colleagues is fairly credible -- at least, it used to be.

A while back, I was talking to a friend who works as a House committee staffer for the Dems. When Boehner's name came up, he said, "John Boehner has three cares in the world: cut taxes, go golfing, and smoke cigarettes -- and not necessarily in that order." When looking for a GOP leader to have in the room for a set of negotiations, these aren't exactly bad traits. Boehner doesn't know much about public policy, he doesn't much care, and he'd just as soon wrap up boring conversations on the Hill so he can make his tee time or get a nicotine fix.

With this Republican caucus, there are certainly far worse GOP members Dems could try to negotiate with.

But there are two angles to keep in mind. The first is that Boehner's changed as his caucus changed, so his reputation no longer matters as much. Remember, a month after the midterm elections, he appeared on "60 Minutes" and refused to even use the word "compromise." Lesley Stahl said that Boehner seemed "afraid of the word." He replied, "I reject the word."

Veteran deal-makers generally don't talk this way.

Also note, Boehner is an unusually weak Speaker. I don't necessarily mean that in a pejorative sense -- I mean it in the sense that Boehner isn't calling the shots, he's taking orders. It's the Republican rank-and-file who's telling the leadership what's acceptable, rather than the other way around.

It's why I have so little confidence in the Speaker as a "veteran deal-maker," at least when it comes to spending and the budget. He's not at the negotiating table as John Boehner, the guy who knows how to strike a reasonable compromise. Rather, the Speaker's there as a mouthpiece for a rabid, right-wing caucus that's been told to never compromise with anyone about anything.

Steve Benen 4:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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THE RIGHT REACTS TO OBAMA'S MOVE ON DOMA.... The Obama White House showed some real leadership yesterday, announcing that it no longer considered the Defense of Marriage Act constitutional, and will no longer defend the law against court challenges. The right, not surprisingly, isn't happy.

Some of the conservative responses, though, were more interesting than others. The crowd at National Review offered some fairly lazy criticism -- apparently, the rascally president is doing "an end-run around democracy" -- which was soon followed by Rick Santorum arguing that the president wants to "erode the very traditions that have made our country the greatest nation on earth." The far-right Washington Times added that the administration has a strategy to "force the radical homosexual agenda on America."

Mike Huckabee, who takes a back seat to no one when it comes to hating gays, went so far as to say DOMA may "destroy" Obama's entire presidency. How dramatic.

Hysterics aside, there are legitimate questions associated with the Justice Department's announcement, most notably whether the administration has a responsibility to defend congressionally-approved federal statutes -- even ones a president doesn't like -- so long as they're on the books. Orin Kerr, for example, ran a substantive criticism of yesterday's move, raising the specter of administrations routinely refusing to defend laws they don't like.

Adam Serwer did a nice job sketching out the legal state of play.

Kerr alludes to the Bush administration's Office of Legal Counsel memos "legalizing" torture, but former Solicitor General Walter Dellinger explains why the analogy is mistaken. The Obama administration will cease defending the law in court; it won't cease enforcing it. It has publicly informed Congress of its decision, rather than writing a secret memo empowering the executive branch to pretend certain laws don't exist. [...]

The Obama administration's decision to cease defending DOMA is hardly unprecedented.... So the question really becomes whether or not the GOP takes at face value and in good faith the administration's arguments that their decision not to defend Section 3 is a rare decision being made because of a limited and unique set of circumstances, namely the overwhelming empirical evidence that "sexual orientation is not a characteristic that generally bears on legitimate policy objectives," and a desire to avoid setting new anti-gay precedents in courts where they have not been established.

If Republicans choose to take yesterday's decision as license to simply stop enforcing laws they don't like when they're in control of the White House -- and, at this point, from child labor laws to Social Security, some Republicans don't make a distinction between laws they don't like and laws they think are unconstitutional -- then the scenario Kerr envisions could come to pass. But that depends on what Republicans decide to do, not on what the Obama administration did yesterday.

Dahlia Lithwick has more on the larger legal fight.

Steve Benen 4:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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THE HEALTH CARE DEBATE, THE UNINFORMED ELECTORATE, AND THE MEDIA.... The latest report from the Kaiser Family Foundation includes a startling detail about public opinion: Americans not only don't know what's in the Affordable Care Act, most of the public doesn't know if the law still exists.

Respondents were asked, "As far as you know, which comes closest to describing the current status of the health reform law that was passed last year?" A narrow majority, 52%, said the law is still on the books, while 22% said the law has been repealed, and 26% weren't sure either way.

I suppose one might be tempted to argue that these results aren't that bad -- after all, most Americans got it right. I'm afraid this sets expectations way too low. What kind of national debate can we have on health care policy if a combined 48% of the country thinks the law has been repealed or isn't sure? This kind of detail is the bare minimum of public awareness. If barely half the country knows the law is still on the books, there's no hope for a credible discussion of more complex issues like the individual mandate and medical loss ratio.

Drew Altman, president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation, wasn't surprised by the data, but wasn't encouraged by the results, either.

[P]eople are very busy just getting through the day and they don't have a lot of time to sort through news reports about the policymaking process. They see the word "repeal" in the local paper or hear it on TV and think the law has been repealed. Second, there may be some partisan wishful thinking going on; 30 percent of Republicans think the law has been repealed while only 12 percent of Democrats do. But overall, it is obvious that the knowledge of basic civics is pretty low.

That's a sentence that's worth repeating: "It is obvious that the knowledge of basic civics is pretty low."

This is important for a variety of reasons. We know, for example, that public opinion helps guide policy decisions, and if nearly half the country doesn't even think the health reform law still exists, Congress may want to keep that in mind when reading health-care-related polls.

What's more, these same folks who are "very busy just getting through the day" are charged with an awesome responsibility: choosing the right policymakers to shape the nation's agenda and future. At a certain point, the public has to step up and get informed if they expect the system to work well for them.

Also, following up on Altman's comments, Joan McCarter reminds us that it's worth appreciating how much the media contributes to the confusion, which is the opposite of the intended role of news organizations.

When the House approved its symbolic repeal measure a few weeks ago -- shortly before this survey was taken -- the media gave it banner, all-caps headlines, leading news consumers to think it was important, rather than a partisan vanity exercise. Likewise, when court rulings uphold the law, the media (sometimes literally) ignores the developments, while trumpeting rulings that go the other way, again generating public confusion over the status of the law.

The Kaiser data reflects poorly on the public, but it should also bring some embarrassment to the industry responsible for keeping the public informed.

Steve Benen 3:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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A NEW LITMUS TEST FOR THE 2012 FIELD?.... This week, as the right rallied behind Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's (R) union-busting efforts, conservatives hoped other GOP governors would follow his lead. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) went the other way -- he announced his reservations about a pending anti-union bill, effectively killing it.

Soon after, conservative Matt Lewis joked, "It's almost like Mitch Daniels is reading 'How to Run for President' and then doing the opposite at every turn."

With that in mind, the Wall Street Journal's John Fund writes today about how he'd like to see Daniels operate more like Walker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R).

The Republican governor told reporters yesterday that he had no plans to use state troopers to compel attendance by the AWOL Democrats. "Even the smallest minority, and that's what we've heard from in the last couple days, has every right to express the strength of its views and I salute those who did," he said. His office later had to clarify that he was referring to union protestors rather than legislators shirking their duty.

Indiana's right-to-work legislation, which would have made it the 23rd state to bar requiring private sector workers to join a union, died last night with the failure of the legislature to act. Mr. Daniels never opposed the bill but made it clear he thought it would distract from other parts of his legislative agenda. "There was a better time and place to have this very important and legitimate issue raised."

But Mark Mix of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund says conservatives will remember that Mr. Daniels chose to be a non-combatant in a fight that was almost won.

Mitt Romney, meanwhile, is announcing his support for Walker's efforts, and throwing cash at the Republican Party of Wisconsin as part of the anti-labor push. Tim Pawlenty, not to be outdone, launched a website devoted to celebrating Walker's measures.

Under the circumstances, it's probably fair to say we're looking at a new litmus-test issue for the 2012 Republican presidential field -- all credible candidates will be expected to oppose taxes, gays, abortion, climate science, health care reform, and public-sector unions.

To be sure, it's not as if unions were popular in Republican circles before this new crusade, but the dispute in Wisconsin has moved the issue to the front-burner and given it a new sense of urgency in far-right circles. "Moderates" when it comes to labor will find themselves at a real disadvantage.

Indeed, I'd be surprised if, during the upcoming debates, folks like Romney and Pawlenty aren't asked, "So, governor, why didn't you try to take away workers collective-bargaining rights, too?"

Steve Benen 2:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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GM TELLS THE RIGHT WHAT IT DOESN'T WANT TO HEAR.... Nearly two years ago, NBC News established a tough benchmark: "As the GM bailout goes, so goes the Obama presidency."

I don't imagine White House officials mind that standard at all.

General Motors, which nearly collapsed from the weight of its debts two years ago before reorganizing in a government-sponsored bankruptcy, said Thursday that it earned $4.7 billion in 2010, the most in more than a decade.

It was the first profitable year since 2004 for G.M., which became publicly traded in November, ending a streak of losses totaling about $90 billion.

In addition, G.M. said 45,000 union workers would receive profit-sharing checks averaging $4,300, the most in the company's history.

What I find amazing about this, from a purely political perspective, is that Republicans still consider this a failure -- it was, for example, a common area of complaint at CPAC a few weeks ago. As far as the right is concerned, the Obama administration's rescue of the American automotive industry wasn't just wrong, it was one of the president's most dreadful mistakes. Confront conservatives with reports like the latest from GM, and the response tends to be that the success of the policy doesn't change anything.

The thesis about the right valuing ideology over practical results needs no better example.

After noting the usual caveats -- GM "could still stumble" -- Jonathan Cohn added, "[I]t looks increasingly like the rescue of the auto industry was an overall success, saving hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of jobs and bolstering the country's manufacturing base for years (if not decades) to come. Maybe it's time to start giving President Obama some credit for it -- and recognizing that, when properly managed, the federal government can do a lot of good."

Damn straight. Conservative activists got this wrong, and so did their Republican friends in Congress, many of whom literally predicted "disaster."

These same folks are now insisting the economy will improve just as soon as the House GOP plan -- take money out of the economy, lay off hundreds of thousands of American workers -- is approved. Given their track record, perhaps now's a good time to question their credibility.

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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EXPANDING 'JUSTIFIABLE HOMICIDE' EFFORTS.... It was rather shocking last week to learn about South Dakota's "justifiable homicide" bill. The way the proposal had been crafted, it seemed to open the door to making it legal to kill medical professionals who perform abortions. When a national controversy ensued, the bill was shelved indefinitely.

The underlying idea, however, appears to be popping up elsewhere. Take Iowa, for example. (via RWW)

Currently, abortion is also settled law in Iowa. But House File 153, sponsored by 28 Republicans, challenges it. Under that bill, the state would be mandated to recognize and protect "life" from the moment of conception until "natural death" with the full force of the law and state and federal constitutions. Essentially, the bill declares that from the moment a male sperm and a female ovum join to create a fertilized egg that a person exists.

House File 7, which has been sponsored by 29 GOP House members, seeks to expand state law regarding use of reasonable force, including deadly force. Current state laws provide that citizens are not required to retreat from their dwelling or place of business if they or a third party are threatened. The proposal would significantly expand this to state that citizens are not required to retreat from "any place at which the person has a right to be present," and that in such instances, the citizen has the right to use reasonable force, including deadly force, to protect himself or a third party from serious injury or death or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

A criminal defense attorney in Des Moines told the Iowa Independent, "[House File 7] explicitly provides that people have a right to defend themselves or others at any place they are legally allowed to be. That would definitely include sidewalks or streets outside of clinics. They could attempt to kill a physician or a clinic worker, and if they did so while believing they were protecting another person, which would be defined under House File 153 as a fetus, then, under this law, they would have the right to do that."

In Nebraska, meanwhile, Republicans are pushing a bill that's nearly identical to the one that got pulled in South Dakota.

The legislation, LB 232, was introduced by state Sen. Mark Christensen, a devout Christian and die-hard abortion foe who is opposed to the prodedure even in the case of rape. Unlike its South Dakota counterpart, which would have allowed only a pregnant woman, her husband, her parents, or her children to commit "justifiable homicide" in defense of her fetus, the Nebraska bill would apply to any third party.

"In short, this bill authorizes and protects vigilantes, and that's something that's unprecedented in our society," Melissa Grant of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland told the Nebraska legislature's judiciary committee on Wednesday. Specifically, she warned, it could be used to target Planned Parenthood's patients and personnel.

For all the ridiculous paranoia on the right about creeping "sharia law," there are now multiple state proposals, published by Republicans, to make it legal to assassinate medical professionals as part of a larger culture war.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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

* In New York's 26th congressional district, where a special election will be held to replace former Rep. Chris "Craigslist" Lee (R), a familiar dynamic is taking shape. Local Republican officials tapped Assemblywoman Jane Corwin (R) for the race, but the Tea Party wing has decided she's not right-wing enough. So, David Bellavia, co-founder of Iraq Vets for Freedom and a far-right activist, is prepared to pull a Doug Hoffman and make it a three-way race.

* In Utah, a new UtahPolicy.com/Opinionology poll shows a majority of voters in the state want to see Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) retire. In a GOP primary match-up against Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the two are tied at 42% each.

* Also in Utah, the National Republican Congressional Committee is already launching attack ads targeting Rep. Jim Matheson (D) this week, 21 months before the next election.

* Again breaking with tradition, Senator Dan Coats (R) announced yesterday he will not endorse his fellow Hoosier, Sen. Dick Lugar's (R) re-election bid. Lugar will face a primary, and Coats has vowed to remain neutral.

* Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert (R) is resigning today, apparently in preparation for a U.S. Senate campaign in Texas. He'll join a crowded GOP primary field for the seat of retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R), led by include Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

* In a related note, the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll suggests Dewhurst is the frontrunner for the GOP nod, but the race is still wide open -- his support stands at 27%. Among Democrats, former Rep. Chris Bell appears to have the early edge, though no Dems have yet launched Senate campaigns.

* And crazy or not, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) still knows how to raise money -- he took in $700,000 on President's Day.

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

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SMALL BUSINESSES SPEAK OUT, CONT'D.... Last week, Jeffrey Leonard, CEO of the Global Environmental Fund, talked to Stephen Colbert about his article in the latest issue of the Washington Monthly. The appearance generated some interesting responses.

If you missed the interview (and the article), Leonard is shining a light on a serious problem small businesses face, but which hasn't generated much in the way of attention: "Many small firms are handicapped by a new twist on an old parasitic business practice that large corporations are using in the wake of the 2008-09 financial crisis, one that has significantly reduced the cash available to small businesses to invest and hire new employees."

Leonard has several proposed changes, but the most straightforward is also the most effective: require companies with federal contracts pay their suppliers within 30 days of invoice. The shift would not only improve small business cash-flow, but would also help expand hiring.

After the interview, we heard from more than a few small businesses that could directly relate to what Leonard described. We started publishing some of their responses Tuesday, and we're keeping the series going today.

Here, for example, is a note we received from Orlando.

First my congratulations on a well written article on the subject of payment delays. Second, despite Mr. Colbert's success with his contrarian approach to guest interviews, your interview was one where I thought you had a right to what? Throttle him?

The point that you were making on remittance deferrals is one that I have seen expanding for more than a decade. As a bank auditor I have had many occasions to see the financial crisis for individual small businesses supplying large companies and this practice has been blatantly obvious. The number of times that small suppliers have been borrowing working capital to carry the large business has been growing at an ever increasing rate as you pointed out. At the same time your observation on the growth of consultant advice to use this tactic has become deplorable. When a consultant is offering advice on how to maximize profits, the withholding of contractual payments is low hanging fruit. Since many of these advisors are paid on a 'percentage of savings or profit gain' basis, they are motivated to propose this ploy to enhance their own revenue.

The fact that an advisor offers it and it is followed by implementation of the concept by the client forms a double dip of amorality ("a" versus 'im' is a purposeful choice.). Both the advisor and the obligated purchaser are - to state it plainly - stealing and reveling in the fact that they are doing it BECAUSE THEY CAN.

Small business owners should adopt a cardinal control rule that NO customer should command more than 25 to 33% of his/her revenue stream. This is a hard rule to live with but at levels above 50% the customer gains control of the supplier's company and the terms of all contracts become moot. The supplier should be in a position to severe the relationship and walk away at his/her will without completely tanking the company.

The supplier should watch the degree to which his/her customer relies on that supplier as a sole source. Admittedly, the customer can find another supplier (gullible soul) in this country or overseas in due time. However, if there is a sole supplier arrangement and the immediate cessation of that source will disrupt production at the customer, the supplier has some leverage to gain payment up to date - at the risk of losing future business, yes, but it beats bankruptcy.

One more thought, insist that all contracts with large companies will be enforceable in the jurisdiction of the small business supplier. There is nothing like having your neighbors at your back in a courtroom. I've seen that stimulation more than once reverse entirely the conversation about legal threat coming from the 'big guy' and foreclose the concern about legal action.

There was also this note from Henderson, Nevada.

I accidentally caught your 2/17/2011 appearance on Colbert Report.

10 years ago I was involved in a federal court case over the EXACT issue you are trying to bring to Washington's attention today. In short a multi-billion dollar public company put me out of business by not paying invoices when due, even though they had agreed IN WRITING to pay on Net 60 terms. Through depositions, I learned that their "real terms" were "Net Never" and I was just their latest victim.

I discovered another angle to the schemes of big businesses that you may not be aware of. Aside from making a profit on the float, some big businesses are intentionally forcing small businesses into situations that allow the big business to obtain goods for a fraction of their real value. In this instance, Wal-Mart may be the #1 player in this scheme.

We also received this note, emphasizing the fact that state governments can be part of the same problem.

Mr. Leonard I just saw u on Cobert I wanted to inform u that state governments r doing the same thing u r accusing big business of doing. Trying to get paid by the state of New York is a nightmare. Thanks.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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LEARNING THE WRONG LESSONS, FOLLOWING THE WRONG EXAMPLES.... Just this week, in an emailed newsletter, the Weekly Standard's Matthew Continetti offered an economic model he'd like to see the United States follow. (thanks to R.P. for the tip)

"[I]t's worth noting that in recent years German leaders have followed macroeconomic policies vastly different from those prescribed by Paul Krugman and his various Mini-Me's. And Germany is doing fine -- better than fine, in fact. Doesn't that count for something? And isn't it worth trying a different approach to fiscal policy, in the name of "bold persistent experimentation," when two years of economic stimulus have left us with 9 percent unemployment, trillion-dollar-plus deficits, and red ink for as far as the eye can see?"

Now, as stimulus analyses go, this is pretty silly. The evidence is overwhelming that unemployment would be far worse had it not been for the Recovery Act. For that matter, the point wasn't to reduce the deficit; the point was to increase it temporarily while focusing on economic growth and job creation. The right doesn't have to like it, but the stimulus did exactly what it set out to do.

But more important is the notion that the U.S. should be following Germany's lead. The New York Times' David Leonhardt explained why American policymakers would be wise to avoid Continetti's advice.

Remember the German economic boom of 2010?

Germany's economic growth surged in the middle of last year, causing commentators both there and here to proclaim that American stimulus had failed and German austerity had worked. Germany's announced budget cuts, the commentators said, had given private companies enough confidence in the government to begin spending their own money again.

Well, it turns out the German boom didn't last long. With its modest stimulus winding down, Germany's growth slowed sharply late last year, and its economic output still has not recovered to its prerecession peak. Output in the United States -- where the stimulus program has been bigger and longer lasting -- has recovered. This country would now need to suffer through a double-dip recession for its gross domestic product to be in the same condition as Germany's.

Republicans in Congress continue to insist Germany not only got it right, but that we should do as the Germans did. Indeed, Continetti summarized the GOP line nicely: Germany implemented the kind of policies Republicans prefer, and it's "doing fine -- better than fine, in fact."

Except, it's not. The Republican line is backwards, bogus, and blind.

Leonhardt added:

Let's start with the logic. The austerity crowd argues that government cuts will lead to more activity by the private sector. How could that be? The main way would be if the government were using so many resources that it was driving up their price and making it harder for companies to use them.

In the early 1990s, for instance, government borrowing was pushing up interest rates. When the deficit began to fall, interest rates did too. Projects that had not previously been profitable for companies suddenly began to make sense. The resulting economic boom brought in more tax revenue and further reduced the deficit.

But this virtuous cycle can't happen today. Interest rates are already very low. They're low because the financial crisis and recession caused a huge drop in the private sector's demand for loans. Even with all the government spending to fight the recession, overall demand for loans has remained historically low, the data shows.

Similarly, there is no evidence that the government is gobbling up too many workers and keeping them from the private sector. When John Boehner, the speaker of the House, said last week that federal payrolls had grown by 200,000 people since Mr. Obama took office, he was simply wrong. The federal government has added only 58,000 workers, largely in national security, since January 2009. State and local governments have cut 405,000 jobs over the same span.

The fundamental problem after a financial crisis is that businesses and households stop spending money, and they remain skittish for years afterward.... Without the government spending of the last two years -- including tax cuts -- the economy would be in vastly worse shape. Likewise, if the federal government begins laying off tens of thousands of workers now, the economy will clearly suffer.

The most frustrating aspect of the discourse surrounding economic policy is its lack of depth. We know what Democrats think, and we know what Republicans think, but the discussion never gets to why they believe in their agendas.

I desperately want to hear John Boehner -- or any GOP leader, for that matter -- take the time to field detailed questions on this. Why would taking money out of the economy make it better? Why would laying off hundreds of thousands of workers make the unemployment rate go down?

The ideology that drives such bizarre ideas simply goes unchallenged most of the time. It's not to late to change that.

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

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FAIRNESS DOCTRINE PARANOIA NEVER REALLY WENT AWAY.... For the first couple of months of the Obama presidency, right-wing activists and assorted conservative lawmakers seemed genuinely panicked about the Fairness Doctrine, for no apparent reason. In time, they hysteria faded, as even the most unhinged Republicans discovered that no one cared.

Two years later, it appears the paranoia is back.

There's an official at the FCC, Mark Lloyd, whose job description includes helping "ensure that the communications field is competitive." It's hardly the most powerful office at the agency -- Lloyd is the Associate General Counsel and Chief Diversity Officer -- and no one at the FCC has so much as hinted about pursuing the Fairness Doctrine.

But Jonathan Bernstein notes that the right has labeled Lloyd the "Fairness Doctrine Czar," and Republicans took steps to do something about this nefarious/imaginary threat.

[T]hat's where we get to the Scalise Amdendment to the CR last week -- which prohibited funding for nine "czars" including the "Fairness Doctrine Czar." Putting aside how silly the whole "czar" thing is, and that an Associate General Counsel at the FCC hardly fits Scalise's definition of "czars with cabinet-level powers," what we have here is a Member of the House, Steve Scalise of Louisiana, trafficking in wacko-bait. There is no plot to reinstate the Fairness Docrtrine!

I'm sorry; did I say "a" Member of the House? Because Scalise's amendment wasn't just offered in the House; it received the unanimous-but-one support of the GOP conference (dissenting would be Reid Ribble of Wisconsin) and, 13 foolish Democrats. Granted, since there were nine "czars" included in the measure, it's possible that enthusiasm for eliminating the "Obama Care Czar" was the key thing here, but still: that's 236 Republicans voting for something that is, basically, pure hokum.

Here's the roll call, showing that the Scalise Amendment passed 249 to 179. The 249-vote majority -- 236 Republicans and 13 Democrats -- actually voted to deny funding to a job that doesn't exist, to resist a policy agenda that doesn't exist.

Bernstein added, "Really, Republicans should be ashamed of themselves." That's true, but it presupposes these guys are still capable of shame.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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CUTS AND CONSEQUENCES.... The latest Gallup data offers predictable results: Americans just love the idea of spending cuts. That's what polls always say, right up until Americans are asked for specifics, at which point spending suddenly becomes quite popular.

Still, a national poll bolstering the GOP line will likely embolden Republicans on Capitol Hill, who'll now likely be even more obstinate en route to a government shutdown next week.

One wonders, though, what the polls would show if the public understood the effects of these cuts on the larger economy.

An independent analysis from Goldman Sachs this week found that the House Republican spending plan, if approved, would likely push the U.S. economy back towards a recession, shaving up to 2% GDP in the second and third quarters of 2011.

And what if there's a compromise, and Republicans only get, say, half of the cuts they're demanding? Goldman Sachs' analysis found that would likely cut economic growth rates by 1% of GDP. That's a major difference.

Pat Garofalo and WonkRoom helped add some additional context.

This would be a significant drop, as analysts only expect growth of four percent over those quarters. And as CAP economist Adam Hersh pointed out:

"From the rule of thumb 'Okun's Law,' a 2 percent increase in GDP is associated with a 1 percent decrease in the unemployment rate. Based on this relationship, the Republican CR could cause unemployment to shoot from 9 percent up to 9.7-10 percent." [...]

Earlier this month, the Economic Policy Institute released a report finding that the $100 billion in discretionary spending cuts that the House GOP passed last weekend would result in the loss of nearly one million jobs. "Cuts of this magnitude will undermine gross domestic product performance at a time when the economy is seeing anemic post-recession growth," wrote EPI's Rebecca Theiss.

I don't doubt that Republicans would dispute these numbers, but that's part of what I find most interesting about the budget fight: the GOP isn't disputing these numbers. Instead, it's ignoring them. It's as if economic growth and job creation simply doesn't matter to Republicans anymore.

I'd genuinely love to see economic projections from the House GOP, detailing exactly what Boehner, Cantor, & Co. expect to happen if their cuts are approved. But there are no such projections; there is no competing data; there haven't even been hearings to explore any of this in any detail.

The Republican line on this has all the sophistication of Tarzan dialog: cuts good, spending bad, deficit bad, jobs unimportant.

Thanks again, midterm voters, for electing children to run the House of Representatives.

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

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HOW THE MEDIA COVERS HEALTH CARE RULINGS, CONT'D.... We talked a few weeks ago about the very different ways in which the media responds to court rulings on the Affordable Care Act. Those upholding the constitutionality of the health care law get very little attention, while conservative rulings against the law are literally treated as front-page news.

Now that there's a new federal court ruling -- Judge Gladys Kessler ruled in support of the law on Tuesday, becoming the fifth to rule on the merits -- let's take a moment to reevaluate this.

Three federal district courts have said the Affordable Care Act meets constitutional muster; two have reached the opposite conclusion. Here's how four major media outlets have covered the rulings, in the order in which the decisions came down:

Washington Post
* Steeh ruling (upholding the ACA): article on page A2, 607 words
* Moon ruling (upholding the ACA): article on page B5, 507 words
* Hudson ruling (against the ACA): article on page A1, 1624 words
* Vinson ruling (against the ACA): article on page A1, 1176 words
* Kessler ruling (upholding the ACA): no article, zero words

New York Times
* Steeh ruling (upholding the ACA): article on page A15, 416 words
* Moon ruling (upholding the ACA): article on page A24, 335 words
* Hudson ruling (against the ACA): article on page A1, 1320 words
* Vinson ruling (against the ACA): article on page A1, 1192 words
* Kessler ruling (upholding the ACA): article on page A14, 488 words

Associated Press
* Steeh ruling (upholding the ACA): one piece, 474 words
* Moon ruling (upholding the ACA): one piece, 375 words
* Hudson ruling (against the ACA): one piece, 915 words
* Vinson ruling (against the ACA): one piece, 1164 words
* Kessler ruling (upholding the ACA): one piece, 595 words

* Steeh ruling (upholding the ACA): one piece, 830 words
* Moon ruling (upholding the ACA): one piece, 535 words
* Hudson ruling (against the ACA): three pieces, 2734 words
* Vinson ruling (against the ACA): four pieces, 3437 words
* Kessler ruling (upholding the ACA): one piece, 702 words

[Update: here's this same data in chart form.]

To clarify a couple of things, it's true the Washington Post print edition published literally nothing on the Kessler ruling. Politico, meanwhile, did run a 702-word piece, but it was largely about the broader health care fight, and only briefly mentioned this week's Kessler ruling.

As a legal matter, none of these ruling is more important than the other -- they're all at the federal district level, they're all dealing with the same law, and they'll all be subjected to an appeal.

And yet, the discrepancy is overwhelming. In every instance, conservative rulings get more coverage, longer articles, and better placement.

Ezra Klein wrote a few weeks ago about a possible explanation.

The two judges who ruled for the bill upheld the status quo. And they went first. So their rulings changed nothing. No one could accuse me of harboring an anti-ACA agenda, but I didn't give those rulings much coverage.

The two judges who ruled against the bill called for enormous changes to the status quo, and enormous changes to the status quo are almost the definition of what "news" is. These two rulings have genuinely called the bill's future into question, and that's a big story.

That strikes me as fair. Most sensible people have long considered the health reform law constitutional, so those first two rulings merely confirmed what everyone expected. It wasn't shocking, and it was easy for the media to be blase about it. The conservative rulings seemed more important, to a certain extent, because far-right judges did something shocking, so news outlets responded accordingly.

This doesn't quite explain why the Washington Post couldn't bother to run a single article -- not one -- about the Kessler ruling, even after it was decided in Washington, about a mile from the Post's office building, but Ezra's larger point is well taken.

I'd add, though, that there are implications associated with this. The news-consuming public doesn't necessarily follow the details of these legal developments, and Americans find important what the media tells them is important. With that in mind, it seems very likely the public has been left with the impression that the health care law is legally dubious and struggling badly in the courts because that's what news organizations have told them to believe.

Greg Sargent recently explained the broader implications.

You could argue that if the Supreme Court will ultimately decide the fate of the law in any case, it doesn't matter much if the public has a distorted picture of its legal predicament. But of course this does matter, because it's unfolding in a political context. If people have an exaggerated sense of the law's alleged unconstitutionality, it could contribute to the law's unpopularity, which could in turn make the push for partial repeal or defunding of the law easier. That in turn could make it more likely that the law's implementation could grow more chaotic. That could impact real people, and it's not entirely out of the realm of possibility that it could impact the law's fate before the highest court.

Again, it's not hard to see why decisions against the Affordable Care Act are deemed more newsworthy. But it's still unfortunate that the public is being left with a highly-distorted impression of what's happening.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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THE HOUSE GOP'S GIVE-US-EVERYTHING-WE-WANT COMPROMISE.... Depending on one's perspective, House Republicans are either extremely good at negotiating, or extremely bad at it.

The good news is, GOP leaders in the House are working on a plan that would prevent a government shutdown. The bad news is, their plan is ridiculous, and identical to their original plan.

House Republicans told Senate Democrats on Wednesday that they would agree to a temporary spending bill to avert a government shutdown next week only if the measure began instituting House-passed cuts on a pro-rated basis.

Officials familiar with talks between representatives of House and Senate leaders said the proposal, still being assembled for a possible vote next week, would call for $4 billion in reductions in exchange for an additional two weeks to allow the House and Senate to negotiate a spending plan to finance the government through Sept. 30.

Democratic aides said the short-term proposal was likely to be deemed unacceptable since it simply reflected a staggered version of the $61 billion in cuts approved by the House on Saturday in a proposal Senate Democrats already oppose.

At first blush, folks who aren't paying attention to the details might think it sounds reasonable. First the House Republicans were demanding $100 billion in cuts; now they're insisting on $4 billion in cuts. See how accommodating they're being?

Except that's obviously not the case. A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) explaining, "This bill would simply be a two-week version of the reckless measure the House passed last weekend. It isn't going to fool anyone."

At least, it shouldn't.

Taking a step back, this is quite a negotiating strategy, isn't it? The opening bid was, "Give us everything we want." This was followed by, "Give us everything we want, or we'll shut down the government."

The new line is, "OK, let's compromise. Give us everything we want on a prorated basis, or we'll shut down the government."

To call this a "compromise" is to strip the word of all meaning.

Let's also note that the House Republicans' figure is itself arbitrary. It's not as if the GOP has identified $4 billion in waste they want to eliminate -- they simply chose a number they thought sounded nice. There is no seriousness of thought or purpose here. Republicans haven't even said what would be cut by $4 billion -- they're starting with a dubious answer, hoping to figure out the question later.

It's as if the House of Representatives is being run by children.

The inflexible deadline hasn't changed, and policymakers have until a week from tomorrow to figure something out. Yesterday, I said there's an 80% chance of a shutdown. As of this morning, I'd say it's at least 85%.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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February 23, 2011

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

* Libya: "Fighters loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi sought to maintain their grip on the capital, Tripoli, on Wednesday, as a growing popular uprising spread across the eastern part of the country and anti-government forces consolidated control over key Mediterranean cities."

* Oil prices: "Oil prices hit $100 per barrel for the first time since 2008, driven by growing concerns about global supplies, as Libya's Moammar Gadhafi continued to lose his grip on the oil-rich country. Similar uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt earlier this month already had markets on edge before protests escalated in Libya, which has the biggest oil reserves in Africa."

* Purple Hearts: "President Barack Obama awarded six Purple Hearts while visiting with wounded service members on Wednesday. The commander in chief met with 22 patients and their families during a midday visit to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., just outside of Washington, the White House said. Twenty-one served in Afghanistan; the other served in Iraq."

* A closer look at the Wisconsin budget: "The state's entire budget shortfall for this year -- the reason that Walker has said he must push through immediate cuts -- would be covered by the governor's relatively uncontroversial proposal to restructure the state's debt. By contrast, the proposals that have kicked up a firestorm, especially his call to curtail the collective-bargaining rights of the state's public-employees, wouldn't save any money this year."

* On a related note, Gov. Scott Walker (R) insisted the other day that he "campaigned on" his union-busting proposals, adding, "Anybody who says they are shocked on this has been asleep for the past two years." He's lying.

* The Indiana Deputy Attorney General who said he wanted to see "live ammunition" used on protesters in Wisconsin? He's been fired.

* Sens. Kerry, Franken, Cantwell, and Wyden haven't forgotten: "Four Senate Democrats wrote to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Wednesday to oppose GOP efforts to defund net neutrality rules through spending legislation."

* Fox News gets Gallup data exactly backwards, badly misleading viewers. Is the network incompetent or dishonest?

* I knew Americans paid less for gas than other countries, but I didn't appreciate how much less.

* The director of MassHealth -- the state-run Medicaid plan that insures nearly 1.3 million Massachusetts residents -- seems to think consumers would be better off with single payer. Something to keep an eye on.

* Once more, targeting those who get in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's way.

* Interesting: "A new study shows that, beyond increased voting, going to college really has no impact on engagement in the political process."

* Terry Jeffrey expresses a sentiment that's more common than some might expect among far-right activists: "It is time to drive public schools out of business."

* And on a personal note, today is, for lack of a better word, my "Blogoversary" -- I started blogging exactly eight years ago today. (My very first post in 2003 -- I kid you not -- was complaining about the guest list on "Meet the Press." I guess some things never change.) It's hard to believe I've given more than a fourth fifth of my life to do this non-traditional profession, but I continue to enjoy the work. Whether you've been reading for eight days or eight years, my most sincere thanks for the support.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (74)

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TAXES INCREASE REVENUE.... The media establishment's love of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) can get a little embarrassing sometimes, but this paragraph in the Washington Post just seems to be trying too hard.

The plain- spoken Christie has emerged as a leader of a growing group of governors that is attacking yawning budget deficits by facing down public employees and promising not to raise taxes.

Maybe this was some kind of typo? Maybe an editing error? Promising not to raise taxes is not evidence of attacking budget deficits; it's the opposite.

Jamison Foser's take on this rang true.

[J]ust try to imagine the Washington Post reporting that a "group of governors is attacking yawning budget deficits by promising not to cut spending."

Worse, the Post does not make clear that the Republican governors who are supposedly "attacking yawning budget deficits," like Christie and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, are actually pushing tax cuts that increase the deficit.

For years, it's been easy to identify which Republican officials the media loved most, starting with John McCain. It's apparently time for a new generation of GOP policymakers who can call reporters their "base" -- and Chris Christie is helping lead the pack.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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BOEHNER CLEARLY DIDN'T THINK THROUGH HIS DOMA RESPONSE.... The Obama administration announced this afternoon that it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act, having concluded that the law is unconstitutional.

The response from the nation's most powerful Republican was priceless.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for [House Speaker John] Boehner, said in an e-mail he questions why Obama "thinks now is the appropriate time to stir up a controversial issue that sharply divides the nation" when "most Americans want Washington to focus on creating jobs and cutting spending."

Just at face value, this response is almost laughably weak. There's ongoing litigation, and the Justice Department had to decide how best to proceed. So, it did. Besides, waiting for "the appropriate time" to take a side on a "controversial issue," generally means indefinite paralysis.

But the larger problem here is with Boehner's office lacking any and all self-awareness. This Speaker, after all, leads a House Republican caucus that has spent its first seven weeks tackling multiple abortion bills, health care, private-school vouchers, Planned Parenthood, a resolution to promote the phrase "In God We Trust," and even a measure tackling marriage rights in the District of Columbia.

Boehner's office questions why the White House "thinks now is the appropriate time to stir up a controversial issue that sharply divides the nation"? Has his spokesperson been conscious for the last two months?

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

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A RECIPE FOR A WEAKER ECONOMY.... If federal policymakers want to make the economy worse, on purpose, all they have to do is approve the Republican agenda. The Financial Times has this report today.

The Republican plan to slash government spending by $61bn in 2011 could reduce US economic growth by 1.5 to 2 percentage points in the second and third quarters of the year, a Goldman Sachs economist has warned.

The note from Alec Phillips, a forecaster based in Washington, was seized in the ongoing US budget fight by Democrats as validating their argument that the legislation approved by the Republican-led House of Representatives last Saturday would do significant damage to the US recovery.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) responded to the Goldman Sachs report, saying in a press statement, "This nonpartisan study proves that the House Republicans' proposal is a recipe for a double-dip recession. Just as the economy is beginning to pick up a little steam, the Republican budget would snuff out any chance of recovery. This analysis puts a dagger through the heart of their 'cut-and-grow' fantasy."

Well, one would certainly like to think so.

Remember, this analysis comes a week after additional research found that the Republican spending cuts could lead to roughly 1 million job losses. (Asked about this, Speaker John Boehner replied last week, "So be it.")

I'd gladly note the GOP response to all of this, but as best as I can tell, there isn't one. Republicans don't know -- and by all accounts don't care -- what the economic results would be if their plan was approved. They don't hold hearings to explore the effects of the proposal, and party officials haven't offered any economic projections they believe would result from their plan in implemented.

They just want to cut, no matter what it does the country. This isn't about consequences, it's about making the GOP base feel good about itself.

We now have independent analyses showing that the Republican spending measure would push the economy back towards a recession and would deliberately make unemployment worse. If Democrats balk, the GOP will shut down the government.

Why this isn't the lead story in every news outlet in the country remains unclear.

Update: I suppose the next question is why Republicans would pursue a plan they know would slow the economy. Among the possibilities: (1) they fear inflation that doesn't exist; (2) they have to hurt the country on purpose to undermine President Obama's re-election chances; (3) they consider the deficit more important than the economy, just on principle; (4) something else? I'd love to understand the GOP's motivations, but just as importantly, I'd love for the media to press the GOP on its motivations.

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

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THE CHEESE STANDS ALONE.... The Republican Party's anti-union efforts were supposed to spread from Wisconsin to Indiana, and it appeared that the Hoosiers were in for a similar confrontation. Indeed, like their Wisconsin brethren, a group of Indiana Democrats fled to Illinois yesterday to deny the GOP majority the necessary quorum to proceed on a related bill.

By late yesterday, however, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) announced his opposition to the proposal, and today, the bill died.

Republicans have killed a controversial labor bill that has sparked a Democrat work-stoppage and large union protests at the Statehouse. [...]

Senate President Pro Tempore David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said that he, Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and Daniels all agree that the matter instead should be studied by a legislative committee later this year.

The so-called "right to work" bill would bar companies and unions from negotiating a contract that would require non-union employees to pay a fee for representation.

There are, not surprisingly, other pending bills Indiana Dems are concerned about, but for now, this is a victory.

Also today, anti-labor efforts in Iowa came to an abrupt halt in Iowa, as Gov. Terry Branstad (R) announced he's not interested in changing the state's collective bargaining law.

If Wisconsin's Scott Walker (R) were looking for some cover from his Republican allies, especially in the Midwest, he's not finding much in the way of support.

Update: Greg Sargent points to an important angle that may help explain why other GOP governors aren't following Walker's lead -- the American mainstream, includng a big chunk of Republicans, just isn't on board with the anti-labor agenda.

Steve Benen 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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OBAMA ADMINISTRATION DROPS DOMA SUPPORT.... President Obama has long said he opposes the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), but his administration has nevertheless felt compelled to defend the law in court. It's been the subject of considerable debate.

As of this afternoon, however, the debate changed considerably, with the the president showing some welcome and much-needed leadership.

President Obama has decided that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional and has asked his Justice Department to stop defending it in court, the administration announced today.

"The President believes that DOMA is unconstitutional. They are no longer going to be defending the cases in the 1st and 2nd circuits," a person briefed on the decision said.

The full statement from the Justice Department is online here. It includes this sentiment from Attorney General Eric Holder:

After careful consideration, including a review of my recommendation, the President has concluded that given a number of factors, including a documented history of discrimination, classifications based on sexual orientation should be subject to a more heightened standard of scrutiny. The President has also concluded that Section 3 of DOMA, as applied to legally married same-sex couples, fails to meet that standard and is therefore unconstitutional. Given that conclusion, the President has instructed the Department not to defend the statute in such cases. I fully concur with the President's determination.

Consequently, the Department will not defend the constitutionality of Section 3 of DOMA as applied to same-sex married couples in the two cases filed in the Second Circuit. We will, however, remain parties to the cases and continue to represent the interests of the United States throughout the litigation. I have informed Members of Congress of this decision, so Members who wish to defend the statute may pursue that option."

For those on the anti-gay right who've tried to label Obama "our first gay president," today's move probably won't help matters.

But for millions of Americans seeking justice, the administration's reversal may prove to be very helpful, indeed.

To clarify, today's news does not mean DOMA is dead, at least not yet. It's still federal law, and will remain on the books until Congress repeals it or the courts strike it down. But effective immediately, Obama's Justice Department believes DOMA is unconstitutional and will no longer defend it against two ongoing legal challenges.

It's another civil-rights breakthrough for the Obama administration.

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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PRANK CALL EMBARRASSES WISCONSIN'S WALKER.... Yep, the call everyone's been talking about is, in fact, legit.

Here's something for your "can this possibly be for real" file this morning. Over at the Buffalo Beast -- the former print alt-weekly turned online newspaper founded by onetime editor Matt Taibbi, typically best known for its annual list of "The 50 Most Loathsome Americans" -- there appear to be recordings of a phone call between Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and current editor Ian Murphy. Now, why on earth would Scott Walker want to talk on the phone with the editor of an online site in Buffalo? Well, he wouldn't.

But what if said editor pretended to be David Koch of the famed Koch Brothers? Well, that's a different story altogether, apparently! And so Walker, believing himself to be on the phone with his patron, seems to have had a long conversation about busting Wisconsin's unions.

Buffalo Beast Publisher Paul Fallon told The Huffington Post that the audio is "absolutely legit." That the call took place as described by the Beast has been confirmed by Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie.

The site that conducted the prank and posted the original story is no longer accessible -- the traffic surge brought it down -- but the conversation between Walker and the man impersonating Koch is on YouTube. Here's Part 1 and here's Part 2.

The governor's office confirmed this morning that Walker fell for the prank, but added, "The phone call shows that the governor says the same thing in private as he does in public."

That's largely true, but not entirely. Let's walk through this story a bit.

First, it's remarkable Ian Murphy, pretending to be Koch, even got through. He talked to Walker's chief of staff, Keith Gilkes, and said he couldn't leave a return number because, "My goddamn maid, Maria, put my phone in the washer. I'd have her deported, but she works for next to nothing." This, oddly enough, led Gilkes to invite "Koch" to call back and speak directly to the governor.

Second, and more important, is the fact that Walker talked about a scheme to bring state Senate Democrats back to the capitol.

"An interesting idea that was brought up to me by my chief of staff, we won't do it until tomorrow, is putting out an appeal to the Democratic leader. I would be willing to sit down and talk to him, the assembly Democrat leader, plus the other two Republican leaders -- talk, not negotiate and listen to what they have to say if they will in turn -- but I'll only do it if all 14 of them will come back and sit down in the state assembly. They can recess it... the reason for that, we're verifying it this afternoon, legally, we believe, once they've gone into session, they don't physically have to be there. If they're actually in session for that day, and they take a recess, the 19 Senate Republicans could then go into action and they'd have quorum because it's turned out that way. So we're double checking that. If you heard I was going to talk to them that's the only reason why."

In other words, Walker's plan was to bring Dems back under false pretenses, set the trap, then screw them over. So much for the notion of acting in good faith.

And third, when the Koch impersonator suggested a scheme involving "planting some troublemakers" among the protestors, Walker conceded, "[W]e thought about that," before explaining that he questioned its impact. Perhaps the governor's office can clarify this one -- it's certainly not what the governor has been saying "in public."

When the site is back up, the online transcript is certainly worth reading. At a minimum, it casts Walker in a very negative light -- again -- at a crucial time in the larger controversy. For those wondering if perhaps the governor is in over his head, the comments he made on this call won't generate renewed confidence in his abilities.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (64)

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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:

* Former White House chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel won Chicago's mayoral race yesterday, cruising to a fairly easy victory.

* Speaking of mayoral races, voters in Kansas City, Mo., ousted incumbent Mayor Mark Funkhouser yesterday. He's the first K.C. mayor in more than 80 years to be denied a second term.

* The right-wing American Crossroads GPS, created in part by Karl Rove, is launching radio ads targeting 22 House Democrats. The attack: these Dems aren't doing enough to support brutal, job-killing spending cuts.

* The NRSC has high expectations in the race against Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) in Missouri next year, but so far, high-profile candidates are skipping the contest. Yesterday, Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R) said she, too, isn't going to run in the statewide contest.

* The GOP primary in Virginia's U.S. Senate race is getting a little crowded. Virginia Beach attorney David McCormick is the latest to launch a campaign in the commonwealth.

* At an event in Nevada yesterday, scandal-plagued Sen. John Ensign (R) was asked by an elderly constituent, "Have you repented to God for your affair?" He said he has.

* On a related note, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is getting increasingly optimistic about the party's chances against Ensign, and committee officials have lined up meetings with a series of prospective candidates, including Rep. Shelley Berkley (D).

* Republicans probably shouldn't invest too heavily against Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D) in Rhode Island next year -- a new survey from Public Policy Polling shows him looking very strong.

* And in case there were any lingering doubts about his intentions, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) was in Iowa this week, meeting with Iowa's governor and other state GOP leaders.

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

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SMALL BUSINESSES SPEAK OUT, CONT'D.... Last week, Jeffrey Leonard, CEO of the Global Environmental Fund, talked to Stephen Colbert about his article in the latest issue of the Washington Monthly. The appearance generated some interesting responses.

If you missed the interview (and the article), Leonard is shining a light on a serious problem small businesses face, but which hasn't generated much in the way of attention: "Many small firms are handicapped by a new twist on an old parasitic business practice that large corporations are using in the wake of the 2008-09 financial crisis, one that has significantly reduced the cash available to small businesses to invest and hire new employees."

Leonard has several proposed changes, but the most straightforward is also the most effective: require companies with federal contracts pay their suppliers within 30 days of invoice. The shift would not only improve small business cash-flow, but would also help expand hiring.

After the interview, we heard from more than a few small businesses that could directly relate to what Leonard described. We started publishing some of their responses Tuesday, and we're keeping the series going today.

Here, for example, is a note we received from Silicon Valley.

I was in the middle of writing my attorney this evening about collecting from our mega-client who owes us about $70K, when Mr. Leonard's segment on The Colbert Report came on. I was stunned. He is absolutely spot-on with his observation.

I started a small but growing consulting practice in 2009 with some of the best minds in Silicon Valley. I was able to put 30 - 45 folks "back to work" through independent projects and consulting assignments. Most of these folks are former high-level execs who were victims of the recession. We banded together and decided to move forward. We work with companies of varying sizes mostly in the life sciences, medicine, and emerging clean technologies. The work we will do will literally save lives and improve the human condition.

With the exception of one client, ALL of our clients are practicing the strategy described by Mr. Leonard. I am constantly on the phone with the client's accounting departments, my attorney, or collection agencies. For the most part, nothing works. Our clients are clients who are "flush with cash" -- no doubt about it. Our mega-client has never paid on time even though our attorney firm wrote an "iron-clad contract," the company has consistently violated the terms of the contract. The value of the contract over a two-year period meant about $400K to us. To a small company, that's a heck of a lot and will keep a lot of folks' lights on and health insurance paid. Not only is the mega-client now walking away from the contract without penalty, they are offering us .30 cents on the dollar for services already delivered and used. In fact, the work was so good is was to be showcased to their top management in Europe. There's no problem with the work -- they simply decided they won't pay and are bullying us into accepting less.

Because we work a lot in the intellectual property space, we're also seeing companies buying up patents and other IP from very small businesses who are selling at bargain-basement prices because they can't get funding or have to unload the only thing of value they have left -- their intellectual property. One company's VP of Emerging Technologies told me, "We don't even have to validate the IP or value it since all the entrepreneurs want is to get what they can. We're accumulating as much IP as we can for almost nothing." There you have it. Small businesses and start-up companies sitting in the world's center of innovation who will be forced out of the market by bullying tactics and greedy large companies.

Small businesses have very little recourse -- almost none of us can afford to pursue litigation -- and, the large companies know it. If you look at some of the names of our team on our website, their resumes are pretty spectacular. These companies get McKinsey and Boston Consulting quality work and either don't pay, pay way late, or offer vastly reduced amounts for work already produced. The banks won't lend to small business and the clients won't pay. So much for economic recovery.

There was also this letter from a businessperson in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania.

As a small business person, I agree with you that this is a problem. But is this not unfettered capitalism and the "free market" at work? Stephen Colbert made that point rather nicely when you appeared on his show. Most business people are all for large mergers which give companies size and power to do what they want to customers and small vendors. Then, when they decide to use that power on us (as some of us knew they would) we want the hated government to step in!

Businesses like capitalism until they lose and then they like socialism.

And finally there was this letter from Parsippany, New Jersey.

I just saw the Stephen Colbert show and wanted to let Mr. Leonard know that I didn't realize that this was being done to many small businesses.

I own a small camera store. We deal with all of the major companies and have for about 50 years. Our terms have continuously gotten worse over the past few years, and most recently the norm has become 5 days if we want to get their best cash discount. And because the gross margins have gone down to as little as 5% to 10% on their products, we are almost forced to pay in 5 days just to be able to make any profit.

Even worse, in our industry, is the "Instant rebate". We "give" the customer a discount, let's say $50, and then after we do all the bookkeeping, claims filing, proof of advertising ,etc. we get back ( months later) only 80% of what we were basically forced to discount the product. This has become a huge burden on many small business people.

Just thought you might want to know I appreciated that you stood up for the small businesses, we need all the help we can get.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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WHEN THE RIGHT'S RHETORIC TURNS VIOLENT.... In the wake of last month's shootings in Tucson, it was common for folks on the left to suggest the right relied too often on violent rhetoric. Conservatives, invariably, were outraged.

There is, however, a rationale behind the assumptions. For example, incidents like these come up from time to time.

On Saturday night, when Mother Jones staffers tweeted a report that riot police might soon sweep demonstrators out of the Wisconsin capitol building--something that didn't end up happening--one Twitter user sent out a chilling public response: "Use live ammunition."

From my own Twitter account, I confronted the user, JCCentCom. He tweeted back that the demonstrators were "political enemies" and "thugs" who were "physically threatening legally elected officials." In response to such behavior, he said, "You're damned right I advocate deadly force." He later called me a "typical leftist," adding, "liberals hate police."

Only later did we realize that JCCentCom was a deputy attorney general for the state of Indiana.

If there's a compelling defense for a state deputy attorney general to recommend use of "live ammunition" and "deadly force" against pro-labor protestors, I can't think of it.

On a related note, Jay Bookman reports this morning that the Service Employees International Union will hold a rally in Atlanta today, at Georgia's state capitol. Conservative activists have been encouraged to attend -- with firearms.

Update: The Indiana deputy A.G. has reportedly been fired.

Steve Benen 10:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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GOP OFFICIALS PLAY THE 'WHO US?' GAME.... With the prospects of a government shutdown growing every day, it appears every Republican in Congress has been told to repeat the same line over and over again.

Here, for example, was the perpetually-confused Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), talking yesterday to Fox News:

"There's no Republican that's going to shut the government down or wants to shut the government down. The only people talking about that right now are the Democrats."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) used nearly identical language three weeks ago, and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) echoed the talking point last week, and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) adopted the same line on Monday.

It's hard to overstate how ridiculous this is. To be sure, I understand the underlying point -- if Republicans shut down the government next week, they don't want to be blamed -- but only a fool could find the GOP rhetoric on this credible.

The record isn't in dispute. ThinkProgress has been keeping a running tally of Republican lawmakers who've been talking up the notion of shutting down the government, dating back to September. Indeed, the list keeps growing -- over the weekend, Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) told constituents, "If my Republican leadership asks me to vote for a budget, even a two-week budget, that doesn't have spending cuts, I will say no and I will shut down government."

"The only people talking about that right now are the Democrats"? Are you serious?

Republican leaders appear absolutely certain that the political world is dominated by easily-fooled suckers. I'm not certain they're wrong -- the lead story on Politico this morning featured this headline: "Shutdown: Does GOP have the edge this time?"

Steve Benen 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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ANOTHER FEDERAL COURT VICTORY FOR THE AFFORDABLE CARE ACT.... Over the last year, there have been all kinds of court rulings related to the health care reform law, but most deal with procedural issues. They all matter, but the ones that deserve the most attention are the ones that deal with the substance of the Affordable Care Act and the legal merit of the challenges.

Going into yesterday, four federal district courts had ruled on the legality of the law, with each side winning twice. Yesterday, Judge Gladys Kessler tipped the scales and made the right call.

Judge Kessler adopted the government's position on whether Congress's authority to regulate interstate commerce is so broad that it can require people to buy a commercial product. Past Supreme Court decisions have established the standard that Congress can control "activities that substantially affect interstate commerce."

The judge suggested in her 64-page opinion that not buying insurance was an active choice that had clear effects on the marketplace by burdening other payers with the cost of uncompensated medical care.

"Because of this cost-shifting effect," she wrote, "the individual decision to forgo health insurance, when considered in the aggregate, leads to substantially higher insurance premiums for those other individuals who do obtain coverage."

Judge Kessler added: "It is pure semantics to argue that an individual who makes a choice to forgo health insurance is not 'acting,' especially given the serious economic and health-related consequences to every individual of that choice. Making a choice is an affirmative action, whether one decides to do something or not do something."

The judge also tossed out a claim that the law restricted the plaintiffs' exercise of religious freedom because the mandate to buy health insurance conflicted with their belief that God would provide for their well-being. She wrote that such a burden, if it existed at all, was too minor to require invalidation of the law.

Perhaps most notably, Kessler's ruling added that those who buy the argument embraced by the two judges who ruled against the law are choosing to "ignore reality." As Jonathan Cohn explained, she also has no use for the so-called "broccoli argument."

The ruling is the result of a case brought by the American Center for Law and Justice, a right-wing legal group created by radical TV preacher Pat Robertson. It also keeps the partisan nature of the legal dispute alive -- three judges appointed by Democratic presidents have sided in support of the law, two judges appointed by Republican presidents did the opposite.

As a practical matter, all of these rulings are of limited value, since the issue will ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, but given all the breathless media attention the conservative court rulings received, it's worth noting that there are now three federal court rulings that make it obviously clear that the health care reform law is clearly constitutional.

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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WALKER TRIES A 'FIRESIDE CHAT'.... If Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) thought he was winning the fight over his union-busting efforts, he probably wouldn't have felt compelled to deliver a statewide address last night.

But the far-right governor did feel compelled to speak for about 10 minutes to his constituents, in what was billed as a "fireside chat."

I always find it difficult to know how "regular" folks will respond to a speech like this, but if Walker hoped to change the direction of the debate -- or even offer a compelling defense for his controversial crusade -- he appears to have fallen far short.

For example, instead of ratcheting down the rhetoric, the Republican governor reiterated his threat to start firing thousands of public employees unless he gets the punitive, anti-labor proposal he wants. Walker added that he'd blame Democrats for the layoffs.

He argued that his proposal is intended to "protect the hardworking taxpayer," which seems odd given that taxpayers won't save any money from ending collective bargaining rights, and many of those poised to get screwed are themselves hardworking taxpayers.

Perhaps most notably, Walker also insisted that "everyone else has to sacrifice." What he neglected to mention is that state employees have already agreed to less pay and fewer benefits -- in other words, they're ready and willing to sacrifice -- and the fact that the governor just handed out a bunch of tax breaks to those who he clearly doesn't expect to sacrifice.

In the meantime, Walker apparently isn't inspiring his ostensible allies, either. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) announced his opposition yesterday to his own party's anti-union bill, and asked that it be pulled. Around the same time, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) announced he doesn't have a problem with the collective-bargaining rights the Wisconsin governor is fighting to take away.

And even in Wisconsin, former Gov. Tommy Thompson, one of Walker's Republican predecessors, notably declined to endorse the union-busting proposal currently under consideration.

If Walker thinks he's winning this argument, he's not paying close enough attention.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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INCHING EVER CLOSER TO A GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN.... For those hoping to see Congress avoid a government shutdown next week, yesterday was more than a little discouraging.

For what it's worth, it's getting easier to summarize the nature of the debate, and both parties have straightforward, easy-to-define positions. For Democrats, the line is, "Let's give ourselves more time to discuss budget cuts." For Republicans, the line is, "Give us budget cuts first, and then we'll discuss budget cuts."

That may sound silly, but it's actually the state of affairs among congressional leaders.

As the strategic jockeying in a fight over federal spending kicked into high gear, the Republican House speaker, John A. Boehner, said on Tuesday that it was up to the White House and the Democrats who control the Senate to agree to at least some Republican-backed cuts to help reach a short-term deal and avoid a government shutdown early next month.

The House on Saturday approved more than $60 billion in spending reductions, for the fiscal year that runs through Sept. 30, that would hit nearly every area of the government. Not one Democrat voted for the bill, and the White House has threatened to veto it.

Senate Democrats, saying more time is needed to reach a longer-term agreement, are calling for a 30-day extension that would continue to hold spending generally at last year's levels, but Republicans say that is not enough.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) presented an approach yesterday he thought offered a way out of the mess. By midday, he'd asked the Senate Appropriations Committee to produce a "clean" bill -- no hidden goodies, no pork, no policy measures -- that would keep the government's lights on for 30 days. The point, of course, would be to avoid a shutdown and give policymakers time to work out a deal for the rest of the fiscal years.

Better yet, Reid's plan is arguably a spending-cut plan -- it would maintain spending levels below the White House's budget request, which is what House Republicans have used as a baseline.

Naturally, GOP leaders immediately announced that Reid's plan isn't good enough. They said they expect the Senate to vote on the brutal cuts the House approved over the weekend -- a plan Republicans know can't pass -- and barring that, Boehner & Co. demand the upper chamber agree to "some" cuts, though the minimum figure remains unclear.

And the response to that from Senate Democrats is that they're "willing to go deeper" into the budget, but "want a few weeks to work this out."

An inflexible deadline looms, and policymakers have until a week from Friday to figure something out. Last week, I said there's a 70% chance of a shutdown. As of this morning, I'd say it's at least 80%.

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

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February 22, 2011

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

* By all accounts, the streets of Tripoli are a war zone: "Libya appeared to slip further into chaos on Tuesday, as Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi vowed to 'fight until the last drop of my blood' and clashes intensified between rebels and his loyalists in the capital, Tripoli. Opposition forces claimed to have consolidated their hold over a string of cities across nearly half of Libya's 1,000 mile Mediterranean coast, leaving Colonel Qaddafi in control of just parts of the capital and some of southern and central Libya, including his hometown."

* New Zealand: "Rescue workers spent a cold, rainy night searching through rubble for survivors of a powerful earthquake that struck New Zealand's second-largest city, Christchurch, on Tuesday, killing at least 65 people."

* Markets freaked out a bit today, leading to a Saudi announcement: "Trying to calm turbulent oil markets, Saudi Arabia's oil minister said on Tuesday that the OPEC cartel was ready to pump more oil to compensate for any dropoff caused by unrest in the Middle East."

* He's usually more diplomatic: "To the shock of President Hamid Karzai's aides, Gen. David H. Petraeus suggested Sunday at the presidential palace that Afghans caught up in a coalition attack in northeastern Afghanistan might have burned their own children to exaggerate claims of civilian casualties, according to two participants at the meeting."

* It's not just Wisconsin: "Protestors packed into Ohio's State Capitol building and several thousand more gathered outside on Tuesday, as its legislature planned new hearings on a bill that would effectively end collective bargaining for state workers and dramatically reduce its power for local workers, like police officers and firefighters."

* Don't forget the anti-union push in Florida, too: "The bill would bar government employers from deducting either union dues or voluntary contributions to union political accounts."

* In Madison, a left-leaning website used by union supporters to rally protesters has been inaccessible in Wisconsin's capitol. Hmm.

* On a related note, "Americans for Prosperity" are launching an ad campaign in Wisconsin. Imagine that.

* I wish I knew why Republican governors don't like their constituents, and seem to want their state economies to suffer.

* Rep. David Wu (D) of Oregon is now being treated with medication and counseling after an "intervention" staged by his staffers.

* Terrific graphic from Jamison Foser: "People likely to be hired by CNN."

* George Will sure could use an editor.

* Post of the Day: "The Relationship between Union Membership and State Budget Deficits."

* The National Institute for Civil Discourse will be housed at the University of Arizona, and its honorary co-chairmen will be former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

* And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) is ready to see his home state of Nevada end legal prostitution, which he believes may be an impediment to economic development: "Nevada needs to be known as the first place for innovation and investment -- not as the last place where prostitution is still legal." We'll see how that goes.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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DONALD RUMSFELD WAS THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR 6 YEARS.... Alexis Madrigal went poking through Donald Rumsfeld's online archive yesterday, looking for instances which the former Pentagon chief referenced Libya. He found a doozy.

This memo was sent on April 7, 2003, to then-Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith. Rumsfeld's subject line read, "Issues w/Various Countries," and it reads:

We need more coercive diplomacy with respect to Syria and Libya, and we need it fast. If they mess up Iraq, it will delay bringing our troops home.

We also need to solve the Pakistan problem.

And Korea doesn't seem to be going well.

Are you coming up with proposals for me to send around?


This is literally the entire memo. No, it's not a parody.

Donald Rumsfeld was, by the way, the Secretary of Defense for six years, a tenure that included overseeing two wars.

And as far as Dick Cheney is concerned, Rumsfeld was "the best Secretary of Defense the United States has ever had."

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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ANTI-UNION AGENDA NOT POPULAR WITH AMERICAN PUBLIC.... There have been a few polls making the rounds related to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's (R) union-busting efforts, but I was waiting for an independent poll unaffiliated with any of the relevant players.

This one qualifies.

The public strongly opposes laws taking away the collective bargaining power of public employee unions as a way to ease state financial troubles, according to a new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll.

The poll found that 61% would oppose a law in their state similar to one being considered in Wisconsin, compared with 33% who would favor such a law.

Now, this was a national poll, so it doesn't tell us how folks in Wisconsin feel about their own governor's crusade, but the results nevertheless suggest Republicans, who've rallied in large numbers behind Walker and his proposal, are not on the same page as most Americans.

The results should also send a signal to policymakers in other states who are planning Walker-like moves -- I'm looking at you, Indiana, Florida, Ohio, and Tennessee -- that the public isn't buying the GOP's anti-union line, at least not yet.

On a related note, the same USA Today/Gallup poll found that a majority of Americans oppose raising taxes to close budget gaps, and a plurality oppose reducing or eliminating government programs.

Yeah, that's helpful.

Steve Benen 3:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... As part of the opposition to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's (R) union-busting efforts, thousands of Wisconsin school teachers called in "sick" last week, forcing several local districts to close temporarily. A handful of news outlets reported that some local physicians, sympathetic to the teachers' plight, wrote doctors' notes for educators who weren't actually sick.

I haven't seen independent confirmation of this, and I have no idea how widespread the practice may or may not have been. But as one might imagine, it has Fox News pretty worked up.

In fact, the Republican network is apparently outraged on multiple levels. Not only are they accusing the doctors involved of "fraud," Fox News personalities are incensed that CNN reported on the story this way: "We have been told that doctors are writing notes for some of those teachers so they won't be penalized by staying away from school. So, they are helping out the teachers."

Last night, Bill O'Reilly asked Juan Williams to comment, not just on the physicians' efforts, but on the two sentences CNN viewers heard.

"Well, let me just say, it's important I think Bill just to establish: what's the truth? What's the fact? The fact is that's outright fraud. Doctors are not supposed to make up an excuse for someone who is not sick. That's just fraud. I mean, what's next? You know, writing prescription drugs for people because you want to support their right to party? It's just totally wrong when doctors do that. [...]

"What it makes me think is that CNN may be reacting to Fox coverage or CNN just pandering and saying, 'You know what, we think we are going to just side with the unions here.' I don't know. It's puzzling to me. It hurts me to see a news organization get involved in politics to that level." [emphasis added]

Look, I don't know what happened with those doctors. If they wrote notes for folks who weren't sick, claiming they were, it would appear to be unprofessional, at a minimum.

But to hear a Fox News personality complain on the air about a "news organization getting involved in politics" is just remarkable.

As Juan Williams read the Sammon memos? Does he remember the Tea Party rallies Fox News helped organize and promote, only to have Fox News staffers gin up the right-wing crowds for the cameras?

Fox News exists to "get involved in politics" at "that level." That's the point of the network.

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

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WALKER TURNS UP THE HEAT IN WISCONSIN, THREATENS LAYOFFS.... When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) demands that public workers accept less pay and fewer benefits, he can make a credible case it relates to state financing. But as is obvious by now, Walker is going much further, demanding that most unionized public employees in the state also abandon their collective bargaining rights, which is unrelated to the budget.

The point, of course, is to be punitive -- Walker doesn't like unions, so he's trying to break them.

Today, the far-right governor took the next step, threatening to take away public-sector jobs unless his unnecessary demands are met. (via Barbara Morrill)

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker warns that state employees could start receiving layoff notices as early as next week if a bill eliminating collective bargaining rights isn't passed soon.

Walker said Tuesday in a statement to The Associated Press that the layoffs wouldn't take effect immediately. He didn't say which workers would be targeted.

There can be no doubt as to the punitive nature of the policy here. Walker doesn't need to start laying off state employees, and the bill to gut collective bargaining rights has nothing to do with these workers' employment status.

This, in other words, is a thuggish threat -- give Walker the union-busting bill he wants, or he'll start making unemployment worse on purpose.

As far as the governor is concerned, the two are related, since the pending state legislation include benefit and wage "reforms," too. But Walker has a choice -- the unions would agree to his demands on compensation and benefits, if only he'd let them keep the collective bargaining rights state employees earned generations ago. That is, incidentally, an agreement that Wisconsin voters broadly endorse, and it could be approved quickly, making layoffs unnecessary and ending the protests.

But not only has Walker deemed this insufficient, he's now prepared to start handing out pink slips next week, just because he can.

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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INDIANA DEMS FOLLOW WISCONSIN'S LEAD, FLEE STATE.... Republican officials in several states are proposing awful measures for working families, but terrific proposals to boost the hotel industry in Illinois.

House Democrats are leaving the state rather than vote on anti-union legislation, The Indianapolis Star has learned.

A source said Democrats are headed to Illinois, though it was possible some also might go to Kentucky. They need to go to a state with a Democratic governor to avoid being taken into police custody and returned to Indiana.

The House came into session this morning, with only two of the 40 Democrats present. Those two were needed to make a motion, and a seconding motion, for any procedural steps Democrats would want to take to ensure Republicans don't do anything official without quorum.

With only 58 legislators present, there was no quorum present to do business. The House needs 67 of its members to be present.

The Indiana measure isn't identical to the GOP union-busting efforts in Wisconsin, but it's another attempt to limit workers' collective bargaining rights -- the proposal would "bar unions and companies from negotiating a contract that requires non-union members to kick-in fees for representation."

The response from Indiana Republicans is identical to that of Wisconsin Republicans: leaving the state to deny a quorum is inherently wrong. And at face-value, I can see why the GOP's talking points might even seem credible -- lawmakers, the argument goes, are paid to be in the chamber working, not fleeing.

But there are a couple of angles to keep in mind here. The first is that this has been a fairly common tactic for a very long time. The Wall Street Journal noted the other day, "The tactic of quorum avoidance by simply leaving dates back at least to the days when the U.S. Constitution was being debated." Alex Seitz-Wald had an item over the weekend highlighting the time Abraham Lincoln literally jumped out a window 170 years ago to deny a quorum in Illinois.

It's not, in other words, some kind of unprecedented abuse. It may not seem ideal, but it has an obvious place in the American tradition.

The second is that the tactic itself has a Washington-based parallel. Matt Yglesias explained last week that quorum avoidance is "more like a 'classic' filibuster than a modern-style routine supermajority. The Democratic caucus of the State Senate can't hold out forever, nor can they pull this every time Governor Walker proposes a bill they don't like. What they can do is slow things down and try to see if public opinion swings around to their side."

Ezra Klein added, "It's an attempt to dramatize the depth of their opposition, throw some sand in the gears of the process and see whether a couple of days of protests and media coverage can turn the tide on this one."

And as of this afternoon, the idea is spreading.

Update: The chair of Indiana Democratic Party confirmed on the record that the state lawmakers have, in fact, left the state to deny Republicans quorum.

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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THUNE TO SKIP 2012 PRESIDENTIAL RACE.... It was tough to read the tea-leaves on this one. Insiders seemed convinced, as of a couple of weeks ago, that Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) would not run for president. All of a sudden, though, the conservative senator seemed to be working hard to get his name out -- chatting with National Review and the Christian Broadcasting Network, appearing at CPAC, offering a rationale for his candidacy to the Washington Post, etc.

So, is he or isn't he? Just a short while ago, Thune made it official: he's not running.

There is a battle to be waged over what kind of country we are going to leave our children and grandchildren and that battle is happening now in Washington, not two years from now. So at this time, I feel that I am best positioned to fight for America's future here in the trenches of the United States Senate.

Thune clearly has his champions in some GOP insider circles, but I've never been able to understand exactly why he was seen as a credible national candidate. He hasn't tackled any noteworthy policy initiatives, he's failed to distinguished himself as an expert in any area, and his most notable accomplishment appears to be an ability to impress people with his handsomeness.

More notably, it's been far from clear which Republican constituency he would appeal to. Thune, during his brief tenure, has developed a reputation for loving pork-barrel projects for South Dakota (he's twice won the "Porker of the Month" award from Citizens Against Government Waste), and championed the 2008 bailout that the GOP base considers poison.

If Thune had run, it was hard to imagine the circumstances that would have led to his nomination. Of course, as a relatively young man -- Thune turned 50 last month -- it's likely this isn't the last time we'll hear his name as a possible presidential candidate.

In the larger context, there are two other angles to keep an eye on. The first is that it now appears likely that the 2012 race will be the first cycle in nearly four decades in which no sitting senators run for president.

The second is that the 2012 Republican field is still, as of now, effectively non-existent. Rep. Mike Pence (R) of Indiana flirted with a presidential bid before bowing out, and now Thune has done the same. The GOP field is bound to materialize one of these days, but few expected to have zero announced candidates with 348 days to go before the Iowa caucuses.

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RSS UPDATE.... In case folks missed this yesterday, several readers have run into trouble lately with the Political Animal RSS feed. Our apologies -- we made some adjustments the other day, but I think everything is now on track.

For those whose feed hasn't updated in a few days, please re-subscribe -- it should only take a moment or two -- and that should fix the problem.

Sorry for the inconvenience. If, after you re-subscribe, the problem persists, let me know.

Steve Benen 12:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (4)

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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:

* Republican leaders in New York chose Assemblywoman Jane Corwin yesterday to run as the GOP nominee in the special election to replace former Rep. Chris Lee (R). The GOP's Tea Party wing immediately criticized the selection, insisting that Corwin isn't right-wing enough.

* Hoping to defuse a controversy, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) announced yesterday he opposes a measure to honor Nathan Bedford Forrest on state-issued license plates.

* Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) is already facing a credible GOP primary challenger, and now his opponents have a new area for criticism: when Lugar returns to his home state, he lives in a hotel.

* Speaking of Indiana, Dems in the Hoosier State received some more discouraging news yesterday when former Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D) and Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel (D) said they're skipping next year's gubernatorial race.

* Voters will head to the polls in Chicago today, the first phase is electing a new mayor. If former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel tops 50% of the vote, there will be no second phase.

* Former governor and DNC Chairman Tim Kaine still hasn't said whether he's running for the Senate next year, but at Virginia's Jefferson-Jackson dinner over the weekend, attendees were effectively treated to a pro-Kaine pep rally.

* Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) was asked yesterday whether he's considering running for president in 2012. "No," he said, "I'm running for reelection to the United States Senate."

* And Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) said yesterday he'd "probably" accept an invitation to be the Republican vice presidential nominee, if it were offered.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (3)

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SMALL BUSINESSES SPEAK OUT.... Last week, Jeffrey Leonard, CEO of the Global Environmental Fund, talked to Stephen Colbert about his article in the latest issue of the Washington Monthly. The appearance generated some interesting responses.

If you missed the interview (and the article), Leonard is shining a light on a serious problem small businesses face, but which hasn't generated much in the way of attention: "Many small firms are handicapped by a new twist on an old parasitic business practice that large corporations are using in the wake of the 2008-09 financial crisis, one that has significantly reduced the cash available to small businesses to invest and hire new employees."

Leonard has several proposed changes, but the most straightforward is also the most effective: require companies with federal contracts pay their suppliers within 30 days of invoice. The shift would not only improve small business cash-flow, but would also help expand hiring.

After the interview, we heard from more than a few small businesses that could directly relate to what Leonard described. We're going to publish some of their responses this week, starting today.

Here, for example, is a note we received from someone who ran a small airline in New England.

One of our biggest customers was New England Telephone. Their people traveled all over our system on a daily basis. They paid on a "direct bill" basis.

Our phone bill was considerable. $800-$900 or more a month. We built up a couple of months' of payables, and they threatened to cut us off. We couldn't pay our bills because they (and others) owed us money.

They owed us $27,000. We owed them something like $2,200. They shut us off.

Of course, this was devastating to our business, and, as the chief, I had to figure something out. I called the president of NET (from my business neighbor's phone). Managed to get through to his secretary. She told me "Oh, you have to understand. We bill on 30 days, but pay on 90 days."

Thank you again for bringing this matter to light.

We also heard from Becker Multimedia.

As a small business owner whose clients are larger corporations, I applaud Jeffrey Leonard for his article and appearance on Colbert Report. He tells the truth.

Larger corporations are throttling small businesses with procurement and supply chain management practices that are profoundly dishonest, manipulative, unfair and ultimately destructive. I have noticed too that some larger banks (e.g. American Express, Capital One) are marketing credit products specifically tailored to alleviate the pressure caused by these practices - at even more cost to small businesses.

And this note from Pennsylvania also rang true:

Saw Jeffrey Leonard on the Colbert Report last night, and love that he's making a big deal of this. I'm a freelance medical writer, working primarily as a subcontractor to medical communications and advertising companies. All of my clients (most of which are small businesses of <100 employees) are really being squeezed by the increasing delay in invoice payment.

The big pharma companies are the villains here. Considering that most are clearing 15-20% profit margins after taxes, it's certainly questionable for them to be unilaterally extending payment terms to 90 and even 120 days. I hope you continue to make this an issue; let me know how it can get placed on the radar screen of Congress and executive branch. The last 10 years have featured a dramatic push to keep big corporations happy, much of it at the expense of smaller companies that are the real job, innovation, and creativity generators in the economy; and it's way past time to level the playing field.

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REPUBLICANS AND THE 'BEYOND REDEMPTION' THRESHOLD.... A couple of months ago, former senator and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Danforth (R) expressed some concern about the direction of his party.

"If Dick Lugar," Danforth said, "having served five terms in the U.S. Senate and being the most respected person in the Senate and the leading authority on foreign policy, is seriously challenged by anybody in the Republican Party, we have gone so far overboard that we are beyond redemption."

Keep that quote in mind today.

Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock will launch his primary challenge to Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) on Tuesday with the support of a majority of both the state's 92 Republican county chairmen and its state party executive committee, he told the Fix in a recent interview.

"I feel bad that he's going to be humiliated by this list," Mourdock said. [...]

"The headline isn't going to be, 'Tea party candidate to take on Dick Lugar;' it's going to be, 'GOP grassroots dumps Lugar,'" Mourdock said. "There is tremendous unrest and tremendous dissatisfaction, and that's what got me in this race."

Danforth said it would be awful if Lugar faced a credible primary opponent at all. As of today, Lugar not only has a challenger, but has also been abandoned by much of the GOP establishment in his own state.

Is it safe to conclude, then, that the Republican Party has gone so far overboard that it's beyond redemption?

Postscript: Yesterday, Jonathan Bernstein pondered whether Lugar would be better off simply switching parties now and running as a Democrat, in large part because Lugar's version of the Republican Party "is close to extinct."

I agree that there's no meaningful place in the contemporary GOP for a thoughtful, conservative statesman, but I find it very hard to believe Lugar would even consider a party switch. His voting record is far to the right of the Democratic mainstream, and despite Lugar's sanity/credibility on national security issues, the senator has very little in common with the larger Democratic agenda.

By the standards of the Clinton and Bush eras, Lugar is what one might call a "conservative Republican." The party has gotten hysterically right-wing in recent years, but (a) that's not Lugar's fault; and (b) it doesn't point to any interest in joining the other party.

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OMB CHIEF: 'SOCIAL SECURITY ISN'T THE PROBLEM'.... For all the talk about "entitlements" and the need to "reform" the various programs in the context of long-term fiscal challenges, the White House seems acutely aware of the fact that not all entitlements are created equal. Given that much of the political establishment has forgotten this, I'm glad the Obama team gets it.

Jacob Lew, director of the Office of Management and Budget, has a worthwhile piece in USA Today, for example, separating Social Security from the larger budget mess. Indeed, Lew, after noting the importance of understanding "the causes of the pressing fiscal problems," reminds readers that Social Security "does not cause our deficits."

Social Security benefits are entirely self-financing. They are paid for with payroll taxes collected from workers and their employers throughout their careers. These taxes are placed in a trust fund dedicated to paying benefits owed to current and future beneficiaries. [...] Blaming Social Security for our fiscal woes is like blaming you for not saving enough in your checking account because the bank lost all depositors' money. The problem is not Social Security; the problem is the mismatch between outlays and revenues in the rest of the budget. Closing that gap and paying down our debt will take tough choices, and the president's budget makes them. Strengthening Social Security is an important, but parallel, issue that needs to be addressed as quickly as possible. But let's not confuse it as either the cause of or a solution to our short-term fiscal problems.

I have no idea if arguments like these are connecting, but I'm glad officials are making them. Last week, at a White House press conference, the AP's Ben Feller noted in his question "the the long-term crushing costs of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid -- the real drivers of long-term debt." President Obama took the time to emphasize the distinctions between them: "The truth is Social Security is not the huge contributor to the deficit that the other two entitlements are... Medicare and Medicaid are huge problems because health care costs are rising even as the population is getting older."

I suspect we're seeing this push because the White House realizes congressional Republicans want to cut Social Security, and the administration is laying the groundwork for the larger argument: Social Security just isn't in the same category as Medicare and Medicaid, so it's a mistake to treat them all as equivalent "entitlements."

Social Security is in pretty good shape. Its long-term finances could be improved even more with some minor tweaks that most folks probably wouldn't even notice, but there's no crisis, the system isn't going bankrupt, and if policymakers decided not to do anything for a while, that'd be fine, too. The more the White House reminds folks about this, the better.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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LIBYA ON THE BRINK.... The Libyan government has largely shutdown Internet access in its country, restricted journalists, and made telephone service limited. But reports from inside Libya nevertheless make it clear that the Qaddafi regime is responding viciously to the ongoing uprising and may not survive.

Libya appeared to slip further from the grip of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi on Tuesday, as clashes intensified in Tripoli and opposition forces in eastern Libya moved to consolidate control of the region.

Witnesses described the streets of Tripoli, the capital, as a war zone. In several neighborhoods of the city, including one called Fashloum, protesters tried to seal off the streets with makeshift barricades of scrap steel and other debris. Forces loyal to Colonel Qaddafi so far failed to surmount the barricades and young protesters appeared to be gathering rocks to throw in their defense in anticipation of a renewed attack.

Outside the barricades, militiamen and Bedouin tribesmen defending the strongman and his 40-year rule were stationed at intersections around the city. Many carried Kalashnikov assault rifles and an anti-aircraft gun was deployed in front of the state television headquarters.

Protests intensified after the government massacred hundreds of protestors, and Libyan embassies have begun distancing themselves from their own government. By late yesterday, the members of Libya's mission to the United Nations publicly repudiated Qaddafi, accusing him of war crimes.

For his part, Qaddafi responded to rumors that he'd fled the country by appearing briefly -- about 20 seconds -- on Libyan television overnight, with an umbrella.

This morning, Libya's ambassador to the United States, Ali Suleiman Aujalisaid, who resigned from Qaddafi's government but not from his diplomatic post, told ABC News, "Tripoli is burning. The people are being killed in a brutal way. The people are armless."

Steve Benen 9:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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HAVE HOUSE REPUBLICANS GIVEN UP ON BORDER SECURITY?.... Fox News' Steve Doocy told viewers yesterday he feels sorry for Arizona, because as he sees it, federal officials aren't "doing their job" when it comes to immigration and border security.

This is a common complaint among Republicans. As the GOP sees it, policymakers can't even begin to discuss comprehensive immigration reform because the federal government isn't doing enough to "protect the border."

I tend to think most of this rhetoric is absurd, but this week, it took a more interesting turn. If the Republican emphasis is on border security, why did Republicans vote to reduce funding for their own priority?

In a letter sent on Monday to House appropriations leaders, Senator Charles Schumer of New York and two other Democrats said the House bill would shrink the Border Patrol by 870 agents and cut $272 million in funds for surveillance systems to monitor the border with Mexico. They said those cuts would cancel gains from a bill adopted last August, with virtually unanimous bipartisan support, that increased border funding by $600 million, adding 1,000 new agents to the Border Patrol.

"This magnitude of reduction is simply dangerous," wrote Mr. Schumer, who is chairman of the Senate judiciary subcommittee on immigration. Also signing were Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Jon Tester of Montana. [...]

Republicans have accused the Obama administration of slowing border enforcement, allowing illegal immigration and drug violence to run out of control. Support for their criticism came in testimony last week before a House Homeland Security subcommittee by Richard M. Stana of the Government Accountability Office. He reported that by the Border Patrol's own standards, its agents had "operational control" over only 873 miles of the 2,000-mile border with Mexico in 2010, or about 44 percent.

On Tuesday, House Republicans said this wasn't good enough. Three days later, those same House Republicans voted to make the security they consider insufficient considerably worse -- a smaller Border Patrol with fewer agents and less surveillance would mean a step backwards from the GOP's own goals.

The next question, then, is why in the world Republicans would demand improved border security and then vote to do the opposite. The answer, I suspect, is that House GOP officials don't really know what they're doing -- they looked at the budget for the fiscal year like a pinata, and just started swinging wildly while blindfolded. It seems quite likely to me that Republicans slashed funding for the Border Patrol without even realizing it.

Indeed, I imagine this happened quite a bit. The same measure included drastic cuts to national security priorities, slashing funds for the National Nuclear Security Administration's counter-proliferation programs, and even eliminating funds to maintain the nation's nuclear stockpile. Why would Republicans who claim to care about national security do this? Perhaps because they didn't understand what they were voting for.

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

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TALKS BEGIN TO AVOID GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN.... In any scenario, the first step in bipartisan talks to avoid a government shutdown is actually initiating the talks themselves. Last week, this prerequisite was ignored -- instead of working with the Senate on a spending bill that would keep the government running, House Republicans approved their measure knowing full well it would be rejected.

This week, however, though Congress is in recess, it appears policymakers have begun preliminary discussions.

With funding for the federal government set to expire in less than two weeks, Senate Democrats and House Republicans are in discussions to avoid a government shutdown, a Senate Democratic leadership source told CNN.

News of the negotiations comes a day after several Republican lawmakers indicated they might accept a short-term spending bill as long as it included at least some spending reductions and not necessarily the deeper cuts the House approved last weekend.

Senate Democratic leaders reacted positively to those comments Monday, said the source, and hope it will lead to an agreement before March 4, when a government shutdown would begin if the House and Senate fail to reach an agreement.

As things currently stand, Senate Democrats want to simply maintain the status quo for a couple of weeks, while continuing to work on a larger measure to fund the government through the rest of the fiscal year. House Republicans have said that's not good enough -- they'll agree to a temporary extension to avoid a shutdown, but only if it includes "some" of the drastic cuts they approved over the weekend.

If you're wondering what "some" means, you're appreciating the nature of the dispute.

Publicly, House Speaker John Boehner has said Senate Democrats should accept the entire $60 billion in cuts Republicans pushed through the House early Saturday morning, many of which chip away at the priorities of congressional Democrats and President Obama. However, privately House Republican leaders are acknowledging the need for a stopgap measure to continue funding the government while they negotiate spending levels for the bill a longer-term bill to fund the government through Oct. 1.

"Everyone knows that, no matter what the truth, we would be blamed [for a government shutdown], so it would be a dumb political move," one House Republican leadership aide told CNN.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he does not want to agree to additional spending cuts this budget year but privately Senate Democratic leaders are bending on the issue.

"If they send something over with cuts we could probably accept it," said one Senate Democratic leadership aide.

The debate then comes down to the size and breadth of the short-term cuts (which would leave room for more talks about more cuts).

As this continues, one angle to keep an eye on is the tolerance and pragmatism of the House Republican rank-and-file. Caucus members have already demonstrated a willingness to ignore their own leaders, and it's certainly plausible that House GOP leaders and Senate Democratic leaders could strike a deal, only to see the House defeat it for being insufficiently right-wing.

Indeed, Politico noted this morning that "Boehner and Co." are "hostage to the will of their caucus," and as far as the right-wing rank-and-file are concerned, avoiding a shutdown isn't really a priority.

Part of me wonders if we'll reach a point in this Congress at which Democrats stop negotiating with Boehner and start asking for someone who actually leads House Republicans.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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February 21, 2011

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

* Libya starts to unravel: "Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi's regime showed more signs of crumbling Monday as scores of people were reportedly killed in the capital, witnesses said military helicopters shot at protesters on the ground, and the U.S. ordered non-essential diplomats to leave the North African nation. The six-day-old uprising had reached the capital, Tripoli, by Monday morning, with reports of buildings being set ablaze and looting in some neighborhoods. In Libya's second-largest city of Benghazi, anti-government demonstrators celebrated on the streets, with reports growing that the city was now under their control."

* The violence towards unarmed civilians in Libya is heartbreaking: "The faltering government of the Libyan strongman Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi struck back at mounting protests against his 40-year rule, as helicopters and warplanes besieged parts of the capital Monday, according to witnesses and news reports from Tripoli."

* How bad has it gotten for the Libyan regime? This bad: "Members of Libya's mission to the United Nations publicly repudiated Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi on Monday, calling him a genocidal war criminal responsible for mass shootings of demonstrators protesting against his four decades in power. They called upon him to resign. The repudiation, led by Libya's deputy permanent representative at a news conference at the mission's headquarters in New York, amounted to the most high-profile defection of Libyan diplomats in the anti-Qaddafi uprising that has convulsed Libya over the past week."

* Afghanistan: "A suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance to an Afghan government office Monday, killing at least 30 people -- many who were waiting in line to obtain government identification cards, police said."

* A disgraced, racist Tea Party leader presents his new anti-union plan: get right-wing activists to pose as SEIU organizers and cause trouble.

* Apparently, it's still possible for pundits' love of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) to get more ridiculous.

* If it seems odd to have Democrats in the Wisconsin Senate flee to deny the chamber a quorum, remember, it's been a fairly common tactic for many years. Abraham Lincoln literally jumped out a window 170 years ago to deny a quorum in Illinois.

* Good point from Nate Silver: "Rasmussen should probably just drop the pretense that they are non-partisan."

* Concerns rise over Rep. David Wu's (D-Ore.) mental health.

* Arizona has an odd low-cost college plan: "Since the state evidently has no plans to give the public college more money (which could reduce tuition), the solution appears to be to give Arizona residents some low-quality education options."

* I couldn't care less whether Rush Limbaugh is fat, but when he goes after First Lady Michelle Obama on the air, suggesting that she's overweight, I wonder if Limbaugh's drug addiction has damaged his eyesight, too.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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IF RICK SCOTT HAD BEEN GOVERNOR IN 1956.... Last week, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), for reasons that no one can figure out, deliberately turned down federal funding -- and tens of thousands of jobs -- for a high-speed rail project. The reaction has been less than positive, and even Republicans from D.C. to Miami found the decision incomprehensible.

But there was something the senior senator from Florida said the other day that stuck with me.

Democrats nationally and in Florida sharply criticized Scott's decision as being short-sighted.

"If Florida would've had a governor who rejected President Eisenhower's idea, we wouldn't have an interstate system," U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who has been vocally supportive of the project even as conservatives attacked him for it, said via Twitter Wednesday afternoon.

Nelson's talking, of course, about the interstate highway system, championed by Eisenhower and approved by Congress in the mid-1950s. It's a good line that drives a larger point home nicely.

But I'm wondering if there's more to this. I know a bit about the history behind the system, but I'm genuinely curious -- were there governors who fought against interstate highways in their states?

If President Obama proposed something like this today, we can probably imagine the reaction. Right-wing activists would demand to know where in the Constitution it says the federal government can build a highway; Republicans would file lawsuits in carefully-chosen courts; Fox News would call it a socialist experiment; Bachmann and Beck would tell us it's a plot to make it easier for the president to send Americans to re-education camps run by George Soros; and ridiculous governors would resist this oppressive and unprecedented federal overreach.

But that's only because the contemporary Republican Party has become so ridiculous. Did Eisenhower actually have to deal with similar stupidity? Was the interstate highway system ever in jeopardy because of hysterical ideologues?

I'd welcome the input of historians and/or experts in this area.

Steve Benen 3:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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BACHMANN FINDS HER WMD.... When Glenn Beck's latest nonsense comes up, the conversation often turns to his sincerity. We really don't know for sure whether the Fox News personality actually believes his deranged observations, or whether it's an elaborate act. Beck's either deeply disturbed or he's exceptionally good at pretending to be deeply disturbed.

Over the weekend, though, we were reminded that no such debate exists with Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). The ignominious Republican, arguably Congress' most ridiculous member, was in South Carolina Saturday night, apparently as part of Bachmann's alleged national ambitions.

Those who heard her learned, among other things, that the federal tax code is a "weapon of mass destruction."

Bachmann also said there's a business bubble because the U.S. has the "highest corporate income tax rate in the world."

It is the tax code she blames for the "business bubble." She said, "We need to get rid of the blood-sucking tax code. It's got to go, just scrap the current tax code," adding that it is "a weapon of mass destruction."

Bachmann also has a new idea on how to address entitlement costs.

Bachmann blasted entitlement spending and urged reform in Social Security. "The problem is our health care welfare spending which is out of control," she said. "The good news is we can solve this problem. It needs to be a market based approach."

She offered up a somewhat non-traditional solution: "We need to simply tell people the facts, like Glenn Beck, with that chalkboard, that man can explain anything. I think if we give Glenn Beck the numbers, he can solve this."

After complaining about "cohabitating couples" and the government helping students afford college tuition, Bachmann went on to argue, "The bureaucrats now hate our values; there's a war on marriage, a war on family, a war on fertility all while funding and promoting abortion."

Just to be clear, there was no indication that Bachmann was kidding. By all accounts, she believes all of this.

What's more, her unhinged tirades brought Bachmann's audience "to their feet" and -- this is my favorite part -- the chair of Spartanburg County Republican Party called Bachmann "inspirational" and "very presidential."

Steve Benen 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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STUCK IN THE WRONG CONVERSATION.... During the hour-long episode of "Meet the Press" yesterday, there was exactly one reference to the U.S. unemployment rate, uttered by former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D). The word "spending" was used 40 times.

The very first sentence of the broadcast was host David Gregory telling viewers, "The battle to rein in government is shaping up to be the major fight not only of this year, but of the 2012 campaign."

There was no discussion of how, exactly, this became "the major fight," only that the political establishment has decreed it to be. If you thought economic growth and job creation was at the center of the policy discussion in Washington, I'm afraid your attitudes are so 2010.

There are very few prominent media voices whose priorities remain sound. E.J. Dionne Jr., thankfully, is one of them.

Take five steps back and consider the nature of the political conversation in our nation's capital. You would never know that it's taking place at a moment when unemployment is still at 9 percent, when wages for so many people are stagnating at best and when the United States faces unprecedented challenges to its economic dominance.

No, Washington is acting as if the only real problem the United States confronts is the budget deficit; the only test of leadership is whether the president is willing to make big cuts in programs that protect the elderly; and the largest threat to our prosperity comes from public employees.

Consider another example. Last week, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) twice acknowledged publicly that his proposed spending cuts would force more American workers from their jobs, on purpose. The first time he said it, Boehner told reporters, "So be it."

How many times did this rather startling remark come up in any of the five major Sunday morning public affairs shows? Zero. It was simply ignored.*

And the reason it was ignored isn't hard to understand: pesky Americans may think jobs and the economy are the most pressing national issue, but the political world has no use for such parochial concerns. The establishment has moved on.

This reached a farcical level on "Meet the Press" when Republican strategist Ed Gillespie insisted that President Obama is "out of touch." Why? Because the president is committed to creating jobs, promoting innovation, and cultivating economic development through high-speed rail.

To be "in touch," apparently, is to consider such priorities unimportant.

Dionne concluded, "In his State of the Union address, Obama made a good case that budget cutting is too small an agenda and that this is also a time for more government -- yes, more government -- in areas that would expand opportunities and strengthen the economy. That argument has been entirely drowned out. If politics is reduced to a crabbed and crabby accountants' war, Obama loses. The country will, too."

* Corrected: It turns out Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) brought it up on "Face the Nation," a reference that didn't turn up in a Nexis search. My apologies for the error, but the larger point, obviously, stands.

Steve Benen 12:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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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:

* Late last week, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico announced he will not seek re-election in 2012. He's the fourth member of the Democratic caucus to retire in advance of the coming cycle -- following Sens. Jim Webb (Va.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), and Kent Conrad (N.D.) -- making next year that much more difficult for the party.

* In the race to replace Bingaman, some credible Democratic candidates, including state Auditor Hector Balderas and U.S. Rep. Martin Heinrich, have already strongly hinted that they'll run, and 2010 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Diane Denish is also expected to launch a campaign.

* Among New Mexico Republicans, former Rep. Heather Wilson and Rep. Steve Pearce are both reportedly in the mix.

* In Connecticut, Rep. Joe Courtney (D) announced this morning he is not running for the Senate seat currently held by retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman (I). Two other Dems are already in the race -- Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz and Rep. Christopher Murphy.

* On a related note, the Republican field in Connecticut hasn't come together just yet, but GOP officials are reportedly trying to recruit state Sen. L. Scott Frantz.

* Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano made it official late last week that she is not running for the Senate in her home state of Arizona. A DHS spokesperson told reporters, "She cares deeply about Arizona, but the Secretary intends to continue doing the job that the President asked her to do -- protecting the American people from terrorism and other threats to our country."

* RNC Chairman Reince Priebus' principal goal at this point is to keep a low profile and raise a lot of money. So far, he's doing just that -- Priebus raised $3.5 million in his first two weeks on the job, and has been largely unseen in the media.

* And in case Dems needed yet another reminder of their difficulties in the South, the party lost a state Senate special election in Louisiana the other day, giving the Republicans control of the chamber for the first time since Reconstruction.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (4)

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WALKER NOT EXACTLY OPEN TO COMPROMISE.... Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's (R) union-busting efforts aren't making compromise easy, but that doesn't mean options aren't available.

The most obvious is also the easiest -- state workers are prepared to accept less pay and fewer benefits, and in exchange, Walker would be expected to drop his punitive and unnecessary demands that workers give up their collective-bargaining rights. The governor has already said this isn't a deal he would even consider.

Which leads us to another possible compromise.

With Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker maintaining a hard line on his budget bill and Democratic senators refusing to return to Madison to vote, attention is turning to a group of moderate Republican senators to negotiate a compromise to the stalemate that has drawn thousands of protesters to the state capital for a sixth straight day.

The proposal, written by Sen. Dale Schultz and first floated in the Republican caucus early last week, calls for most collective bargaining rights of public employee unions to be eliminated -- per Mr. Walker's bill -- but then reinstated in 2013, said Mr. Schultzs's chief of staff Todd Allbaugh.

Now, as compromises go, this doesn't sound like much of a deal for state employees. The state would temporarily strip workers of the collective-bargaining rights, but then bring them back later.

As it turns out, it doesn't much matter whether labor would go for something like this -- Walker announced this morning that this isn't good enough, either. He wants both the cuts and the union-busting provisions, and will accept nothing less.

That said, it is interesting that a Republican state senator is open to a resolution that would deny the conservative governor his full agenda. It's worth keeping an eye out for other cracks in the united GOP front.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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WISCONSIN, IN CONTEXT.... Once state employees in Wisconsin announced their willingness to accept benefit cuts, but not the revocation of their collective bargaining rights, the nature of the debate changed. It looked as if Gov. Scott Walker (R) was advancing a punitive, unnecessary union-busting agenda, but once his budget demands had been met, and he still refused to work with Democrats and his own state employees, appearances no longer mattered -- this is a punitive, unnecessary union-busting agenda.

The next question is why Walker and other Republican leaders consider this such a high priority. The obvious answer is that the GOP has always been hostile to labor; it's part of the party's raison d'etre. But it's worth taking the next step and appreciating what drives the antagonism.

Paul Krugman's column today makes the case well.

In principle, every American citizen has an equal say in our political process. In practice, of course, some of us are more equal than others. Billionaires can field armies of lobbyists; they can finance think tanks that put the desired spin on policy issues; they can funnel cash to politicians with sympathetic views (as the Koch brothers did in the case of Mr. Walker). On paper, we're a one-person-one-vote nation; in reality, we're more than a bit of an oligarchy, in which a handful of wealthy people dominate.

Given this reality, it's important to have institutions that can act as counterweights to the power of big money. And unions are among the most important of these institutions.

You don't have to love unions, you don't have to believe that their policy positions are always right, to recognize that they're among the few influential players in our political system representing the interests of middle- and working-class Americans, as opposed to the wealthy. Indeed, if America has become more oligarchic and less democratic over the last 30 years -- which it has -- that's to an important extent due to the decline of private-sector unions.

And now Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to get rid of public-sector unions, too.

There's a bitter irony here. The fiscal crisis in Wisconsin, as in other states, was largely caused by the increasing power of America's oligarchy. After all, it was superwealthy players, not the general public, who pushed for financial deregulation and thereby set the stage for the economic crisis of 2008-9, a crisis whose aftermath is the main reason for the current budget crunch. And now the political right is trying to exploit that very crisis, using it to remove one of the few remaining checks on oligarchic influence.

I'm reminded, from time to time, of something John Boehner said in July, when he accused Democrats of "snuffing out the America that I grew up in." This occurred to me in the wake of the GOP's anti-union efforts because the America Boehner grew up in featured large union memberships throughout society, and the "right to form a union was broadly accepted."

If Boehner wants to protect the norms of that bygone era, and prevent the "snuffing out" of the America he grew up in, the House Speaker is fighting for the wrong side.

Steve Benen 9:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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RSS UPDATE.... Several readers have run into trouble with the Political Animal RSS feed. Our apologies -- we made some adjustments the other day and I think everything is now on track.

For those whose feed hasn't updated in a couple of days, please re-subscribe -- it should only take a moment or two -- and that should fix the problem.

Sorry for the inconvenience. If, after you re-subscribe, the problem persists, let me know.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (5)

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THE INEVITABLE CONSEQUENCE OF OVERREACH.... Just seven weeks into 2011, Republicans at the state and national level have removed words like "modest" and "incremental" from their lexicon. In the wake of last year's midterm victories, GOP officials are convinced they have a mandate to pursue a bold, right-wing agenda.

In Congress, Republicans are gutting health care, slashing spending on domestic priorities like education, ignoring job creation, and pushing a variety of culture-war measures, targeting, among other things, reproductive rights. At the same time, in statehouses, GOP officials are cutting taxes and picking fights with state employees.

The NYT ponders the likelihood of the dreaded "overreach."

[I]n the view of officials from both major political parties, Republicans may be risking the same kind of electoral backlash Democrats suffered after they were perceived as overreaching.

Public surveys suggest that most voters do not share the Republicans' fervor for the deep cuts adopted by the House, or for drastically slashing the power of public-sector unions. And independent voters have historically been averse to displays of political partisanship that have been played out over the last week.

"If Republicans push too far and overreach their mandate, they will be punished by independent voters, just as they were in 1996," said Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist who was a senior adviser to President George W. Bush. "Voters said they wanted bold action. They are getting bold action. But Republicans need to be constantly reminded that the last election was a referendum for change, not a referendum for the G.O.P."

Now, the article seems to take it as a given that President Obama overreached in 2009. I tend to think that's ridiculous -- the Democratic agenda was consistently modest and in line with the American mainstream, even in facing massive crises -- though it appears the establishment has embraced the meme with both arms.

Having said that, it's still worth appreciating two larger points. The first is that Republicans genuinely seem to believe they have a mandate for a far-right agenda, and they're wrong.

"They are taking some kind of public expression of deep concern about the economy and turning it into something entirely different," former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) said. "They are making a mistake. They say: 'Well, we won the election. Elections have consequences.' And I say, yes, and we are going to have another election next year."

This is reinforced by ample polling showing Americans approving of cuts in the abstract, but balking at GOP-favored policies like slashing funds for education, health care, and other domestic priorities. (There's a reason the DCCC was smiling after Republicans approved their cuts early Saturday morning.)

The second is that overreach always leads to the same result: a backlash. The listless Democratic base is waking up, getting engaged, and finding themselves more energized than they've been in a while.

The irony is, John Boehner and other GOP leaders saw this as a distinct possibility before the new Congress began. They saw what happened to Gingrich in 1995, and they had every intention of avoiding the appearance of overreach.

But the party can't seem to help itself. The question isn't whether Republicans will pay a price, but how big it will be.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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WHEN THE PARTIES TALK PAST EACH OTHER.... On CBS's "Face the Nation" yesterday, we heard from the top two lawmakers on the House Budget Committee: Republican Chairman Paul Ryan and Democratic Ranking Member Chris Van Hollen. (Yes, it was a pleasant surprise to see a Democrat was invited onto a Sunday show.) The important part of their discussion was appreciating the competing priorities on display.

Ryan conceded that there's no way the Senate will approve the House budget cuts. "My guess is we'll probably have some short-term extensions while we negotiate these things -- with spending cuts," he said, explaining how a GOP-led government shutdown can be avoided.

Remember, there were basically three options here: (1) strike a deal for the rest of the fiscal year; (2) pass a temporary extension while negotiations continue; or (3) shutdown. Ryan, like the rest of the Republican leadership, now wants (4) policymakers can approve a temporary spending measure while negotiations continue, but only if it includes vague-but-deep cuts. The priority, as Ryan sees it, has to be slashing spending, laying off public-sector workers, and reducing the deficit.

And then viewers heard a different perspective.

Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen argued on Sunday that 800,000 Americans could lose their jobs if the GOP's budget proposal was enacted, and warned against making "reckless" cuts to the federal budget.

In an appearance on CBS' "Face the Nation," Van Hollen said that "everybody agrees we need to get the deficit under control," but argued that drastic cuts in 2011 would damage an already fragile economy.

"The bipartisan commission on fiscal responsibility specifically warned against deep, immediate cuts in the year 2011. Why? Because it would hurt a fragile economy and put people out of work," he told CBS' Bob Schieffer. "In fact, there are estimates that about 800,000 Americans would lose their jobs if you do this in a reckless manner."

Van Hollen criticized House Speaker John Boehner for what he described as a "callous" attitude toward the prospect of American job loss in the face of budget cuts, and argued that Republicans were taking the "wrong approach" toward mending the economy.

Van Hollen is right on the merits, and it was delightful hearing the argument actually being aired on a Sunday show where these observations are generally verboten, but the more important point here is that the Maryland Democrat was presenting a different goal: his priority is protecting the fragile economic recovery. Ryan's goal is reducing the deficit Republicans helped create.

They were, in other words, largely talking past one another. This would be a challenge if the parties shared the same priorities, but disagreed on how to get from here to there, but it's much worse when they're not even reading from the same map.

Just a reminder: the House and Senate are in recess this week, and the funding for the government runs out on March 4 -- a week from Friday. When lawmakers return to Washington, they'll have literally five days to find some kind of agreement.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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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:

* What should the public expect if/when Republicans shut down the government?

* Remember Donald Rumsfeld? He still doesn't know what he's talking about.

* Charles Lane's piece on the labor dispute in Wisconsin was an offensive mess.

* It's not up to Montana politicians to will the climate crisis away.

* House Republicans are convinced "we're broke," but not broke enough to pull ineffectual, taxpayer-financed NASCAR ads.

* In Wisconsin, the protests just keep growing.

On Saturday, we talked about:

* As House Republicans continue to try to gut the health care system, the Congressional Budget Office keeps telling them what the GOP doesn't want to hear.

* The far-right hates "social engineering," except when it doesn't.

* As if he didn't have enough problems, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) has some disturbing assumptions about African-American lawmakers.

* In targeting "domestic" priorities, the House GOP actually voted to undermine national security priorities, including nuclear security.

* In "This Week in God," we covered, among other things, clergy support for unions in Wisconsin.

* Dana Loesch is off to an inauspicious start at CNN.

* If Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) were acting in good faith, labor leaders have offered him a terrific compromise. Too bad he's not acting in good faith.

* At 4:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, House Republicans approved brutal, job-killing budget cuts they know have no chance in the Senate.

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

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February 20, 2011

WHO'LL LOSE IF/WHEN REPUBLICANS SHUT DOWN THE GOVERNMENT (AGAIN).... With 12 days left until a possible, arguably likely, shutdown of the federal government, there's quite a bit of talk this weekend over whether Republicans, just two months into the new Congress, will actually pull the proverbial trigger.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has offered a sensible way out, keeping the status quo in place for just a few weeks, pushing the deadline from March 4 to March 31. The point would be to leave more room for negotiations, though GOP leaders quickly rejected Pelosi's plan.

The talk, not surprisingly, is dominating much of the Sunday shows this morning. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told "Face the Nation," for example, he believes House Speaker John Boehner "seems to be on a course that would inevitably lead to a shutdown."

But while the wrangling continues, it's also worth thinking about the eventual consequences of the shutdown that may come a week from Friday. Newt Gingrich and congressional Republicans shutdown the government twice during President Clinton's first term, and while some government functions have changed in the 15 years since, the L.A. Times reflects on what happened last time to help set the stage for what might happen this time.

The Constitution and U.S. statutes prohibit agencies from operating without an express appropriation from Congress, meaning a lapse in funding would trigger layoffs and fractures in services.

Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D- San Francisco) each said last week that a shutdown would delay Social Security checks and disrupt other services considered vital to millions of Americans.

In the 1995-96 shutdowns, Social Security checks continued to be mailed, although many government payments were delayed as officials struggled to keep enough employees on the job on an emergency basis, as laws allow, to continue service.

Many other Social Security services halted, including responses to requests for retirement and disability claims, address changes and Social Security numbers needed for work.

During that time, museums and national parks were closed and applications for visas and passports went unprocessed. A downturn in the housing market was blamed on a halt to transactions involving the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration, now called the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Government economic reports were delayed, and federal employees went without paychecks for as long as the shutdowns lasted. Claims for veterans benefits also faced delays.

In many respects, it's hard to know exactly what to expect, because existing shutdown contingency plans haven't been tested. There are ambiguities as to which government functions are considered "essential" -- the Transportation Security Administration, for example, did not exist in 1996 -- and decisions have not yet been made about officials expected to perform "emergency" services.

But remember, as far as some Republicans are concerned, it doesn't much matter. Just a month before the midterm elections, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) not only welcomed a shutdown, he delivered a speech on what to expect. Americans, he predicted at the time, will say things like, "Daddy can't go to the VA, the national parks are closed." But, Westmoreland added, just so long as far-right activists stand with Republicans during the shutdown, the GOP will "hold the line" and fare better than the last time the party pulled this stunt.

Also note, the economy was much stronger in the mid-1990s than it is now. In 2011, we have a fragile recovery, which will be put at risk if most of the 2 million civilian government employees can't work, can't earn a paycheck, and can't spend money.

Congressional Republicans, in other words, aren't just playing with fire when it comes to public services -- they're putting the economy at risk in order to push brutal spending cuts, which also put the economy at risk.

Thanks again, midterm voters, for putting the country in this position.

Steve Benen 11:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (80)

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RETIREMENT HASN'T IMPROVED RUMSFELD.... When Donald Rumsfeld was forced from the Pentagon four years ago, he departed the stage as a humiliated and widely-loathed figure. After a series of catastrophic failures, no one, not even Republicans, found ol' Rummy remotely credible. He left a beaten man.

Four years later, Rumsfeld has published a truly ridiculous book, which offers him an opportunity to go on national television and bash the president.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld disputes the notion that President Barack Obama has made America more popular around the globe than it was under his former boss, President George W. Bush.

Asked on CNN's "State of the Union" by host Candy Crowley whether the U.S. is looked at differently than under his tenure, Rumsfeld replied, "I don't think there's data that supports that."

"He has made a practice of trying to apologize for America," Rumsfeld said of Obama. "I personally am proud of America."

Let's unpack this a bit. On the first point, there's all kinds of data to support the notion that the standing of the United States has improved around the globe since President Obama took office, replacing George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld. This was evident six months into the Obama presidency, and it continues. Obama ran in 2008 vowing to win back the international respect the United States had lost, and he's been widely successful in doing just that.

Rumsfeld may not like the "data," but reality doesn't much care what he prefers.

On the second point, I realize Republicans are pretty invested in this notion that the president has "apologized for America," but in Grown-Up Land, this is simply imaginary. You'll notice, of course, that conservatives bring this ridiculous talking point up quite a bit, without actually pointing to any examples. There's a reason for this.

If, however, Rumsfeld wants to argue that President Obama has made an effort to restore frayed international alliances, and has felt compelled to acknowledge U.S. missteps in the past, that's certainly true. Of course, those efforts were made necessary by none other than Donald "Old Europe" Rumsfeld, who was directly responsible for dragging the name of the United States through the mud, undermining our reputation in the process.

To accuse President Obama of "apologizing for America," is idiotic. But if Rumsfeld wants to apologize for embarrassing America, I'm all ears.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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THE WRONG LANE.... Over the last week or so, we've seen efforts to equate the labor dispute in Wisconsin to the political revolution in Egypt, some of which strikes me as misplaced. But the Washington Post's Charles Lane, in a deeply disappointing piece, instead draws a connection between developments in Madison and last month's tragic shootings in Tucson. (via DougJ)

It has been just over five weeks since a deranged gunman in a Tucson suburb left six people dead and 13 injured, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). In the wake of that horrific tragedy, Americans reflected on -- and argued about -- the possible connection between the violence and today's often nasty, polarized political discourse.

President Obama, in a moving eulogy for the fallen, called on all Americans to "pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds."

Yet today in Wisconsin, anger and vilification are once again the order of the day -- and the incivility emanates from the progressive end of the spectrum....

Perhaps most disappointing of all is that the president himself, rather than living up to the words he spoke so eloquently in Tuscon [sic], has chosen to fuel the fury on the Great Lakes. He labeled Walker's legislation "an assault on unions," while the White House political operation bused in more demonstrators to join those waving Walker = Hitler placards. These are the words and deeds of a partisan politician, not a national leader.

If the brave Gabrielle Giffords could speak normally, what would she say about these events? I hope she would agree with me: This is a sad moment for liberalism, for the Democratic Party, and, really, for the whole country.

Keep in mind, Charles Lane isn't some Fox News personality. I've seen him publish a variety of worthwhile commentaries in recent years.

But reading this, I can't imagine what he was thinking.

Lane seems to believe unions trying to protect their collective bargaining rights -- unnecessarily targeted by a conservative governor on some kind of crusade -- are in the wrong. Lane doesn't explain why, exactly, and on the substance, I obviously think he's mistaken.

But it's Lane's thoughts on "civility" that are just inexplicable.

To be sure, those carrying placards with swastikas are deeply misguided, and anyone equating Scott Walker with Hitler is ridiculous. Though these appear to be a tiny handful of folks in a much larger protest, Lane is on firm ground calling them out.

But his criticism of the White House is just bizarre. President Obama believes Walker's union-busting efforts are "an assault on unions." He said this because, in reality, Walker's union-busting efforts are "an assault on unions." It's not uncivil, it's not inaccurate, and to condemn the president for trying to "fuel the fury" is silly. Obama was asked by a Wisconsin reporter for his opinion, and he offered a fair, mild-mannered assessment. Why Lane found it outrageous is a mystery.

What's more, Lane appears shocked that the Democratic Party would side with their own allies, against Republican overreach stripping school teachers and other public employees of their collective bargaining rights, as if the Post writer temporarily forgot that the Democratic Party has always been a champion of labor rights. Worse, he somehow connects the party to offensive placards, which Dems had nothing to do with, based on nothing.

And then Lane concludes by somehow connecting Gabrielle Giffords to his position, again based on nothing.

I'm genuinely amazed Charles Lane published this. It's my sincere hope that he'll give this some additional thought, and realize that this was an offensive mistake, worthy of an apology.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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IF ONLY IT WERE THIS EASY.... There are competing ideas on how to combat the climate crisis. It never occurred to me to just wish it away through legislation.

A Montana legislator is proposing the state embrace global warming as good for the economy.

Republican Rep. Joe Read of Ronan aims to pass a law that says global warming is a natural occurrence that "is beneficial to the welfare and business climate of Montana."

Reaction by scientists and environmentalists to House Bill 549 has been harsh. University of Montana climate change professor Steve Running calls it an indefensible attempt to repeal the laws of physics.

Why didn't we think of that? Climate change threatens us in a variety of dangerous ways, but instead of addressing the problem, we can have ignorant politicians simply declare that global warming is good for us.

Matt Yglesias added, "This seems like fruitful territory. Imagine what could be achieved by simply passing laws that say tax cuts raise revenue and defense spending doesn't count as spending."

Why stop there? I'll look forward to Republicans declaring cancer illegal and writing legislation making cookies an effective weight-loss tool.

As I've heard Neil deGrasse Tyson explain more than once, "The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."

They're called the "laws of physics," but that doesn't mean lawmakers get to change them.

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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WHO AMONG US DOESN'T LOVE TAXPAYER-FINANCED NASCAR ADS?.... With the House voting on several hundred amendments to its spending bill for the current fiscal year, there were plenty of odd votes late in the week. The vote to save millions of taxpayer dollars currently going to car-racing sponsorship is probably worth noting.

The House has voted to let the Pentagon continue using taxpayer dollars to sponsor NASCAR race teams.

By a 281-148 vote, lawmakers rejected an effort by Minnesota Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum that would have ended the practice. McCollum aides said the Army is spending $7 million on a sponsorship this year, and the Air Force and National Guard are spending additional money.

McCollum said the military spends the funds to place decals on race cars and for a few driver appearances. The armed forces hope the sponsorships will help them attract recruits.

Now, there's no real evidence to suggest the multi-million-dollar decals have the intended effect. In fact, the Navy and Marine Corps used to pay for NASCAR decals, but dropped them when officials concluded they were of little value.

But the politics of this turned out to be pretty interesting. For one thing, McCollum received threats of violence for trying to save the public funds.

As for the GOP, to hear House Republicans tell it, "we're broke," which means it's time to take a buzz-saw to the budget. In this very bill, the GOP voted to slash education, job training, environmental protections, food safety, community health centers, nuclear security, energy efficiency programs, scientific research, FEMA, Planned Parenthood, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Social Security Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control, among other things.

But when it came time to save taxpayers $7 million on a seemingly-pointless NASCAR ad, Republicans balked. In all, 30 GOP lawmakers broke ranks and voted with Democrats to save the money, but 209 Republicans voted to keep the NASCAR ad and kill McCollum's amendment.

In other words, we're broke, but leave NASCAR alone.

And Fox News, which also claims to love "austerity," is thrilled.

David Frum's summary rang true: "Government funding for NASCAR: Liberty. Government funding for NPR: Tyranny."

Postscript: By the way, the phrase in the headline comes by way of the made-up John Kerry quote from 2004: "Who among us does not love NASCAR?" Kerry never said this, ever. Maureen Dowd made it up, and the media ran with it.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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THE LATEST FROM WISCONSIN.... If Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) and his supporters were hoping pro-labor protests would slowly fade away as the week progressed, they were no doubt disappointed yesterday. Indeed, with each passing day, the demonstrations against the union-busting campaign appear to be getting stronger.

Estimates vary, but by some counts, 65,000 protestors appeared in Madison yesterday -- tens of thousands outside the building, and several thousand more inside -- to express their concerns. For the first time, the Republicans' Tea Party wing and other right-wing activists joined the demonstrations in an organized way, with notable-but-C-list conservative celebrities making appearances, including Andrew Breitbart and Samuel "Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher.

Let's pause to appreciate the irony: in a dispute between working families and government officials, the Tea Party crowd is siding with the government.

In any case, it'd be a mistake to somehow equate the size and strength of the competing factions at the state Capitol yesterday. Both sides were represented, but only one side produced real numbers.

[E]very estimate in the media has shown that the pro-Walker demonstration was outnumbered several times over by the pro-union demonstrators.

Reuters reports: "Both sides drew thousands to the state capital Madison on Saturday -- unofficial estimates put the total near 40,000 -- but opponents appeared to have several times as many as those backed by Tea Party groups, the first appearance by members of the conservative, limited-government movement this week."

Separately, WisPolitics reports that the state Department of Administration has estimated 55,000 demonstrators -- 50,000 outside the Capitol, and 5,000 inside. They also add: "This is the first day there has been a significant number of people demonstrating in favor of Gov. Scott Walker's bill. The number of bill supporters, however, was dwarfed by the massive throng of bill opponents."

The good news, under the circumstances, is that there were no incidents during the massive protest, and no arrests were made.

As for the state of the debate itself, union leaders continue to emphasize their willingness to accept less pay and fewer benefits, just so long as they keep their collective bargaining rights, won generations ago. The Republican gubernatorial administration still refuses to consider the compromise, and has ruled out any talks.

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

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February 19, 2011

THE CBO KEEPS SPOILING THE GOP'S FUN.... The first wave of the Republicans' anti-health-care crusade proved to be a reckless waste of time. Knowing the outcome in advance, the House approved a bill to bring back the old, dysfunctional, budget-busting system and strip millions of families of their benefits, only to see the Senate defeat the same bill.

We saw the second wave yesterday, though it's likely to meet an identical fate.

The House voted Friday to block funding for the health care law in several ways -- starting the countdown to the defunding clash with Senate Democrats and President Barack Obama.

As expected, lawmakers approved Rep. Denny Rehberg's amendment to the continuing resolution, which bars all payments to "any employee, officer, contractor, or grantee of any department or agency" to implement the law.

The Montana Republican's amendment is aimed at the Department of Health and Human Services and the Labor Department.

The final vote was 239 to 187. Three Democrats broke ranks and voted with the GOP majority, while two Republicans voted against the measure.

The point of the effort isn't subtle -- if there's no funding to implement the law, American families can't enjoy the new protections and benefits. Republicans couldn't repeal the reforms, so they're trying to gut them from within. The Rehberg measure was accompanied by three other amendments: (1) blocking enforcement of the individual mandate; (2) denying funding for health insurance exchanges, apparently because giving consumers more choices is communism; and (3) freeing insurance companies from having to spend so much on patient care.

Honestly, I wonder sometimes if congressional Republicans just don't like Americans very much.

In any case, the measures, the latest in a series of efforts for the GOP to avoid trying to create jobs, will die in the Senate, but will nevertheless be part of the Republican case as to why they're inclined to shut down the government.

And at nearly the exact same time as the Republican votes to destroy the Affordable Care Act, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office delivered a revised estimate on what repealing the Affordable Care Act would do to the federal budget: the federal budget deficit would go up $210 billion in the first decade, and roughly $813 billion in the second decade.

So to review, House Republicans are making brutal spending cuts to domestic and foreign priorities, ostensibly because they're worried about the deficit, while at the same time trying to destroy a health care law that lowers the deficit.

I don't imagine GOP leaders were pleased with the CBO's inconvenient timing, but since Republicans have decided independent cost analyses of their priorities no longer count, and the objective referee needs to be discredited, the latest score will probably be swept under the rug.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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'SOCIAL ENGINEERING' MAKES A COMEBACK.... We don't hear it too much anymore, but for many years, the scourge of "social engineering" was a favorite Republican talking point.

In 1993, for example, then-Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) condemned the Clinton White House in a Washington Post op-ed, accusing the Democratic administration of trying to interfere with "the traditional family." Hyde called this "exotic social engineering." In 2000, Dick Cheney said the Gore/Lieberman tax-cut plan "would serve as a form of social engineering."

And in an apparent attempt to give the talking point a new boost, here was Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) on ABC's "Good Morning America" the other day:

"The tax code is used by government as social engineering. I spent years [as an attorney] in the United States federal tax court seeing the difficult burden of the tax code in people's lives and I think the federal government should really stop social engineering."

The context for this, oddly enough, was part of Bachmann's argument to eliminate the tax deduction for families that buy breast pumps and related supplies. Why Bachmann finds this offensive is a mystery.

But putting these details aside, it's worth appreciating the fact that the tax code engages in "social engineering" all the time, and always has.

As Jay Newton-Small explained, "I have to wonder what other pieces of 'social engineering' of the tax code Bachmann opposes. The mortgage interest deduction that subsidizes home ownership? The dependent care credit that helps working parents pay for child care? Or the exclusion for combat soldiers, which gives soldiers putting themselves in harm's way a break on income tax? What about the suspension of the marriage penalty or the child credit?"

Bachmann may not see any of these provisions as "social engineering," but that's only because she's easily confused.

In the abstract, the right is offended by the idea of using the power of the state to alter how people can and will behave. It's supposed to be anathema for anyone who values "limited" government.

But the reason the talking point started fading away in the first place is that Republicans in recent years have grown to love "social engineering," and not just in the tax code. We're talking about a party that wants to use the law to shape marriages, dictate private citizens' reproductive decisions, and embraces concepts like the faith-based initiative, fatherhood initiative, and abstinence-only programs.

If Bachman is serious about "stopping social engineering," she not only has a lot of work to do, she will have to combat proposals from her own party.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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HOW NOT TO CONNECT WITH MINORITY COMMUNITIES.... When Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) wasn't rejecting job-creating transportation funds, he was meeting with African-American state lawmakers, trying to demonstrate his ability to connect. It didn't go well.

Gov. Rick Scott welcomed black legislators to lunch Tuesday at the Governor's Mansion, but his choice of words left some feeling more alienated than ever.

In discussing his own humble origins, Scott implied that all black lawmakers grew up poor.

"I grew up probably in the same situation as you guys," Scott said to the group of 20 Democrats. "I started school in public housing. My dad had a sixth-grade education."

And to think, all Rick Scott had to do was go on to defraud taxpayers for several years and commit a variety of felonies, and look at the man he is today.

But the point, of course, is the racial angle. Lex Luthor Gov. Scott spoke to 20 black lawmakers, and without knowing anything about their backgrounds, simply assumed that they came from low-income backgrounds with uneducated parents. Why? Because of the color of their skin.

Rep. Betty Reed, D-Tampa, said she was offended by the remark, but did not protest at the time because she said it was more important to have a productive dialogue with the new governor.

Afterward, she said, "He assumed that everyone [in the room] was poor and that can only be because you're black."

This reminds me a lot of the time, a couple of years ago, when then-RNC Chairman Michael Steele was on CNN with Chuck D from Public Enemy, and Steele was trying to relate to the rapper. "What struck me about hip-hop as a genre, as music, as whatever you want to call it, a culture, was the fact that you have guys like yourself who come out of the projects, come off the street. Myself, I grew up on Eighth Street in DC. That's a whole different world from where I am right now," Steele said at the time.

Chuck D replied, "I grew up in Roosevelt, Long Island. It's not the projects."

Here's a tip for Republicans: don't make racial assumptions. It tends to go poorly.

And in the larger context, Kevin Donohoe raised a good point the other day: between Maine's Paul LePage, Ohio's John Kasich, and Mississippi's Haley Barbour, this really hasn't been a good year for Republican governors and race.

Steve Benen 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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IT'S ONLY NATIONAL SECURITY.... Much of the recent budget discussion has been focused on House Republicans' intention to make deep, job-killing cuts to domestic discretionary spending. The list of targets has become rather familiar: education, job training, health care, environmental protections, etc.

What's received less attention is the fact that the GOP has decided to include a great deal of international funds as part of "domestic" cuts.

Earlier in the week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton tried to explain what a mistake this is.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Monday that Republican-proposed cuts in foreign aid to be considered by the House this week would harm the nation's security interests and standing across the globe.

In a letter to the House Appropriations Committee and in a visit to Capitol Hill for a private meeting with the House speaker, John A. Boehner, Mrs. Clinton sounded the alarm about reductions that she said amounted to a 16 percent decrease for the State Department from current spending and a 41 percent cut in money available for humanitarian programs.

"Cuts of this magnitude will be devastating to our national security, will render us unable to respond to unanticipated disasters and will damage our leadership around the world," Mrs. Clinton said in a letter to Representative Harold Rogers, Republican of Kentucky and chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

Later in the week, Pentagon chief Bob Gates told the Senate that Clinton is right.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told a Senate committee Thursday that everything the United States has accomplished in Iraq is potentially at risk if the State Department does not get the money it has requested to fund its work there as U.S. forces exit this year. [...]

He said it is "a critically urgent concern" that a planned $5.2 billion allocation for fiscal 2012 be approved, so that the State Department can carry on the training of Iraqi police and other programs once handled by the Pentagon.

He pointed out that because current funding is limited by the continuing resolution for fiscal 2011, which allots funds at 2010 levels, the State Department "can't spend the money to get ready right now. . . . There are facilities to be built. There are people to be hired. And they can't do any of that. And so we're going to run out of time in terms of being able to get this accomplished."

The situation, Gates said, reminded him of the 1980s, when "we spent billions to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan, and we couldn't get a million dollars to build schools in Afghanistan in 1989 and 1990," and eventually the Taliban took over.

If the State Department does not get the needed funds, he added, "the same thing is going to happen in Iraq."

How did House Republicans respond to the pleas? By slashing the State Department budget anyway. The party that claims the high ground on national security simply doesn't care anymore.

Also note, the same package also included major cuts to the National Nuclear Security Administration's counter-proliferation programs, "the sole purpose of which is to prevent terrorists from getting their hands on loose nuclear weapons and materials," and eliminated the money Senate Republicans fought for to maintain the nation's nuclear stockpile.

The angle to the budget fight has gone largely overlooked, because of the GOP's brutal cuts to domestic priorities, but Republicans blew off warnings and made sweeping budget cuts that undermine U.S. national security interests.

When the anti-spending crusade makes us less safe, it's gone too far.

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

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is a faith-based angle on developments in Wisconsin -- high-profile faith-communities are rallying behind state workers in their dispute with Gov. Scott Walker (R) and his union-busting crusade.

When Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki lent his voice to this week's legislative debate over collective bargaining by public employees, he was drawing on more than 100 years of Catholic social teaching, which has endorsed the role of labor unions in creating a just economy and society.

Listecki's letter Wednesday to the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee invoked a century of papal encyclicals, from Pope Leo XIII in 1891 through Benedict XVI in 2009, that have upheld the rights of workers to organize and bargain with management.

"The goal of Catholic social teaching is the fundamental dignity of the human person. And the right to unionize is the concrete means by which workers can demand those things we consider as fundamental human rights -- the right to a living wage, to safe working conditions," said Father Bryan Massingale, a social ethicist and professor of theology at Marquette University.

It's not just the Archdiocese that opposes Walker's anti-labor efforts. Bishop Linda Lee of the Wisconsin Conference of the United Methodist Church and Rabbi Jonathan Biatch have both used faith-based rationales in urging Walker to reverse course , while the Washington-based advocacy group Catholics United issued a statement yesterday urging Wisconsin Republicans to "suspend (their) attacks on public workers."

What's more, Faith in Public Life hosted a press conference yesterday with Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish clergy from Illinois and Wisconsin, stressing the faith community's "commitment to workers' rights as a moral issue, offered their support to protecting Wisconsin public employees' collective bargaining rights, and extended invitations of sanctuary and hospitality to lawmakers."

If Democratic lawmakers sought sanctuary in a Wisconsin house of worship, it remains to be seen whether Republican officials would dispatch law enforcement to force them back the Capitol.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* Over 80 faith leaders from Long Island -- including Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus -- have urged Long Island Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) to drop his upcoming congressional hearings into the alleged "radicalization" of the American Muslim community. (thanks to D.J. for the tip)

* The religious right argued that a repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" would drive Christian chaplains out of the U.S. military. The claims have proven baseless.

* Referencing data from the Public Religion Research Institute, Adam Serwer explained the other day, " The problem isn't that Fox News viewers hear a lot of negative things about Islam, it's they hear a lot of false things about Islam."

* And on a related note, Glenn Beck told his minions this week that Islam is tied to the Antichrist described in the New Testament, and featured a bizarre guest who's argued that Satan will use Islam "to fulfill the prophesies of the Bible."

Steve Benen 9:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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AN INAUSPICIOUS BEGINNING ON CNN.... About a week ago, CNN announced some new additions to the network's team of political analysts, including a Tea Party leader and conservative radio talk show host Dana Loesch. The latter was an especially odd choice -- Loesch has referred to CNN as "the biggest bunch of idiot blockheads," "state-run media," home to "tinfoil hats," and has accused the network of having a "blatant disregard for objectivity."

Naturally, then, CNN hired her, and is now paying Loesch for her insights.

But who knows, maybe she'll surprise us. Perhaps CNN has an eye for talent that I'm not aware of, and Loesch will prove to be a thoughtful cable-news pundit. Anything's possible.

As it turns out, Loesch's first appearance was just the other day, and in her first segment as a CNN contributor, she talked to John King about one of the right's ridiculous new obsessions: breastfeeding. Here's what Loesch told the national television audience:

"Look, I am all for breastfeeding. I myself breastfed my children 'til they were well passed a year. And I think it's fantastic the advocacy for that. I'm a very vocal supporter of it.

"But at the same time, from a conservative perspective, I have to question what the White House is doing because breast pumps actually fall under medical devices, which as you know, under the health care law, those devices are going to be hit with a massive excise tax. So, don't make something tax deductible that you are taxing. Just don't tax it."

That would be a perfectly sound observation, if it were it in any way grounded in fact. Regrettably, it's not -- the Affordable Care Act exempts medical devices that are "generally purchased by the general public at retail for individual use" from any excise taxes.

In other words, after having prepped for her first CNN appearance, Loesch proceeded to tell the network's audience the exact opposite of the truth. Loesch argued that the administration would make it more expensive to purchase pumps, when in reality, the administration has concluded that breast pumps and related supplies are tax-deductible, making it easier for families to afford the equipment.

Host John King made no effort to let viewers know that the claim is wrong, and two days later, I can't find any evidence that the network has aired a correction.

Tune in to CNN, where far-right voices who hate CNN will tell you things that aren't true.

Steve Benen 9:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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A GOOD DEAL SCOTT WALKER IS CERTAIN TO REFUSE.... Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) insists his union-busting plan is simply about the budget. He created a fiscal mess for himself, and now he wants to improve the budget on the backs of public employees.

If Walker were sincere about this -- he's not, but if he were -- the governor should gladly embrace an offer like this one.

The head of the largest state workers union said Friday that his group is willing to give in to Gov. Scott Walker's demand for concessions on their benefits if the governor gives up his bid to repeal nearly all bargaining rights for public worker unions.

Marty Beil, head of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, which represents some 23,000 blue-collar state workers, said his group would agree to pay more of their pension contributions and health insurance benefits.

"We are prepared to implement the financial concessions proposed to help bring our state's budget into balance, but we will not be denied our God-given right to join a real union...we will not -- I repeat we will not -- be denied our rights to collectively bargain," Beil said in a statement.

As Jamelle Bouie noted, "If Walker were acting in good faith, then this would be a win-win situation: Workers keep their right to collectively bargain, and the governor can close the budget shortfall."

But as is painfully clear, Walker's goals go well beyond improving the budget shortfall that he created, and acting in good faith is the furthest thing from his mind. The conservative governor could strike a deal immediately and get all the cuts he wants from state employees. The problem of course, is that he's also demanding superfluous union-busting measure, not to improve the budget, but just because he feels like it. Taking away workers' collective bargaining rights won't save Wisconsin money, but it will crush labor, which is the point of the endeavor.

Indeed, it's worth emphasizing that these public-sector workers are ready to accept less pay, but the governor refuses to even talk to them.

Also note, before Democrats handed Walker a budget surplus he immediately eliminated, the former Democratic majority faced an even bigger budget shortfall a couple of years.

They managed to close it, and get the budget back on track, without crushing unions. Imagine that.

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

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HOUSE APPROVES BRUTAL BUDGET CUTS.... It was only a matter of time.

The House early Saturday approved a huge package of spending cuts, slashing more than $60 billion from domestic programs, foreign aid, and even some military projects, as the new Republican majority made good on its pledge to turn the grassroots fervor of the November elections into legislative action to shrink the size and scope of government.

The vote, of 235 to 189, was a victory for the large, boisterous class of fiscally conservative Republican freshmen that is fiercely determined to change the ways of Washington and that forced party leaders to pursue far bigger cuts than originally planned. It set the stage for a standoff with Senate Democrats and the White House that each side has warned could lead to a shutdown of the federal government early next month.

Looking over the roll call, the drastic cuts received zero Democratic votes, and even Blue Dogs didn't break ranks. Three Republicans -- Walter Jones (N.C.), Reps. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), and John Campbell (Calif.) -- voted with the Dems in opposition, but two of three opposed the measure because they said it wasn't quite brutal enough. (Nine House members -- seven Democrats and two Republicans -- did not vote, but they obviously wouldn't have affected the outcome.)

The gavel came down around 4:30 a.m., making this one of those rare Friday-night/Saturday-morning votes.

The package, which is intended to finance the federal government though the end of the fiscal year, now heads to the Senate, where it stands absolutely no chance whatsoever of passing. Indeed, House Republicans knew this before the vote, and didn't care -- this isn't about governing; it's about right-wing lawmakers pounding their chests in order to impress their reactionary base. House leaders could have worked with Senate leaders on a spending compromise, but Republicans chose not to bother.

As we talked about yesterday, it's hard to overstate how brutal these cuts really are. Overnight, 235 House Republicans voted to slash education, job training, environmental protections, food safety, community health centers, nuclear security, energy efficiency programs, scientific research, FEMA, Planned Parenthood, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Social Security Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control, among other things.

The projected job losses from these cuts, we learned this week, could total 1 million American workers, all of whom would be forced into unemployment, on purpose, because Republicans think it'd be good for the economy.

As the House GOP sees it, we can't afford these expenditures because of the deficit they helped create. We can, however, afford massive tax breaks for people who don't need them, which cost a lot more, and which Republicans didn't even try to pay for.

The GOP proposal, in other words, is the sort of budget a caucus might put together if it was really angry with Americans, as if we'd done something to offend them. (Maybe, if we apologize, they'll stop trying to hurt so many people?)

Oddly enough, perhaps no one is happier with the vote than the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee -- this one measure will be exploited for hundreds of hours of campaign ads, questioning the misguided principles of vulnerable Republican incumbents who were misguided enough to vote for this monstrosity.

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

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February 18, 2011

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

* Firing on civilians in Bahrain: "Government forces opened fire on hundreds of mourners marching toward Pearl Square on Friday, sending people running away in panic amid the boom of concussion grenades. But even as the people fled, at least one helicopter sprayed fire on them and a witness reported seeing mourners crumpling to the ground."

* Libya: "Thousands gathered Friday for a fourth day of demonstrations in Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city, in an unprecedented challenge to the mercurial 41-year reign of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi."

* Yemen: "Anti-government protesters clashed with loyalists of President Ali Abdullah Saleh on the streets of the capital for the eighth straight day Friday, hurling insults and chunks of concrete at one another. But the loyalists - along with Yemeni security forces, who fired shots in the air - managed to swiftly disperse the crowds."

* Egypt: "On foot and in battered taxis, tired minivans and lurching buses, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians streamed toward Tahrir Square on Friday, reaffirming their victory over the country's old repressive government and their determination to build a new free one."

* Good for the White House: "The Obama administration rescinded most of a federal regulation Friday designed to protect health workers who refuse to provide care they find objectionable on personal or religious grounds. The Health and Human Services Department eliminated nearly the entire rule put into effect by the administration of President George W. Bush during his final days in office that was widely interpreted as allowing such workers to opt out of a broad range of medical services, such as providing the emergency contraceptive Plan B, treating gay men and lesbians and prescribing birth control to single women."

* Senate, with broad bipartisan support, easily passed an aviation reauthorization bill last night. The final vote was 87 to 8.

* Net neutrality: "House Republicans on Thursday moved to block the Federal Communications Commission from enforcing new rules that prohibit broadband providers from interfering with Internet traffic on their networks."

* It sounds like Mark Ekstrum has some explaining to do: "A veteran firefighter refused to respond to last month's deadly shooting spree that left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords wounded because he had different political views than his colleagues and 'did not want to be part of it,' according to internal city memos."

* I'll assume impeachment is the next step: "The chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee fires off a letter to Nancy-Ann DeParle, asking for every document related to health care negotiations -- all of them."

* Why history may be repeating itself in Wisconsin.

* Next year's CPAC hopes to drive out participants who may respect gay people. Contemporary conservatism spirals downward, just a little more.

* This story out of Pennsylvania really is stunning: "A former juvenile court judge was convicted Friday of racketeering in a case that accused him of sending youth offenders to for-profit detention centers in exchange for millions of dollars in illicit payments from the builder and owner of the lockups."

* Even some conservatives think Texas officials created a ridiculous state education curriculum.

* A worthwhile timeline: Two years of economic recovery.

* And Matt Yglesias reflects on Mike Huckabee's attitudes towards Israel: "I have no particular view on whether or not Abraham was a real historical person, but trying to view present-day political disputes as mere extensions of events that occurred thousands of years in the past isn't going to have a happy ending."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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WISCONSIN, AS ONLY GLENN BECK CAN SEE IT.... There's obviously an intense, ongoing dispute in Wisconsin, with Republican Gov. Scott Walker (R) trying to gut state public-employee unions. But you may not appreciate the connection to this week's events to the larger campaign to destroy civilization.

Don't worry, Glenn Beck can provide the context for you. (Ryan J. Reilly posted the video.)

Here's the deranged media personality on Fox News yesterday, connecting the labor issues in Madison to a global conspiracy that only he can see.

"[T]he world is on fire, and there are three groups of people -- three groups of people. They want a new world order.

"One -- this is your choice -- one: one world government. This is Open Society, this is United Nations -- whatever you want to call it -- one world government. They have lots of money and lots of power, and they have NGOs, non-governmental organizations. They're getting that done. They're organized.

"This one: this is the caliphate if you're in Iran or Turkey. This one is the United Islamic Nations. This is the one the Muslim Brotherhood is going for now, but it all looked like this -- it's a new world order. And they have -- they are organized, too. They have the religion and the mosques and apparently, help from Google as well, at least in Europe or -- I mean, I'm sorry, in Egypt.

"And then you have this one, workers union, or they call it state capitalism. Really what it is it's just good old-fashioned communism. They have unions and community organizing."

Apparently those who want to maintain their collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin fall into this third category.

"Unions are marching and protesting budget cuts close to $3 billion to close that hole. The unions claim that the cuts will affect teachers. But it's not the everyday teacher that this story is really all about. It's about the people looking to create chaos on the backs of the worker when the world's focus is on Egypt."

I do wonder what the weather is like in Beck's reality.

Steve Benen 4:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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HOUSE GOP VOTES TO BLOCK ALL PLANNED PARENTHOOD FUNDING.... In case the rest of the House Republicans' agenda targeting women's health was too subtle, Rep. Mike Pence's (R-Ind.) bill to block all federal funding for Planned Parenthood was approved today.

The 240-185 vote on Friday is a victory for anti-abortion forces led by Indiana GOP Rep. Mike Pence. He says taxpayer money should not go to groups that provide or promote abortion.

Democrats say Planned Parenthood provides contraception and other valuable family planning services, and that cutting off the money will make it hard for women to get such basic help.

Planned Parenthood provides services in hundreds of clinics around the country. Pence aides say the group reported receiving $363 million in federal money in its latest report.

The roll call hasn't been posted, but according to multiple accounts, seven Republicans broke ranks and opposed Pence's measure, while 10 conservative Dems voted with the GOP majority.

As a practical matter, Pence's bill isn't going anywhere, and he knows it. The measure won't be approved in the Senate, and even if it somehow made it through the upper chamber, it'd get a presidential veto. Voters like these aren't intended to be part of a governing agenda; they're intended to score points and please right-wing constituencies. Republicans are wasting time to make themselves feel better.

Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement, "It is difficult to understand why people who say they are opposed to abortion would do so much to undermine the family planning and contraception that helps prevent the need for it."

Don't go bothering them with logic, Cecile, they have a culture war to wage.

I'd also note that the debate on this, which began yesterday, took some emotional twists and turns, including Rep. Jackie Speier (D) of California, acknowledging her own abortion, while condemning a GOP colleague who was trivializing women's decision-making. Greg Sargent has the video.

Update: By the way, Pence and others who supported today's bill may want to take a moment to look up the meaning of "bill of attainder."

Steve Benen 4:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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IT'S THAT BAD.... There's a fair amount of discussion on the House Republican plan to cut spending for the remainder of the fiscal year, but folks may not fully appreciate the scope of how ridiculous their proposal is. Some may have heard that GOP officials are using some smoke and mirrors to exaggerate the size of their spending cuts, which may lead to some relief -- if the cuts aren't as bad, maybe the damage won't be as great.

Let's dismiss that kind of optimism right now, shall we?

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities published a lengthy, wonky analysis yesterday of the Republicans' proposed cuts -- it really is worth reading -- and today offers a summary of some of the top-line provisions. Among other things, the proposal would:

* Cut Head Start, which provides at-risk children up to age 5 with education, health, nutrition, and other services, by an amount equivalent to the cost of serving 157,000 children.

* Cut Pell Grants, which help students afford college, by nearly 25 percent, affecting all 9 million students who receive them.

* Cut, by more than half, Workforce Investment Act funding to provide job training, job search, and other employment assistance for low-income adults and workers whose jobs have been eliminated.

* Cut, by more than half, two funds that help communities pay for sewage and wastewater treatment and for upgrading facilities that ensure safe drinking water.

* Cut funds for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by 22 percent, for the Food and Drug Administration by 10 percent, and for the Food Safety Inspection Service by 9 percent.

All of this, of course, comes against an important backdrop -- in December, the same GOP leaders demanding these cuts were also demanding massive tax breaks they didn't even try to pay for. They're arguing now that the cuts are absolutely unavoidable because of the deficit, which happens to be the deficit they created and made much worse a couple of months ago.

And really, that's just some of the higher-profile problems with the plan. It doesn't even get to devastating cuts to food safety, energy efficiency programs, environmental protections, NASA, scientific research, FEMA, and Centers for Disease Control. The associated job losses, as we learned this week, could total 1 million.

I can keep going with this, but there were two other specific areas that are worth paying particular attention to. Jon Chait noted yesterday the effects of proposed cuts to community health centers -- which Republicans used to like -- that would leave "around 3 million people without a regular source of affordable health care."

And then there are the cuts to, of all things, nuclear security and counter-proliferation programs, which Senate Republicans fought just last year to increase, and which many experts believe would do serious harm to U.S. national security.

The Republican proposal, in other words, is the sort of budget a caucus might put together if it was really angry with Americans, as if we'd done something to offend them.

And best of all, as far as GOP leaders are concerned, unless Democrats go along all with this, they'll shut down the government.

I can only wonder how many midterm voters appreciated the fact that this mess is what the electorate chose to create.

Steve Benen 3:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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THE NATURE OF THE DISPUTE IN WISCONSIN.... To hear Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) tell it, he really doesn't have much of a choice. The state's facing a budget shortfall, and crushing public-sector labor unions will save the state's finances.

It's important to realize how very wrong this is. Indeed, what's been largely lost in this week's debate is that Walker inherited a pretty good fiscal situation from his Democratic predecessor -- Wisconsin was on track to end the fiscal year with an extra $120 million in state coffers.

So why launch a union-busting crusade? Ezra Klein explained the situation nicely:

...The governor signed two business tax breaks and a conservative health-care policy experiment that lowers overall tax revenues. The new legislation was not offset, and it turned a surplus into a deficit. As Brian Beutler writes, "public workers are being asked to pick up the tab for this agenda."

But even that's not the full story here. Public employees aren't being asked to make a one-time payment into the state's coffers. Rather, Walker is proposing to sharply curtail their right to bargain collectively. A cyclical downturn that isn't their fault, plus an unexpected reversal in Wisconsin's budget picture that wasn't their doing, is being used to permanently end their ability to sit across the table from their employer and negotiate what their health insurance should look like.

That's how you keep a crisis from going to waste: You take a complicated problem that requires the apparent need for bold action and use it to achieve a longtime ideological objective. In this case, permanently weakening public-employee unions, a group much-loathed by Republicans in general and by the Republican legislators who have to battle them in elections in particular.

Much of the debate has been about some of the larger issues, and they're well worth exploring. But the specifics of this dispute make all the difference -- a far-right governor inherited sound state finances, made them worse on purpose, and now demands public employees fix his problem. While he's at it, Walker hopes to engage in superfluous union-busting, not to improve the budget, but just because he feels like it.

In the meantime, state unions are ready to negotiate, and are even prepared to accept less pay, but the governor refuses to even talk to them.

Whether one is sympathetic to labor or not is almost beside the point. Walker's antics are demonstrably irresponsible and impossible to defend.

This local editorial out of Madison drives the point home nicely:

There is no question that these are tough times, and they may require tough choices. But Gov. Scott Walker is not making tough choices. He is making political choices, and they are designed not to balance budgets but to improve his political position and that of his party. [...]

The facts are not debatable. Because of the painful choices made by the previous Legislature, Wisconsin is in better shape fiscally than most states.

Wisconsin has lower unemployment than most states. Wisconsin has better prospects for maintaining great schools, great public services and a great quality of life than most states, even in turbulent economic times.

Unfortunately, Walker has a political agenda that relies on the fantasy that Wisconsin is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

Walker is not interested in balanced budgets, efficient government or meaningful job creation. Walker is interested in gaming the system to benefit his political allies and campaign contributors.

To fall for this cynical charade is to ignore reality.

Steve Benen 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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THEY MAY ACTUALLY BE 'A BUNCH OF YAHOOS'.... A month before the midterm elections, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said, "I don't think the country needs or wants a shutdown." He added that when it comes to pursuing their agenda, Republicans "have to be careful" or they'll be "seen as a bunch of yahoos."

As of today, the likelihood of these yahoos shutting down the government just two months after taking office seems pretty high.

House Speaker John Boehner's "read my lips" threat yesterday increased the odds of a shutdown exponentially, and a high-ranking aide to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told Democratic chiefs of staff today that a shutdown is more likely than not.

Similarly, I traded emails yesterday with a Capitol Hill staffer with whom I speak regularly, and I think the aide's perspective is worth passing along. (I'm republishing the staffer's note with permission.)

I'm of a firm belief the government will shut down after March 4th because the House and Senate won't be able to come to a conclusion on a CR [continuing resolution]. So it isn't a question of "if" in my mind, it is a question of "how long."

It's becoming clearer and clearer everyday that Republicans in the House have no connection to reality and are willing to burn it all down. Staff have sat dumbfounded over the last few days watching the floor, which no media is reporting on, to see how disconnected Republicans are from basic math. Their CR would do practically nothing to address the debt, but it will stunt any economic recovery (which they will blame on Obama).

What I don't hear people talking about is that so many members of the House are millionaires and don't seem to care how this will affect people. I don't know how they can look their staffs in the eye, who will be royally screwed by this.

The wild card is President Obama. As we discussed last year, he has yet to prove he has a spine. I fear he will cave and give in on most if not all of the Republican demands. In that case our last defense would be a small set of Dem Senators who have yet to lose their minds. But we will see.

It's hard to say how the White House and Senate Democrats are prepared to respond to the House GOP's demands, because at this point, House Republicans aren't even talking to Democrats. It's tempting to think, with just 14 days left to avoid a shutdown, there'd be some kind of negotiations underway. By all appearances, that's not the case -- the House GOP leadership is working on its job-killing plan; it's off all next week; and discussions are effectively non-existent.

In the meantime, Boehner told Fox News the other day, "There's been no talk about shutting the government down on our side," despite all kinds of talk about shutting the government down on his side.

I'd say the odds of a shutdown -- at least one, starting midnight on March 4 -- are about 70%.

Steve Benen 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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'I'VE NOT OBSERVED THAT'.... The Washington Post had a lengthy profile piece on Sen. John Thune yesterday, taking a closer look at the possible presidential candidate. The piece was filled with quotes from those who work with the South Dakota Republican, some whom seem more impressed with Thune than others.

Thune chairs the Senate Republican Policy Committee, the No. 4 leadership position, and presides over the GOP senators' private lunches every Tuesday. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the most senior Republican senator, said Thune plays his role "with grace and diplomacy." But when asked whether he has shown leadership on a specific policy issue, Lugar said: "I've not observed that."

Ouch. Lugar's quote is awfully close to an insult. Asked whether Thune's shown leadership in an any area, Lugar could have said, "Sure, time and again, Thune's shown great leadership on a variety of issues." Instead, he said, "I've not observed that."

It's a reminder that no one, not even Thune's allies, can think of any meaningful work he's done on anything.

"He's kind of an enigma," said a former senior GOP leadership aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share observations candidly. "When you hear senators or chiefs [of staff] talking about Thune, it's always with a little bit of puzzlement. Is he an empty suit? Or does he really have his eye on the ball? Nobody's really sure. They just keep watching him."

Remember, Thune has been in the Senate for more than six years. Folks who work with him in the closely-knit Senate, especially Republicans, have had a chance to get to know him, and they're still not sure if he's anything more than an empty suit.

It's why I consider Thune the Republican version of John Edwards -- he hasn't tackled any noteworthy policy initiatives, he's failed to distinguished himself as an expert in any area, and his most notable accomplishment appears to be an ability to impress people with his handsomeness.

If I'm Thune, I take Lugar's quote as a helpful suggestion: you're not quite ready for prime-time.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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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:

* There was some talk DNC Chairman and former Gov. Tim Kaine would announce his Senate plans at at the Virginia Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson dinner Saturday, but that's not going to happen. Kaine said it'll be a couple of weeks before he makes a formal decision.

* As of yesterday, it looks like Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano appeared disinclined to run for the Senate in her home state of Arizona.

* For the second consecutive presidential cycle, Florida is causing headaches for major party nominating plans. Florida intends to hold its primary in late January; the Republican Party wants it moved to March. Neither side is budging.

* Former Rep. Chris Carney (D) appears to be looking for a rematch against freshman Rep. Tom Marino (R) in their Pennsylvania district. Carney met with DCCC officials about the race last week.

* The DCCC will not, however, get the rematch it wants in South Dakota. Former Rep. Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin (D), who lost last year, maintains strong poll numbers, but will apparently join a D.C. lobbying firm, rather than seeking a return to Congress.

* The Democratic primary in the special election for former Rep. Jane Harman's (D-Calif.) seat features a sizable field, but the winner won't run unopposed -- attorney Mike Webb announced yesterday he's running as a Republican.

* Former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin told a New York audience yesterday she's still weighing a possible presidential campaign. "I am still thinking of leading this country," she said. "I am still thinking about it. I haven't made up my mind."

* And Nate Silver ran an interesting analysis of the likely 2012 GOP presidential field this week. He found, "The early evidence ... suggests that this year's Republican field may in fact be quite weak by the standards of recent election cycles."

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

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... New Hampshire approved a marriage equality law two years ago, bringing the Granite State in line with most of New England. Not surprisingly, the dreadful consequences imagined by the right never materialized.

But very conservative Republicans made massive gains in the 2010 elections, and appear desperate to drag New Hampshire to the far right. High on the to-do list: using government to limit the right of couples to get legally married.

A state House committee met for a lengthy hearing yesterday, but one quote, from a conservative named Howard Kaufman, stood out for me.

"A future redefinition of marriage that permits polygamy would facilitate the introduction of an aspect of Sharia or Islamic law that permits a man to have up to four wives."

Hmm. If two consenting adults want to get married in New Hampshire, the result may lead to "Sharia or Islamic law" that seeks to punish and discriminate against homosexuality.

I've heard some bad arguments against marriage equality, but this might be the dumbest.

But it's nevertheless increasingly common. Rep. Lenette M. Peterson (R) of Merrimack, N.H., told a constituent this week why she wants to repeal existing state law on marriage equality: "[T]he Bible clearly states what the definition of marriage is and anything different is an abomination to God."

This was a member of the legislature, responding to a constituent, using the state email system.

The fears on the right of sharia are nothing if not ironic.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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THE RIGHT'S POINTLESS PREOCCUPATION WITH BREASTFEEDING.... First Lady Michelle Obama has said breastfeeding helps combat childhood obesity. The Obama administration has also concluded that breast pumps and related supplies are tax-deductible as designated medical supplies, making it easier for families to afford the equipment.

And somehow, because our political discourse can be mind-numbing, these fairly mundane developments have become the subject of great outrage on the right.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) complained about this on Tuesday. So did Tucker Carlson. The cast of "Fox & Friends" is outraged, and so are Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Malkin. Yesterday, Sarah Palin got in on the fun. For the right, the Obamas' efforts are part of a "Nanny State" run amok. It's none of Michelle Obama's business, the argument goes, to talk to families about nutrition and children's health.

With all of this in mind, Jonathan Cohn flags a fascinating set of remarks delivered not too long ago by the First Lady.

"Nearly two-thirds of adults in the United States are overweight or obese. More than 60 percent of Americans do not get enough physical activity.... The good news, though, is that there are things that each of us can do -- as individuals, as family members, as caregivers, as heads of business, and leaders of government -- to take better care of ourselves, and the people around us. The federal government is doing its part by educating Americans about preventive measures that can save their own lives....

"HHS has compiled a list of more than 100 small steps that individuals and families can take to reach the four important health goals outlined in the HealthierUS Initiative.... All of the steps are easy adjustments that can add up to a healthier lifestyle -- like drinking a glass of water before meals, or taking stairs instead of the escalator or the elevator. One of my favorite trips to be active is, "Walk the dog, don't just watch the dog walk." ...

"Our government is working to encourage children and teens to make wise choices about their health. … HHS launched the WeCan! Initiative, which promotes better nutrition for children, and educates parents and caregivers about how to get children to spend less time in front of the TV and computer screen, and more time being physically active. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has partnered with states and schools to improve physical education, and to provide more nutritious foods for children during the school day."

The First Lady went on to promote childhood-overweight and -obesity prevention programs, playgrounds, and talking to families about healthy food and physical activity.

The First Lady was Laura Bush speaking to the "National Health and Prevention Summit" in 2007.

I've looked for any evidence that Bachmann, Carlson, the cast of "Fox & Friends," Limbaugh, and/or Malkin found any of Laura Bush's remarks offensive, but I can't find any.

For her part, Palin, during her brief tenure in Alaska, used her office to promote "breastfeeding awareness," which the former half-term governor said is "a means of preventing infant malnutrition, morbidity, and mortality."

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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RARELY IS THE QUESTION ASKED, IS OUR COUNTRY BROKE?.... On "Meet the Press" the other day, host David Gregory asked House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) whether the economy is strong enough to sustain massive budget cuts. "David," Boehner replied, "We're broke."

It's become one of the Speaker's favorite words. On Tuesday, Boehner said he's comfortable putting up to a million Americans out of work, on purpose, because as he put it, "We're broke." And yesterday, when doubling down on the same argument, Boehner said he doesn't "want" to make unemployment much worse, but he feels like he has to. "Come on," he said, "we're broke."

As a substantive matter, it's possible John Boehner has suffered some kind of head trauma that prevents him from thinking clearly. His argument, in a nutshell, is that America's economy and finances will be better off if only we take money out of the economy and deliberately throw hundreds of thousands of American workers from their jobs. This, in Boehner's mind, will help make us less "broke."

But there's also a problem with the premise. Are we "broke"? No, it turns out Boehner's wrong about this, too.

Dean Baker explained the other day, in reference to the Speaker's talking point, "Of course this is not true. Investors are willing to lend the United States trillions of dollars at historically low interest rates. This means that the government is not broke. There is no evidence that it is coming up against any serious spending or borrowing limitation."

Gary Therkildsen added:

It's legitimate for public officials to want to debate the costs of incurring more debt down the road, as interest payments on very high levels of debt would begin to crowd out other spending, but we're nowhere near that point. To simply say that we're broke as a country is just flat out wrong.

But, it's interesting to imagine how the Speaker would defend his statement. My guess is that he would point to the amount of debt we currently hold. He would still be wrong, of course, but this raises a question: is there something special about being in debt $14 trillion as opposed to being $6 trillion or $10 trillion in debt? Because those last two figures are the amount of debt we held at the beginning and end of the Bush administration, respectively.

Yet, at no point did I ever hear the current speaker utter one word between those years about our country being broke. That makes me wonder if Boehner and the GOP are just screaming about the nation being broke in order to scare the American people into going along with their proposals to drastically cut the federal budget and eviscerate entitlements like Medicare and Social Security.

So to review, Boehner wants to make unemployment worse on purpose because of a bogus statistic he made up, built on a bogus premise he made up, shaped by an economic theory -- layoffs create jobs -- that doesn't make any sense.

I find it rather terrifying when someone so unprepared and so confused rises to such a powerful position.

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

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WHERE THINGS STAND IN WISCONSIN.... Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's (R) aggressive anti-labor campaign is running into a little trouble. The Republican-led state Senate can't approve a bill if it doesn't have a quorum, and Democrats fled Wisconsin yesterday to deny that quorum.

To briefly summarize, the Republican governor has a plan to cut state workers' benefits and effectively remove their collective bargaining rights. Walker also hopes to make it harder for unions to collect dues, and prohibit union members from being allowed to negotiate for better pensions or health benefits. And in case all of this was too subtle, the newly-elected conservative governor said a week ago he would refuse to negotiate with union leaders.

To prevent a vote, state Senate Democrats crossed state lines yesterday -- outside the reach of Wisconsin police, dispatched to retrieve them -- forcing the chamber to reluctantly adjourn last night. Republicans will try again today, but there's no reason to think it'll go any better.

Democrats and union leaders said their concerns were focused on losing decades-old bargaining rights, not the financial concessions. In a telephone interview from an undisclosed location, Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller (D-Monona) said he was upholding the rights of workers by allowing for more debate on the bill.

"This is a watershed moment unlike any that we have experienced in our political lifetimes," Miller said. "The people have shown that the government has gone too far.... We are prepared to do what is necessary to make sure that this bill gets the consideration it needs."

Sen. Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) said the decision on when to return had not been made yet. Sen. Spencer Coggs (D-Milwaukee) said Democrats were prepared to stay away "as long as it takes."

Of course, the demonstrations inside and outside the state Capitol are continuing as they have all week, and by some accounts, are growing. The Journal Sentinel said protestors "made the rotunda ring with chanted slogans as loud as the revving of a motorcycle engine."

Also keep in mind, Wisconsin has become the focus of national attention, but it's unlikely the union-busting efforts will be limited to the Badger State, and this will likely serve as the first of several related fights -- Ohio and Indiana are next, and protests are already underway at the Ohio statehouse.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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RICK SCOTT'S TRAIN WRECK.... Florida Gov. Rick Scott's (R) decision to turn down federal funding -- and tens of thousands of jobs -- for a high-speed rail project isn't going over well in the Sunshine State. Even Republicans from D.C. to Miami found the decision incomprehensible.

But in an interesting twist yesterday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Florida aren't just complaining; they're working on circumventing Scott and getting the money anyway.

A veto-proof majority of the Florida Senate rebuked Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday in a letter that urged the federal government to give the state $2.4 billion in high-speed rail money that Scott wants to reject.

"Politics should have no place in the future of Florida's transportation, as evidenced by this letter of bipartisan support," said the letter, signed by 26 members of the Republican-controlled Florida Senate.

"This project would create real jobs, cleaner and smarter transportation and true economic development for Floridians," said the letter written to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

The letter was partly authored by one of Scott's first senate backers, Republican Paula Dockery of Lakeland, who argued that the newly created Florida Rail Enterprise could act independently of Scott because the state's share of the rail money -- $300 million - was already approved last year by a previous governor, Charlie Crist.

As these state senators see it, Scott's too late. The legislature asked the federal government for the funding, and the previous governor approved the project. The new governor, the lawmakers are arguing, doesn't have much of a choice. As one conservative GOP state senator put it, "It's like trying to veto a bill after it becomes law. It's too late."

I have no idea whether this legal argument has merit, but I'm glad to see the relevant players working on it.

Indeed, the discussions are ongoing outside of Tallahassee, too. Sam Stein reported yesterday that Transportation Secretary LaHood is in talks with Florida's congressional delegation -- including members from both parties -- on how to work around the state's ridiculous governor. One of the ideas reportedly under consideration, according to an administration official, is the possible creation of "an entity that can run high-speed rail in Florida and get the state out of the way."

Meanwhile, states continue to line up to take the money and the jobs Rick Scott doesn't want. New York, Washington, and California are all clamoring for the funding and economic development that comes with rail projects like these.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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ROVE TO GOP BASE: IT'S A TRAP.... When a national poll was released this week, showing that a majority of Republican presidential primary voters are "birther" conspiracy theorists, it raised a few eyebrows. After all, this dumb, arguably racist, nonsense is supposed to be confined to the lunatic fringe. Public Policy Polling's data suggested more than half of the GOP's most reliable voters have gone mad.

Karl Rove has a theory to explain all of this: the White House set a trap.

"Within our party, we've got to be very careful about allowing these people who are the birthers and the 9/11-deniers to get too high a profile and say too much without setting the record straight," Rove said Wednesday night on Fox News.

"We need the leaders of our party to say, 'Look, stop falling into the trap of the White House and focus on the real issues,'" he said. [...]

Rove said he thinks that the Obama administration relishes the continued existence of the birther movement because it distracts from how the president is handling policy issues. "Look, these guys may be lousy at governing ... but they're damn good at politics," he said. "It fits into the White House theme line."

Hmm, damn good at politics, lousy at governing. That's funny, Karl, I was thinking the same thing about your failed White House.

In any case, Rove comes up with some pretty ridiculous ideas from time to time, but the notion that an unhinged, right-wing conspiracy theory, debunked several years ago and rejected by sane people everywhere, is an elaborate "trap" set by nefarious White House officials, is pretty remarkable.

In some ways this is nearly as twisted as the nonsensical theory itself. Indeed, Rove seems to envision a scheme with layers -- the White House has conspired to convince Republicans to see a conspiracy that doesn't exist. It looks like right-wing activists have been pushing this garbage for years -- enough to convince most GOP presidential primary voters -- but apparently this is all part of the Obama team's fiendish plan.

Remember, Karl Rove, who shared this idea on national television, is considered one of the Republican Party's most credible, strategic minds. It's quite a party.

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

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JEFF LEONARD MEETS COLBERT NATION.... Following up on yesterday's item, Jeffrey Leonard, CEO of the Global Environmental Fund, has a great piece on small businesses in the latest issue of the Washington Monthly, and appeared of "The Colbert Report" last night to talk about it. If you missed it, here's the interview:

Colbert interviews aren't easy, and I thought Leonard did extremely well. Take a look.

Steve Benen 7:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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February 17, 2011

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

* Bahrain: "The army took control of [Manama] on Thursday, except at the main hospital, where thousands of people gathered screaming, crying, collapsing in grief, just hours after the police opened fire with birdshot, rubber bullets and tear gas on pro-democracy demonstrators camped in Pearl Square."

* John McCain boasted the other day that Iraq is unaffected by regional protests. He's wrong: "Unrest continued to spread in Iraq on Thursday, with new protests erupting in several cities and reports from law enforcement officials that private security guards in a city in Kurdistan fired on a group of protesters who tried to storm the political offices of the region's leader."

* Libya: "Exiled opponents of the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, said on Thursday that protests mirroring the turmoil in the Arab world had broken out in several parts of the country on a so-called Day of Rage to challenge his 41-year-old iron rule -- the region's longest."

* Every time we dip below 400k, it inches back up: "The number of Americans filing first-time claims for unemployment benefits edged up last week, the government said Thursday."

* A much better number: "The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia said its index of manufacturing in the mid-Atlantic region nearly doubled between January and February."

* Yet another pathetic display: "Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell says he will not enact the federal health care overhaul after a judge in Florida struck down the law as unconstitutional. "

* The House approved a three-month extension of three Patriot Act surveillance authorities earlier, sending the bill to the White House for the president's signature.

* Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) suggested the government could save money be ending Pentagon sponsorship from NASCAR teams. She's now facing death threats.

* The smartest piece on the budget fight you'll read today, from the estimable E.J. Dionne, Jr.

* Georgia Republicans are desperate to cut spending, especially on infrastructure. Apparently, federal funding to expand and deepen the Savannah Port doesn't count.

* Right-wing lies about health care are nothing new, but Sen. John Barrasso's (R-Wyo.) speech on the subject the other day was a tour de force in shameless dishonesty. It's almost as if he created a list of common lies, and then strung them together.

* If college students aren't happy with budget cuts, they're really going to have to do more than remain silent.

* As if he didn't have enough trouble, Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) lashed out at a police officer who'd pulled him over, calling the policeman an "idiot" three times. The officer now wants an in-person apology.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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WHAT YOU'LL SEE ON COLBERT TONIGHT.... In the latest issue of the Washington Monthly, Jeffrey Leonard, CEO of the Global Environmental Fund, has a great piece on small businesses, which generated a fair amount of attention from the likes of Jon Alter and David Leonhardt.

Tonight, the piece will get even more attention, when Jeffrey Leonard talks to Stephen Colbert about his approach on "The Colbert Report." Here's the piece they'll be discussing:

History shows that small businesses are a key component of national recovery in economic downtimes. But in today's sputtering job market, these traditional engines of growth and employment are limping along at best. Many small firms are handicapped by a new twist on an old parasitic business practice that large corporations are using in the wake of the 2008-09 financial crisis, one that has significantly reduced the cash available to small businesses to invest and hire new employees.

Leonard presents a couple of straightforward ways to improve the status quo, including a simple executive order mandating that all companies with federal contracts pay their suppliers within thirty days of invoice.

It should be an interesting interview. Tune in at 11:30 p.m. (ET).

Steve Benen 5:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (6)

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INCHING EVER CLOSER TO A SHUTDOWN.... The current funding for the federal government will expire on March 4, leaving three possible outcomes over the next 15 days: (1) Congress and the White House agree to a spending bill for the rest of the fiscal year; (2) they agree to a temporary spending measure while negotiations continue; or (3) the government shuts down.

The conventional wisdom has been that policymakers would likely go with the second option. It doesn't seem especially unreasonable -- Congress can just keep the status quo for a little while longer, while working with the White House on a larger compromise.

Today, however, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) insisted this isn't quite good enough.

Speaker John Boehner is holding the line on spending for the rest of the fiscal year, saying he will not move another continuing resolution at current funding levels if the House and Senate can't come to an agreement on a final bill before March 4.

"When we say we are going to cut spending, read my lips, we are going to cut spending," the Ohio Republican said at a press conference Thursday. "We're hopeful the Senate will take up the House-passed bill that comes out of here today, tonight, tomorrow morning, whenever it is. ... I am not going to move any type of short-term CR at current levels."

In other words, Boehner wants a fourth option: policymakers can approve a temporary spending measure while negotiations continue, but only if it includes the job-killing cuts Republicans want. Mr. "So Be It" is effectively trying to narrow the options -- Dems can go along with a continuing resolution that includes deep cuts, or Republicans will shut down the government.

I said the other day the odds of a shutdown are roughly 50%. As of today, I'd say they're now about 60%, if not a little higher.

In related news, Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) said the other day that a shutdown wouldn't be too big a deal: "The government is not going to shut down, it's not going to stop. People aren't going to lose their Social Security checks and they're not going to lose their access to Medicare and Medicaid."

The problem with this, of course, is that Mike Kelly has no idea what he's talking about. When the government shuts down, Social Security checks are not mailed, and Medicare/Medicaid reimbursements do not happen.

It raises an important point: Republicans aren't just moving closer to a train wreck, they're doing so based on little more than their own ignorance, making threats without a grown-up understanding of the consequences. This is what happens when confused, unprepared children are elected to run a legislative body.

Steve Benen 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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ON WISCONSIN.... Nearly eight years ago, Republicans in the Texas legislature, at the behest of Tom DeLay, tried to force through a re-redistricting scheme. Texas Democrats didn't have the votes to stop, but they had a procedural card to play -- they could not show up, deny the GOP a quorum, and prevent the bill from passing. So Dems packed up and left the state for a while.*

We're seeing something similar play out in the Badger State today.

A Wisconsin state senator says the 14 Democratic lawmakers who are boycotting a vote on a controversial anti-union bill have left the state.

Sen. Jon Erpenbach says the group wants to force negotiations over the Republican-backed bill, which would strip most public employees of their collective-bargaining rights.

The legislature needs a quorum to conduct business, and unless one of the Dems is in the chamber, there's no quorum.

The state's right-wing governor, Scott Walker (R), could in theory send the police to retrieve the Democrats and bring them to the state capitol, but apparently, the Dem lawmakers have left Wisconsin altogether -- knowing the state police wouldn't have any jurisdiction outside state lines.

In the meantime, tens of thousands of protestors demonstrated in Madison again today, with the backing of state and national Democrats. Fox News, true to form, labeled the protests a "hate rally."

And while we're on the subject, let's also note that the rationales behind the Wisconsin GOP's union-busting efforts aren't even close to being accurate:

Wisconsin's new Republican governor has framed his assault on public worker's collective bargaining rights as a needed measure of fiscal austerity during tough times.

The reality is radically different. Unlike true austerity measures -- service rollbacks, furloughs, and other temporary measures that cause pain but save money -- rolling back worker's bargaining rights by itself saves almost nothing on its own. But Walker's doing it anyhow, to knock down a barrier and allow him to cut state employee benefits immediately.

Furthermore, this broadside comes less than a month after the state's fiscal bureau -- the Wisconsin equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office -- concluded that Wisconsin isn't even in need of austerity measures, and could conclude the fiscal year with a surplus. In fact, they say that the current budget shortfall is a direct result of tax cut policies Walker enacted in his first days in office.

* Postscript: In case you're curious, Texas Dems, who mainly fled to Oklahoma and New Mexico, held out for a long while, but eventually had to go home. The re-redistricting scheme passed; five additional U.S. House Republican districts were created; and the financing for the whole scheme led to felony convictions for Tom DeLay.

Steve Benen 3:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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WHEN THE VOICE OF REASON ISN'T AT ALL REASONABLE.... Every day, the media establishment looks to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as a credible, responsible voice on fiscal issues. And every day, I marvel at the establishment's inability to see Ryan for what he is.

This week, for example, the far-right Wisconsin lawmaker told NRP that President Obama's budget would lead to $1.6 trillion in new tax increases, $ 8.7 trillion in new spending, and would add "$13 trillion to the debt over the course of his budget."

In reality, Ryan's numbers aren't even close to being accurate.

In response to a question about how this number was obtained, the Committee staff provided a chart that showed that outlays would be frozen every year for the next 10 years at the 2012 level of $3.729 trillion.

Thus, while in 2021 Obama proposes to spend $5.697 trillion, the Committee would still be spending $3.729 trillion, for a difference of almost $2 trillion. Add up the difference for every year, over 10 years, and it amounts to nearly $8.7 trillion, which the committee calls "new spending."

In other words, the Committee assumed the president needs to freeze all spending, without adjustments for inflation or population growth, for 10 years. Moreover, it makes this assumption for all spending, even mandatory programs such as Social Security and Medicare, which need to be changed by law.

Jamelle Bouie added, "So, Ryan takes Obama's budget, freezes spending at 2012 levels for 10 years -- so that federal spending falls to an all-time low of 15.1 percent of GDP -- sets that as the new baseline, and then counts everything above as "new spending," even when it's nothing new, and simply an automatic part of the budget, by way of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. At the very least, this is stunningly dishonest."

Now, I suppose it's possible the House Budget Committee chairman is painfully ignorant about his own budget figures, and spews fiscal gibberish in national broadcasts because he's a fool, but (a) I'm not sure that's much of a defense; and (b) given all the work Ryan's invested in this, I'm inclined to believe he's simply lying, hoping reporters and the public won't know the difference.

What's more, Jon Chait notes budget criticism Ryan offered the next day, which was every bit as ridiculous. Among other things, Ryan argued more revenue would be bad for the deficit, and blasted Obama for not sticking to a deficit commission's recommendation that Ryan himself opposed.

What more will it take for the political establishment to recognize this guy as a crank?

Greg Sargent takes a stab at the answer.

As for Chait's broader question -- why commentators confer automatic credibility on Ryan as a "fiscal hawk" -- I'd say this is akin to asking why they keep arbitrarily designating lawmakers who embrace entitlement cuts and tax cuts for the rich as hard-headed "centrists," when only small minorities support both, and why they arbitrarily refuse to allow that calling for tax hikes on the rich is a sign of fiscal seriousness.

I think the explanation is pretty simple. The term "deficit hawk," as it's commonly used in Washington, simply doesn't mean "someone who fully committed to reducing the deficit by any means necessary, tax hikes included." Rather, it means "someone who is fully committed to reducing the deficit through tax cuts, entitlement reform and frequent expressions of general hostility towards government." It has been arbitrarily decided that tax hikes on the rich carry an aura of big government liberal squishiness and hence can't be associated with whatever people think they mean by the word "hawk." Shifting the tax burden upwards is "soft," the stuff of bleeding hearts. Shifting it down is "hard" and "tough."

The arbitrary meaning of "deficit hawk," just like the arbitrary meaning of "centrist," has been hardened through repetition. People hear others using these terms this way, and they repeat them. Others hear them doing this, and they also repeat it. And so on.

I suspect this is entirely right, but it doesn't make the phenomenon any less ridiculous.

To consider Ryan, who forces his aides to read Ayn Rand novels, "sensible" is to strip the word of any meaning. The guy, when he isn't making up numbers, is presenting proposals so radical, it's hard to imagine why he isn't just laughed out of the room.

Jamison Foser recently explained, "Ryan produced a budget proposal that would take about 50 years to balance the budget -- except that it wouldn't do so even then, as Ryan told CBO to base its assessment of the budget on the assumption that tax revenues would remain the same, even though the budget included costly tax cuts."

Paul Ryan's budget blueprint is a right-wing fantasy -- slashing taxes on the rich while raising taxes for everyone else. The plan calls for privatizing Social Security and gutting Medicare, and yet fails miserably in its intended goal -- cutting the deficit. As Paul Krugman recently explained, the Ryan plan "is a fraud that makes no useful contribution to the debate over America's fiscal future."

But don't tell his adoring fans in the political establishment. They don't want to hear it.

Steve Benen 2:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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THE GOP OVERREACH ON ABORTION, AND THE LIKELY BACKLASH.... It's been about six weeks since House Republicans took the majority, and the ration of abortion bills to job bills is probably not in line with voters' expectations.

So far, the number of Republican bills related to lowering unemployment is zero. On the contrary, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has admitted publicly that his budget bill will force thousands of Americans workers from their jobs, on purpose. At the same time, the House GOP has pushed the odious "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act," the life-threatening "Protect Life Act," and the plan to raise business taxes over their insurance plans that might cover abortions. Other proposals are on the way to cut off federal dollars to women's health care clinics that offer abortions, and to eliminate Title X funding, which Planned Parenthood depends on.

Culture warrior Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) boasted last week, "This House is more pro-life than it's ever been." That's probably true, and as it turns out, pro-choice Democrats seem rather excited about it.

Dave Weigel had a smart piece last night, after hearing DCCC Chairman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) hammer the Republican majority for working on "redefining rape" instead of jobs.

"We need to bring out 9 million independent voters," Israel explains. "If you do a geographic analysis of them, they live in about 37 fairly suburban, moderate districts across the country. Those 9 million independent voters, in those 37 [districts], elected Republicans because Republicans said that they would, on Day One, focus on revitalizing jobs. And what did they do on Day One? They redefined rape. That is not what those independent voters expected from the new Republican majority."

This is the kind of bluster you can engage in after your opponent has dunked on himself. It will undoubtedly continue until at least Nov. 6, 2012. Abortion rights activists, whose relevance had been waning during elections fought over the war in Iraq and the Great Recession, have found a toehold in politics again. The strategy has three parts.

1) Wait for the pro-life movement, now at an apex of political power, to do something stupid.
2) Pounce on the stupid thing that it just did.
3) Repeat.

There was, not surprisingly, some pent up demand among opponents of abortion rights to get to work with the new GOP-led House, but whether they realize it or not, Republicans have overreached in a hurry. This has not only reinforced fears that the GOP doesn't care nearly as much about the economy as they pretended to during the campaign, but it's also serves as a wake-up call to the left.

The result is a backlash Republicans probably could have avoided if it hadn't gone too far, too quickly.

That's most of the plan. The rest of the plan, as Israel explains, is making life difficult for some of the pro-life Republicans who were swept into Congress last year. The theory is that voters sort of elected them by accident. And they are numerous. [...]

Take Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-N.Y., one of the Democrats' favorite examples. She started in politics as a spokeswoman for Operation Rescue in the 1980s. She didn't hide this fact, but when she began running, she said she'd "be really careful not to make this a referendum on abortion." Her opponent, incumbent Rep. Dan Maffei, tried to make abortion an issue. He lost. And when Beurkle got to Congress she immediately became a prominent pro-life advocate.

As this relates to 2012, the typical mainstream voter may still not be interested in the culture war, but that's the point -- Republicans will make them interested by going to extremes, such as redefining rape.

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NEWT INC.... After disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) launches his presidential campaign, one of the subjects I'm eager to hear about is how he's spent his days the last 13 years.

Gingrich, you'll recall, was forced to resign from Congress in disgrace way back in 1998, after his fellow Republicans decided they no longer had use for his "leadership." Thirteen years later, Gingrich hasn't held or sought public office at any level. What does he do all day?

Apparently, ol' Newt tends to a shady financial empire.

Dallas businesswoman Dawn Rizos received the unexpected invitation by fax: Come to a "private dinner" with Newt Gingrich in Washington, where you will be named an "entrepreneur of the year."

The catch: Rizos had to pay a $5,000 membership fee to Gingrich's group, American Solutions for Winning the Future, to get the award.

Gingrich, a former House speaker, media pundit and possible Republican presidential candidate, knows how to bring in money - lots of money.

But his hard-sell tactics can sometimes go awry. It turned out that Rizos owns an upscale nude-dancing club. When Gingrich's group found out, it canceled the 2009 award and returned the money.

I can't imagine why Gingrich would be prude about this; it's not like he's lived a life of virtue.

In any case, the "entrepreneur of the year" scam appears to be part of an elaborate network of Gingrich-related enterprises. The former Speaker, plagued by ethics scandals during his congressional tenure, hasn't actually held a day job at any point for 13 years, but he has an advocacy group, American Solutions, that raises an enormous amount of money, though it's hard to point to any meaningful work the organization has done lately.

It's accompanied by Gingrich's consulting firm, media company, and religious nonprofit group, though, again, it's not at all clear if any of these entities do actual work. For that matter, Newt has a constant stream of books coming out -- he's released four books in just the past year -- though it's unlikely he's written them all.

If it sounds to you like this vast enterprise is a little sketchy, you're not the only one who thinks so.

[C]onsumer advocates and some disgruntled donors have raised questions over the years about Gingrich's seeming penchant for aggressive tactics, including the heavy use of fundraising polls, blast-faxes and other techniques considered unsavory or even predatory by philanthropy groups.

In one typical example in 2009, American Solutions blast-faxed an unknown number of potential donors with a pitch to have their names included in a newspaper ad bashing the Obama administration. (At least one fax went to a Democrat, who leaked it to Politico.)

According to complaints on consumer-focused Web sites, some American Solutions calls begin with slanted polling questions before proceeding to a request for money. The tactic, known as "fundraising under the guise of research," or frugging, is discouraged as unethical by trade groups such as the Marketing Research Association.

American Solutions also has drawn criticism because it spends nearly $2 on fundraising for every $3 it brings in -- about twice the figure for many nonprofit groups, experts said.

How aggressive is Gingrich's fundraising schemes? Just last month, the strip-club owner Gingrich offered to sell the "entrepreneur of the year" award to received yet another pitch. "Will you enclose a special year-end contribution of $1,000, or even as much as $2,000, to American Solutions, Ms. Rizos?" it asked.

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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'JUSTIFIABLE HOMICIDE' BILL PULLED IN S.D.... We learned Tuesday morning that Republicans in South Dakota were pushing a disturbing piece of anti-abortion legislation. Interpretations varied, but a "justifiable homicide" bill seemed to open the door to making it legal to kill medical professionals who perform abortions.

It didn't take long for news to make the rounds. Late yesterday, the day after the news broke, the bill was shelved indefinitely.

A state bill to expand the definition of justifiable homicide in South Dakota to include killing someone in the defense of an unborn child was postponed indefinitely Wednesday after an uproar over whether the legislation would put abortion providers at greater risk.

The House speaker, Val Rausch, said that the legislation had been shelved, pending a decision on whether to allow a vote, amend the language or drop it entirely. A spokesman for Gov. Dennis Daugaard said, "Clearly the bill as it's currently written is a very bad idea."


Kate Sheppard deserves a lot of credit -- she wrote the original report, and had it not been for her article, the legislation in South Dakota may have very well advanced.

It's also worth noting that even for right-wing lawmakers working on reproductive rights, it's heartening to know shame is still possible. The reversal in South Dakota comes two weeks after congressional Republicans, unable to think of a defense, dropped a provision to redefine rape in the odious "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act."

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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

* Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) has assembled an alumni association of sorts -- he holds regular conference calls with nearly all of the Dems who lost their seats in 2010. Israel apparently hopes to set up a series of rematches, starting with the 14 districts Kerry won in 2004, Obama won in 2008, but which Republicans won in 2010.

* While DNC Chairman and former Gov. Tim Kaine decides whether to launch a Senate campaign in Virginia, former Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.) said he won't run if Kaine does. If Kaine passes, Perriello added, "I will consider it."

* In Pennsylvania, a new Quinnipiac poll shows Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D) with a reasonably good 44% to 24% approval rating. A 46% plurality believes Casey, who'll seek re-election next year, deserves another term.

* On a related note, the same Quinnipiac poll shows Pennsylvania voters preferring President Obama to a generic Republican challenger, 45% to 39%.

* Recent rumors have suggested that Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) would skip the 2012 presidential race, but "he is suddenly very eager to get his name out there." This includes interviews this week with National Review and radical TV preacher Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network.

* Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), for whatever reason, appears to be moving forward with plans for a presidential campaign, including a trip to New Hampshire on March 11 and 12.

* As former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) inches closer to his own presidential campaign, he realizes he has a Google problem. Thanks to Dan Savage, searching for Santorum's name produces results of an adult nature.

* And if Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) launches a presidential campaign, he can expect very little support from Rush Limbaugh. Daniels told CPAC's audience last week that the Republican Party "will need people who never tune in to Rush or Glenn or Laura or Sean, who surf past C-SPAN to get to SportsCenter." This did not go over well with the right-wing radio host.

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

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BOEHNER TRIES TO WALK BACK 'SO BE IT'.... House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) created some trouble for himself this week, talking about his caucus' plans to make unemployment worse on purpose.

Boehner was asked Tuesday about expected job losses as a result of Republican budget cuts, and he replied, "In the last two years, under President Obama, the federal government has added 200,000 new federal jobs. If some of those jobs are lost, so be it."

As a factual matter, Boehner was simply wrong about the figure. But as a matter of basic decency, it was bizarre to hear Washington's most powerful Republican admit that Americans would lose their jobs as the result of the GOP plan.

Today, Boehner tried to walk it back, but his new line isn't much better than the old one.

After Democrats seized earlier this week on a comment by Boehner, in which he said that if Americans lose work because of spending cuts, "so be it," Boehner said he didn't want to see anyone lose their job.

"I don't want anyone to lose their job, whether they're a federal employee or not," Boehner said at his weekly press conference. "But come on, we're broke."

It's nice that the Speaker doesn't "want" to make unemployment worse, but personal motivations are really only a small part of the problem here.

Credible estimates suggest Boehner's own budget plan would force 800,000 to 1 million Americans from their jobs. Are we now expected to believe that the Speaker doesn't "want" this to happen, but he's willing to do it anyway?

As for the notion that "we're broke," it's curious that Boehner pushed a $3 billion earmark this week, intending to build an engine for the Defense Department doesn't want and doesn't need. If "we're broke," why does the Speaker think we have money to waste? For that matter, why did Boehner push expensive tax breaks, without paying for them, if "we're broke"?

And more to the point, are we likely to be less "broke" if we force a million American workers into unemployment?

Today's defense, such as it is, seems to be about making Boehner appear less callous. That's fine, as far as it goes. But the point here isn't the Speaker's emotional state -- the point is he supports a plan that would deliberately make unemployment worse, which sane people should consider problematic. I don't care what the Speaker prefers in some ideal scenario; I care that he wants to hand out a million pink slips in the midst of a jobs crisis.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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WHAT A 'GRAND BARGAIN' MIGHT LOOK LIKE.... Informal, bipartisan talks began in December over some kind of "grand bargain" on the budget. Elizabeth Drew wrote this week that such talks are progressing towards "a sweeping deal that could include entitlements and tax reforms as well as budget reduction."

I found it hard to believe these talks would gain any real traction, at least anytime soon, but I may have underestimated matters. The Wall Street Journal has a front-page piece today suggesting the "grand bargain" is getting closer to a reality.

A bipartisan group of senators is considering legislation that would trigger new taxes and budget cuts if Congress fails to meet a set of mandatory spending targets and other fiscal goals aimed at reducing federal deficits.

The plan would break the task of deficit reduction into four pieces: a tax code overhaul; discretionary spending cuts; changes to Medicare, Medicaid and other entitlements; and changes to Social Security, aides said. The Social Security system is on firmer financial footing than other major entitlement programs and raises political sensitivities that lawmakers want to deal with separately.

The exact details, not surprisingly, are still a little vague, but the WSJ reports that the overall plan would include separate caps on security and non-security spending, with deep automatic cuts in the event budget targets are missed. On entitlements, Social Security would be treated differently, but other entitlements "would also have to meet fixed targets," or face automatic penalties.

Taxes are part of the mix: "The tax-writing committees would be given two years to overhaul both the individual and corporate tax codes, with general instructions to close tax breaks and minimize or eliminate tax deductions while lowering tax rates. The committees would be given a target for additional revenues to be raised by the new code. The deficit commission's version of tax reform would net $180 billion in additional revenues over 10 years."

The negotiations, according to the article, are being spearheaded in the Senate by Democrats Mark Warner (Va.), Kent Conrad (N.D.), and Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), and Republicans Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Mike Crapo (Idaho), and Tom Coburn (Okla.).

Durbin told the WSJ, "We're getting close. We understand that if we're going to do something that's important, it has to be timely." He said the group hopes to reach agreement "in a matter of weeks, or months."

I can't speak to whether the article is correct. There are obviously talks underway, but whether the outline presented by the Wall Street Journal is accurate is entirely unclear.

But if the article is even close to being right, and the leak is some kind of trial balloon to gauge public reactions, let me be clear: I'm reaching for the slingshot. Indeed, I had the same reaction to this as Jon Chait:

This is actually hard to believe. According to this story, the deal calls for nearly ten times as much spending cuts ($1.7 trillion) as higher revenue ($180 billion.) Do you know how little $180 billion over ten years is? It's essentially nothing. It's one-quarter as much as the cost of extending the Bush tax cuts only on income over $250,000. [...]

The worst possible course of action would be to agree to the token $180 billion/ten year revenue hike instead of the partial or complete repeal of the Bush tax cuts. Democrats would be better off negotiating a deal that consists entirely of spending cuts, and leave themselves the flexibility to use the expiration of the Bush tax cuts as leverage. Giving up the $700 billion of revenue from the Bush tax cuts for the rich, and quite likely the $3.9 trillion from the total expiration of the tax cuts, in return for $180 billion would be nuts.

It's so nuts I'm tempted to assume this story couldn't possibly be correct.

I can only hope it's not.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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WHEN THE GOP'S 'ARMIES OF COMPASSION' ARE SENT PACKING.... In a column on the Republican budget plan this week, E.J. Dionne Jr. highlighted the new GOP approach to national service.

A telling example: The party that purports to love community and church-based efforts to help the poor and downtrodden even zeroed out AmeriCorps, the national service program that has long enjoyed support across party lines. AmeriCorps, remember, gives out small grants that leverage an enormous amount of voluntary work for the groups George W. Bush used to praise as "the armies of compassion."

But even those unrealistic cuts were not unrealistic enough for the GOP's highly caffeinated Tea Party wing.

To be specific, how much of the AmeriCorps budget do House Republicans want to cut? All of it. Literally, 100%.

As the debate on this advances, it's worth emphasizing the fact that the House GOP's crusade against national service is at odds with the positions of nearly all of the party's likely presidential candidates.

* Mitt Romney has embraced national service programs, even as a presidential candidate, and as a governor in 2004, he rallied Republican governors to support AmeriCorps in the face of cuts from congressional Republicans.

* Mike Huckabee has offered strong support for national service and as a presidential candidate, described AmeriCorps as a "very good" program.

* Tim Pawlenty not only supported national service programs as governor, he distanced himself from Rep. Michele Bachmann, a fellow Minnesotan, when she accused AmeriCorps of having an "indoctrination" component.

* Sarah Palin may not have been a governor very long, but before joining the national GOP ticket, she praised the work of AmeriCorps volunteers: "These contributions are essential to the state's economic and social well-being."

* Mitch Daniels created his own national service program called "Mitch's Kids," and also praised AmeriCorps for "promoting an ethic of service and volunteering."

* Rick Santorum originally bashed AmeriCorps, but changed his mind, and joined a bipartisan effort to preserve funding for the program in 1999.

* Haley Barbour has not only praised AmeriCorps in general, he was especially grateful for program volunteers helping his state in the wake of Hurricane Katrina: "We welcome these outstanding, civic-minded young men and women, and know they will offer tremendous service to people in our region."

I'm curious, do all of these GOP leaders support the efforts of congressional Republicans to simply scrap AmeriCorps funding altogether?

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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OBAMA BACKS PUBLIC EMPLOYEES IN WISCONSIN.... We talked a few days ago about Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's (R) aggressive anti-labor campaign, which he's trying to push through the Republican-led state legislature. It's one of the more hard-line union-busting efforts we've seen in a while.

To briefly summarize, the Republican governor has a plan to cut state workers' benefits and effectively remove their collective bargaining rights. Walker also hopes to make it harder for unions to collect dues, and prohibit union members from being allowed to negotiate for better pensions or health benefits.

And in case all of this was too subtle, the newly-elected conservative governor said a week ago he would refuse to negotiate with union leaders.

This week, tens of thousands of state employees have held massive protests at the state capitol. Yesterday, President Obama raised the visibility of their efforts, telling a Wisconsin-based NBC affiliate that Walker's efforts look like an "assault on unions."

"Some of what I've heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you're just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally seems like more of an assault on unions. And I think it's very important for us to understand that public employees, they're our neighbors, they're our friends. These are folks who are teachers and they're firefighters and they're social workers and they're police officers.

"They make a lot of sacrifices and make a big contribution. And I think it's important not to vilify them or to suggest that somehow all these budget problems are due to public employees."

That's good advice. The question is whether policymakers in Wisconsin will agree.

As of last night, Walker's union-busting plan was approved by a legislative committee -- every Republican voted for it, every Democrat voted against it -- setting up a floor vote in the state Senate today.

Some minor changes to the proposal were approved by besieged legislators, but state employees, not surprisingly, found these inconsequential as their collective bargaining rights are poised to be taken away for the first time in generations.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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THIS TRAIN DON'T STOP THERE ANYMORE.... The federal government had already allocated over $2 billion for a high-speed rail project linking Tampa and Orlando. With Florida's 12% unemployment rate, the project was poised to give the state a much needed boost -- creating tens of thousands of jobs and boosting economic development, with practically no investment needed from the state government.

Yesterday, for reasons that no one can explain, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) announced he'd refuse to accept the money and would instead allow the jobs to go to some other state.

What I found most interesting yesterday was the reaction from Republican officials in the Sunshine State.

Representative John Mica, a Florida Republican and the new chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told reporters Wednesday that he had tried but failed to talk Mr. Scott out of turning down the project.

Mr. Mica said the "federal government has done everything" it can, including agreeing to put up 90 percent of the rail link's financing. He added that it "defies logic" that Mr. Scott would cancel the rail line before the state had received bids on the project.

Mica's frustrations are really just the start. Republican State Senator Thad Altman called the governor's decision "tragic" and "bad for the people of Florida." Republican State Senator Paula Dockery said something similar. Republican State Senator Jack Latvala, chairman of Florida's Senate Transportation Committee, said Rick Scott "cut off our nose to spite our face."

Democrats, as one might imagine, were even more incensed. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio told reporters, "This is one of the worst decisions that I have ever seen in my 26 years of public life. This is a decision that is clearly based on ideology and not on the facts.... Why in the world would the governor take $2.3 billion worth of investment in our great state and hand it to another state? Why would any governor do that?"

Perhaps my favorite reaction came from U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D), who began a process yesterday to see if the project could be built anyway, whether the governor approves or not. "We have the lawyers researching it," Nelson told the Palm Beach Post.

It's an understandable reaction. After all, why should Floridians suffer just because a ridiculous criminal happens to be their governor?

Assuming Nelson is unsuccessful, and that Scott's refusal effectively ends the prospect of investment, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters yesterday the administration "will make sure that that money is used elsewhere to advance the infrastructure and innovation agenda that is essential for economic growth."

Indeed, some are already lining up for the resources. Immediately after Florida's governor turned down the money, New York Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) and Chuck Schumer (D) wrote the Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, explaining that the Empire State would gladly accept the investment Florida doesn't want. It's also likely California will benefit.

It creates an odd short-term future. We may well be looking at a situation in which states that need investment won't get it, because of the bizarre right-wing ideology of far-right Republican governors. "Blue" states, meanwhile, will in turn be the beneficiary of infrastructure improvements and economic development.

Historically, states competed for these kinds of resources. In the wake of the GOP's far-right shift, the competition may be limited to a smaller number of states -- the ones with Democratic governors.

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

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BECK VS. GOOGLE.... Fox News' Glenn Beck has new advice for his minions: stop using Google.

"Who are they? Are they right? Are they left? Are they clean? Are they dirty? Are they front groups? I don't know. May I recommend if you're doing your own homework, don't do a Google search. It seems to me that Google is pretty deeply in bed with the government.

"Remember, maybe this is explaining why Google is being kicked out of all the other countries. Are they just a shill now for the United States government? Who is Jared Cohen? Is he a private citizen or government operative? And isn't this the second Google guy we've found? This is the second Google executive now being exposed as an instigator of a revolution."

When Beck noted he thinks Google is "in bed with the government," he means the American government. "There is a strange thing going on with this search engine and our government," he said. "And we all have to choose who we do business with."

Apparently, the odd media personality was quite worked up about this. "I'm just not sure, as I look into Google, that I want to use their products anymore unless I have to," Beck added. "And some of their products I think I have to. I'm not leading any boycott. I hate boycotts. You do with your time, your money, and your information what you want. For me, personally, I'm not feeling real comfortable about the current direction of Google the more I find out."

What on earth is he talking about? Wael Ghonim is the head of Google's marketing for the Middle East and North Africa, and he also helped organize Egyptian protestors during the recent uprising. The Mubarak government arrested Ghonim in late January and held him blindfolded for 11 days. Upon his release, Ghonim, seen as a hero, helped further inspire those demonstrating against their government.

So, here's Beck's logic: Google has government contracts, Google employs Ghonim, Ghonim opposed an autocratic government in Egypt, and Beck liked the autocratic government in Egypt. Ergo, Google worked with American officials to help overthrow the Mubarak regime, which means right-thinking people everywhere should steer clear of the nefarious search engine.

Who could argue with logic like this?

As for which Google "products" Beck believes he "has to" use, I have no idea what he means.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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February 16, 2011

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

* Bahrain: "Tens of thousands of demonstrators poured into Pearl Square here late into the night as Shiite opposition leaders issued assurances they were not being influenced by Tehran and were not interested in transforming the monarchy into a religious theocracy like the Islamic Republic in Iran."

* Egypt: "Egyptians staged protests and strikes Wednesday over a host of grievances from paltry wages to toxic waste dumping, defying the second warning in three days from the nation's military rulers to halt all labor unrest at a time when the economy is staggering."

* The Fed is slightly more optimistic about 2011, at least as far as growth is concerned.

* A very big deal in Madison: "Thousands of people descended on the Wisconsin state Capitol for a second day of powerful protests Wednesday as key votes approached on Republican Gov. Scott Walker's plan to strip away the collective bargaining rights of public employees."

* Josh Marshall offers some context: "If Gov. Walker (R) is able to push through big, big changes to collective bargaining rights and makes it stick, that will be picked up in many other states and it will shape perceptions of the public mood going into the 2012 election -- from the top of the ticket all the way down to the bottom. On the other hand, if he gets shut down and the idea takes hold that he overreached, that will have similarly widespread effects in other states as well as in shaping the political terrain going into 2012."

* Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) downplayed the prospects of a government shutdown in a Fox News interview. Here's hoping he's right.

* With Republicans bringing a machete to the budget, and aiming for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Sesame Street crowd and their Democratic allies are speaking up.

* The Senate voted late yesterday to extend three counterterrorism provisions of the Patriot Act for 90 days. The vote was 86 to 12.

* Senate Dems have embraced White House messaging, and today released the caucus' "Winning the Future" agenda. It's not a bad set of ideas, but the list is more a vision statement than a to-do list -- there's no way the narrow Senate majority could overcome GOP filibusters, better yet a Republican-led House.

* Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) won't allow the Senate to vote on a nominee to head the Fish and Wildlife Service until the administration does more to make oil companies happy. Have I mentioned lately that the Senate is broken?

* The guy in South Dakota with the "justifiable homicide" bill is apparently feeling quite a bit of heat, and is prepared to make some meaningful changes to his proposal.

* David Roberts flags a poll showing public opposition to congressional Republicans' attacks on the EPA.

* Former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) is getting back in the game and launching a liberal political action committee.

* President Obama wants America to be the country in the world with the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. Is that likely to happen? Not really.

* For what it's worth, Paul Waldman, I always really liked The Gadflyer.

* I have no idea what Nir Rosen was thinking, but there's no excuse for such ugliness in the wake of the assault on Lara Logan.

* On a related note, Jim Hoft blaming Logan for her assault is just disgusting.

* I liked this line from Greg Sargent: "[I]f Fox's explicit goal has been to create a self-sustaining, self-perpetuating alternate reality, as many have alleged, it appears that when it comes to Americans' views of Muslims, the network may be succeeding brilliantly."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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THE NEED FOR PARTISAN COVER.... For all the talk about "entitlements" as the budget fight(s) begins in earnest, it's worth noting that congressional Republicans aren't exactly on the same page. I don't just mean that GOP lawmakers disagree on the scope of proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare, I mean Republicans aren't even sure how they want to pursue the issue with the White House.

Reader G.S. emails this piece, and asks an interesting question.

One day after President Obama submitted his budget request for fiscal 2012 to Capitol Hill, congressional Republicans assailed the document as too weak on spending. But they also signaled an openness to working with Democrats to solve the nation's financial problems.

The mixed message reflects uncertainty among resurgent Republicans about how best to address the concerns of voters -- and satisfy the demands of restless freshman members of their own party.

Some Republicans, particularly those in the House, want to force an immediate showdown with Democrats: GOP leaders have included sharp cuts to federal agencies in a must-pass spending measure that would keep the government open through September. Other Republicans, including many longtime senators, want to seize the moment to join Democrats in overhauling politically sensitive programs such as Social Security and Medicare, the biggest drivers of future spending.

These differences matter, of course. How and whether the GOP decides on a strategy will be critical in, say, avoiding a government shutdown.

But G.S. asks, "I don't get the Republican strategy. They can spend '11 and '12 in skirmishes with Obama. Then they use it against him next year and elect President Romney. In '13, GOPers run Washington and cut entitlements all they want. Why look for a dea with Obamal? It's not like they like bipartisanship."

It's a fair point. The answer, I suspect, is that they need bipartisan cover on entitlements. If a Republican Congress and a Republican White House tried to tackle this sort of undertaking on their own -- as they did in 2005 on Social Security privatization -- they'd face an aggressive, organized, well-coordinated opposition. What's more, they'd very likely lose and pay a steep price.

It's one of the reasons why the subject is coming up at all -- Republicans want to tackle the policy, but need a Democratic White House to make it work politically.

The president alluded to this yesterday at a press conference: "[T]his is not a matter of 'you go first' or 'I go first.' This is a matter of everybody having a serious conversation about where we want to go, and then ultimately getting in that boat at the same time so it doesn't tip over."

It creates a series of incentives -- Republicans get the policy they're looking for with the partisan cover they need; Obama's re-election prospects get a boost by striking a deal on an issue that seems to matter.

Steve Benen 4:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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HOUSE REBUFFS BOEHNER, SCRAPS F-35 JET ENGINE PROGRAM.... Following up on an earlier item, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) asked for a few billion dollars to build a jet engine for the Pentagon that the Pentagon doesn't want. Today, Boehner's colleagues said, "No."

In a sign that some freshman Republicans were willing to cut military spending, the House voted 233-198 on Wednesday to cancel an alternate fighter jet engine that the Bush and Obama administrations had tried to kill for the last five years.

The vote marked another instance in which some of the new legislators, including members of the Tea Party, broke ranks with the House speaker, John A. Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, where the engine provided more than 1,000 jobs.

President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged Congress to scrap the engine and save up to $3 billion over the next several years. John Boehner urged Congress to approve the wasteful spending anyway. Today, Boehner lost.

The vote was unusually bipartisan, and tended to follow geographic, not political lines. In all, 233 lawmakers voted against the unnecessary engine -- 123 Democrats and 110 Republicans.

Of course, it's worth emphasizing that 130 House Republicans -- the ones who claim to be desperate to cut unnecessary spending, even if it leads to massive layoffs -- voted to keep spending taxpayer money on an engine the Pentagon doesn't need and didn't ask for.

Steve Benen 3:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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GIVING THE GOP'S 'SO BE IT' RESPONSE A CLOSER LOOK.... As House Speaker John Boehner's "so be it" problem continues to percolate, I was glad to see some Republican officials take the time to respond to the concerns.

Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, said in a statement sent to reporters late Tuesday evening that the government is hiring more people than it can afford.

"We also keep hearing from our Democrat friends that government jobs will be lost if government spending is cut," Mr. Dayspring said. "Yet, as our government keeps borrowing 40 cents out of every dollar that it spends, it begs the question, 'Why is the government continuing to hire workers that it can't afford to pay?' Couldn't we use fewer IRS agents and more small businessmen and entrepreneurs?"

Let's unpack this, because I think it's important.

First, they're Dayspring's "Democratic friends," and as a rule, "friends" tend to like it when you remember the name of their political party. Second, that's not how "begs the question" is supposed to be used.

Third, Democrats aren't the only ones saying jobs will be lost as a result of Republican spending cuts; Republicans are saying it, too. That's the point -- Boehner admitted that Americans would lose their jobs as the result of the GOP plan. In fact, he said, "so be it." By one credible count, the expected number of American workers forced from their jobs could total nearly 1 million, which would not only increase unemployment considerably, it'd likely bring the struggling economic recovery to a screeching halt.

Fourth, "Why is the government continuing to hire workers that it can't afford to pay?" In reality, on a per capita basis, the federal workforce is already at its lowest level since 1962.

And finally, the substance of Dayspring's argument is that Republicans should force hundreds of thousands of layoffs, on purpose, because of the deficit Republicans helped create under Bush. But then we get into a question about priorities -- if the deficit is so serious, why did Dayspring's caucus demand more tax breaks than made the deficit worse? To use his language, it "begs the question" as to why Republicans continue to cut taxes they can't pay for.

But wait, there's more.

Ezra Klein talked to John Boehner's spokesperson, Michael Steel, asking why the Speaker said the Obama administration has added 200,000 federal jobs in two year, when reality suggests otherwise. (By Ezra's count, the actual number is 58,000.)

An e-mail to John Boehner's office got me a bit closer. Michael Steel, his spokesman, directed me to "Federal Government Employees, Except U.S. Postal Service. December 2008 - January 2011." If you use that data, you get 153,000 more federal employees. But why are we excluding postal service workers? And why are we starting in December 2008, before Obama was inaugurated (if you start in January 2009, the difference is 141,000 workers)? And 153,000, of course, is still not 200,000.

Steel goes on to note that "they" meaning the Obama administration -- "created another 400K gov't Census jobs, so the total is actually more than twice what Boehner said." But those jobs are gone now, and they have been for some time. And it's not as if Obama created the Census: That's a constitutional duty. President John McCain would've had to hire those workers, too. And the administration actually worked to hold hiring for the census down -- perhaps to the detriment of the labor market.

As for the 58,000 new federal workers who were hired, most relate to military and homeland security, which Republicans claim to care about.

What we're left with is a House Republican caucus that isn't quite sharp enough to realize it's playing with fire, with the economy hanging in the balance. It picked an arbitrary number, came up with a spending-cut plan to meet it, and the result is a policy that would deliberately put in upwards of a million Americans out of work. Asked to defend the policy, GOP spokespersons are left with non-sequiturs, falsehoods, and gibberish.

These guys, in other words, have no idea what they're talking about, but they have the power to do enormous damage.

Steve Benen 3:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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A NEW STANDARD FOR 'SERIOUSNESS'.... The political establishment's preoccupation with deficit reduction -- as opposed to, say, job creation -- is annoying enough on its own. What's worse is the presupposed fixes to the nation's fiscal problems.

For years, the standard for establishment credibility has been pretty straightforward: policymakers who want to cut Social Security and Medicare are considered "serious." Those who don't are labeled "irresponsible." Those in former group get invited onto Sunday shows and receive praise in David Broder columns. Those in the latter receive establishment scorn.

This frame appears to be evolving, but not in a good way. Dave Weigel noted yesterday that Republicans have begun aggressively incorporating the word "leadership" into their talking points. The point isn't subtle -- if President Obama doesn't agree to cuts, he's not only lacking in "credibility" and "seriousness," he's not a "leader," either.

I get the argument. The White House doesn't want to cut Social Security and Medicare, the pitch goes, but if Obama is going to turn around our fiscal fortunes, he's going to have to go along with the GOP and the establishment, and do what he doesn't want to do. That this would involve the president thumbing his nose at his base would only make this more appealing to Republicans and give it more weight with D.C. insiders.

All of this is misguided, and it's a reminder that the discourse is overdue for a detour. As Jonathan Cohn noted today, those who sincerely want to reduce the deficit are going to have to "talk about taxes."

With unemployment still too high and growth still too low, I'm not sure why budget deficits and the federal debt are suddenly the exclusive focus of our political conversation. But a serious conversation about how to stabilize the government's finances is now taking place, in the media and behind closed doors in Congress.

At least, it's supposed to be serious.... In the long run, we can't stabilize federal finances entirely by letting the Bush tax cuts lapse. That's probably going to require some spending reductions, too, primarily on health care. But, as both Weigel and my colleague Alex Hart have pointed out, it's ridiculous to have a conversation about balancing the budget that won't even contemplate higher taxes.

Quite right. In 2001, Republicans were handed a spectacular fiscal future -- they had huge surpluses, the debt was being paid off the first time in four decades, and the various debt clocks had to be shut down (they hadn't been programmed to run backwards). They proceeded to slash taxes, and deficits soon followed. Bush-era tax breaks aren't the only factor driving the budget shortfalls, but they're a major culprit.

(Oh, and incidentally, they failed as an economic policy anyway, failing to create the millions of jobs promised by GOP proponents when approved.)

Is it so unreasonable to consider a more responsible policy -- one that moves away from what we know didn't work?

I'm not saying deficit reduction should be a high priority right now; I happen to believe the opposite. But if the budget shortfall is going to be on the to-do list, there are only a couple of options in shrinking the deficit -- the government can spend less, take in more, or some combination of the two.

Republicans argue that the debt is threatening the fabric of our civilization, but they refuse to even consider one of the two ways to solve the problem. With that in mind, it's time for a new standard -- to be considered "serious" and "credible," policymakers are going to have to accept the fact that tax increases must be part of the fiscal mix.

Steve Benen 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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BARBOUR FAILS AN EASY TEST.... A Mississippi group called the Sons of Confederate Veterans is pushing for a state license plate that honors Nathan Bedford Forrest, perhaps best known as the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. By all appearances, it's unlikely officials will approve the plate.

This should make it easy, then, for Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R), a likely presidential candidate, to denounce the idea that's likely to fail anyway. He's choosing not to.

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour refused Tuesday to denounce attempts to create a special license plate honoring a 19th-century Ku Klux Klan leader.

"I don't go around denouncing people," Barbour told reporters Tuesday in Jackson, MS.

When asked by a reporter what he thought about the KKK leader in a historical context, Barbour gave a terse response.

"He's a historical figure," Barbour said.

Well, sure, the founder of the KKK is a historical figure. He's also a murderer, slave trader, and the founder of the KKK.

It shouldn't be a tough call. Barbour doesn't have to deliver a lengthy historical analysis of Forrest's crimes, he just as to say, "The push for a Forrest license plate is an awful mistake."

But Barbour doesn't want to say this. He'd rather stick to, "I don't go around denouncing people."

As Garance Franke-Ruta explained this week, "There are some bright shiny lines in American political life at the national level. One of them is that it's an easy call to say negative things about the KKK when asked to do so, and that this does not require any particularly complex level of thought or strategy. If you're not ready to cross that line, you're not ready to be president. Period."

Compounding the problem is the fact that the far-right Mississippi governor already has a horrendous record on race relations, as evidenced by his recent praise for White Citizens Councils -- known for touting "racial integrity" and fighting for segregation through economic coercion -- and his belief that the civil rights era in Mississippi just wasn't "that bad."

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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FLORIDA'S SCOTT JOINS THE ANTI-RAIL CRUSADE.... Historically, leaders in both parties have championed infrastructure and transportation investments. That's obviously no longer the case.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) announced Wednesday that he is sending back $2.4 billion in federal stimulus money reserved for building a high-speed rail network.

"Rather than investing in a high-risk rail project, we should be focusing on improving our ports, rail and highway infrastructure," Scott announced, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

If this sounds familiar, it's because Scott's decision comes on the heels of identical moves from Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), both of whom recently rejected billions in federal funding for high-speed rail.

But Scott's move in Florida is especially ridiculous.

The plan has been to create a $2.6 billion high-speed rail 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.

The benefits to Florida's struggling economy were poised to be tremendous. Independent estimates found that the rail project would create 24,000 jobs, boost economic development, improve congestion on Florida's overburdened highways, and even help the state's environment. All Rick Scott had to do was accept the check from Washington.

Today, the criminal governor refused.

The Orlando Sentinel's editorial board recently tried to come up with a coherent explanation for Scott's position, but the best it could do is (a) the governor's irrational partisanship places Obama-hatred above Florida's needs; and/or (b) he hopes to impress the GOP's right-wing base, even if it costs Florida 24,000 jobs.

In the larger context, it's worth emphasizing that America's global competitors are investing in innovative, modern methods of transportation. We could do that here and reap the rewards -- job creation, economic development, cleaner air, less congested roads, etc. -- but instead we have governors like Rick Scott, John Kasich, and Scott Walker.

Postscript: In case you're wondering, when far-right governors turn down rail funds, federal officials re-direct the money to other projects in less-ridiculous states.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (66)

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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:

* DNC Chairman and former Gov. Tim Kaine is open to running for the U.S. Senate in Virginia, and will reportedly discuss this with President Obama directly this week. The seat is current held by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who's retiring. For his part, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has privately urged Kaine to run for the seat.

* Several congressional Dems will host a D.C. fundraiser for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) on March 15, intended to boost her re-election coffers in advance of the 2012 cycle.

* Edward M. Kennedy Jr. had expressed some interest in Connecticut's open U.S. Senate race next year, but has decided not to run.

* The special election in California's 36th congressional district got a little more crowded yesterday when California Secretary of State Debra Bowen (D) launched her campaign.

* Scandal-plagued Sen. John Ensign (R) is seeking re-election in Nevada, but National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (R-Texas) doesn't seem happy about it, and is making no effort to support the incumbent.

* Speaking of Nevada, Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) said yesterday she's "seriously looking" at running in next year's Senate race, and would likely be competitive against Ensign.

* A number of credible Louisiana Democrats have decided not to run for governor this year, apparently believing that incumbent Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) is too strong a favorite to win a second term.

* In Tennessee, a new survey from Public Policy Polling shows Sen. Bob Corker (R) looking like a safe bet for re-election, unless former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) runs. In that hypothetical match-up, Bredesen leads Corker, 46% to 41%.

* Reality-show star Donald Trump continues to flirt with a presidential campaign, and this week changed his voter registration to the GOP. Asked about Trump having been pro-choice, but not anymore, an aide told National Journal, "People change their positions all the time, the way they change their wives."

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

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LIEBERMAN, COLLINS CHANNEL GIULIANI'S TALKING POINTS.... The quality of the debate over terrorism-related rhetoric hasn't progressed much in recent years.

What message should we take away from the Fort Hood massacre, where 13 people were allegedly murdered by radicalized Muslim army psychiatrist Nadal Hasan? According to Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Susan Collins (R-ME), the takeaway is that the U.S. should to stop beating around the bush and call America's enemies what they supposedly are: "Islamic extremists."

Lieberman convened the hearing ostensibly to discuss the recently-released report that criticized the federal government for failing to prevent the massacre by not taking appropriate action to remove Hasan from the military. But it quickly turned into a denunciation of the language the Administration supposedly uses to discuss violent acts.

Senate Homeland Security Committee Ranking Member Susan Collins (R-Maine) complained that the Obama administration "is refusing to acknowledge that violent Islamic extremism is the ideology that fuels attacks." Committee Chairman Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) went to criticize "some people in the executive branch of government," for not using the phrase "Islamic extremists."

Great. The talking points from Rudy Giuliani's foolish presidential campaign continue to resonate with the leaders of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

As part of the same hearing, Philip Mudd, the former deputy director of the Office of Terrorism Analysis at the CIA, told the committee this rhetorical push is off-base. "As somebody who wants to kill the ideology," Mudd said, "I think we ought to call them what they hate to be called. They like to be called 'terrorists.' They like to be called 'Islamic radicals.' They hate to be called 'murderers,' and that is what they are.... Call them 'murderers.'"

Lieberman responded, "I'm unconvinced."

What a surprise.

It's probably worth noting that just a few years ago, the Bush/Cheney administration launched a new effort to change the way U.S. officials communicated on this issue. In fact, Bush/Cheney issued guidelines, entitled "Words that Work and Words that Don't: A Guide for Counterterrorism Communication," urging officials to stop describing extremists as "jihadists" or "mujahedeen," and to drop "Islamo-fascism" altogether. "It's not what you say but what they hear," the memo said in bold italic lettering.

Karen Hughes later conceded, "We ought to avoid the language of religion. Whenever they hear 'Islamic extremism, Islamic jihad, Islamic fundamentalism,' they perceive it as a sort of an attack on their faith. That's the world view Osama bin Laden wants them to have."

Susan Collins and Joe Lieberman apparently don't care.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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BOEHNER THINKS 'WE'RE BROKE,' BUT CAN AFFORD WASTEFUL SPENDING IN OHIO.... In justifying his support for putting up to a million Americans out of work, on purpose, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said yesterday, "We're broke."

It was an odd defense for deliberately-higher unemployment. We're facing a budget crunch, but it won't be solved by forcing hundreds of thousands of workers from their jobs, and it was Boehner who demanded the fiscal problems get worse just two months ago with additional tax breaks.

But there's an even more obvious problem. Boehner may be under the impression "we're broke," but the Speaker nevertheless believes there's enough money left to spend it on a pointless defense project that will benefit his home state.

Among the savings proposed by the Obama administration (and before that, the Bush administration) is to end the wasteful effort to develop a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The Pentagon is satisfied with the engine it has, made by Pratt & Whitney, and it doesn't want the second engine, made by General Electric and others. Eliminating the second engine would save $450 million this year and some $3 billion over 10 years.

But it just so happens that a GE plant that develops the second engine employs 7,000 people in Evendale, Ohio, near Boehner's district. Rather than take a so-be-it attitude toward jobs his constituents may hold, he's backing an earmark-like provision in the spending legislation to keep funding the unneeded GE engine.

So, let me get this straight. John Boehner doesn't care if his agenda puts hundreds of thousands of Americans out of work, on purpose. He doesn't care if his cuts undermine education, law enforcement, infrastructure, and public safety. He doesn't care if his budget plan undermines economic growth, competitiveness, and innovation.

But if the Obama administration wants to cut wasteful spending on a military project the Pentagon doesn't want, all of a sudden, Boehner not only cares, but he's pushing unnecessary spending that "looks, feels, and smells very much like an earmark."

Rachel Maddow's right -- Boehner just isn't good at his job.

A House vote on whether to waste nearly $3 billion over the next few years on an engine the Pentagon doesn't want is expected later today.

Steve Benen 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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GOP HEALTH CARE PLANS STILL UNPOPULAR.... There were several polls released last month showing fairly consistent results: the Affordable Care Act isn't popular, but the American mainstream wasn't on board with the repeal crusade. Republicans didn't care, and every GOP lawmaker on the Hill voted for repeal anyway.

A month later, Republicans want to block funding for the health care law. And once again, the Affordable Care Act still isn't popular, but most Americans don't like this GOP plan, either.

A majority of the public disapproves of the Republican idea to cut off funding for health care reform, a new CBS News poll shows -- although most also disapprove of the health care law, and many aren't sure of its impact on the health care system.

Republicans in Congress have said they intend to do everything in their power to stop President Obama's health care reforms from going into place -- including de-funding provisions of the legislation. Funding for the new health care reforms is one component of the debate Republicans intend to have with the president this year over federal spending, deficit reduction and government regulations. [...]

Most Americans, 55 percent, disapprove of the plan to cut off funding to the new health care reforms, and just 35 percent approve.

In fairness, it's worth noting that the same poll found that a narrow majority of Americans disapprove of the health reform law and doubt it will improve the system, results that will no doubt please its conservative detractors. It's unclear just how many of those polled don't like the law because they want it to go further (disapproving from the left) vs. those who think it goes too far (disapproving from the right).

Either way, though, the public still doesn't like what Republicans have in mind. GOP lawmakers seem to assume that Americans are standing with them in their campaign to gut the health care law, but the evidence suggests these Republicans' assumptions are baseless.

And yet, their crusade continues unabated. It's no longer clear exactly why Republicans hate the law so much, but Jon Chait's recent take continues to ring true: "[T]he Affordable Care Act has become to the right a symbolic totem that has little to do with actual policies. Its very existence is an enduring emotional wound.... The GOP is operating not on the basis of some analysis of public policy but from a sheer pathology."

It's a pathology the American mainstream has no use for.

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

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THE LIMITS OF BEING 'PRO-FAMILY'.... The right finds the strangest things to complain about.

Rep. Michele Bachmann spoke out Tuesday against First Lady Michelle Obama's reported support of tax breaks for breast pumps.

On Laura Ingraham's radio show Tuesday, the Tea Party favorite criticized Mrs. Obama for reportedly endorsing steps she warned could lead to a "nanny state."

"I've given birth to five babies and I breast fed every single one of these babies," Bachmann, R-Minn., said. "To think that government has to go out and buy my breast pump for my babies. I mean, you want to talk about the nanny state? I think you just got a new definition -- a new definition of the nanny."

On Fox News last night, Tucker Carlson was whining, too. He told Sean Hannity, "It takes a lot of time to make those kinds of decisions [about raising children]. You are a busy man. Why would you want to raise your own kids when Michelle Obama will do it for you? In fact, she will do it at gunpoint."

Given these reactions, you'd think the First Lady had done something truly outrageous. In Grown-Up Land, Michelle Obama has said breast-feeding helps combat childhood obesity, and has pointed to the fact that breast pumps and related supplies are tax-deductible as designated medical supplies. It's hardly shocking.

This, Bachmann said, is "very consistent with where the hard left is coming from."

Remember when the right used to talk about the need for "pro-family" policies that gave a hand to parents? I wonder whatever happened to those conservatives.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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NOT ALL ENTITLEMENTS ARE CREATED EQUAL.... When policymakers talk about "entitlement reform," they're generally referring to several massive programs: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. When the discussion shifts to long-term fiscal challenges, all three tend to be lumped together.

That's a mistake. Indeed, at yesterday White House press conference, the AP's Ben Feller noted in his question "the the long-term crushing costs of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid -- the real drivers of long-term debt." President Obama emphasized an important distinction between them.

"The truth is Social Security is not the huge contributor to the deficit that the other two entitlements are. I'm confident we can get Social Security done in the same way that Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill were able to get it done, by parties coming together, making some modest adjustments. I think we can avoid slashing benefits, and I think we can make it stable and stronger for not only this generation but for the next generation.

"Medicare and Medicaid are huge problems because health care costs are rising even as the population is getting older. And so what I've said is that I'm prepared to work with Democrats and Republicans to start dealing with that in a serious way. We made a down payment on that with health care reform last year. That's part of what health care reform was about. The projected deficits are going to be about $250 billion lower over the next 10 years than they otherwise would have been because of health care reform, and they'll be a trillion dollars lower than they otherwise would have been if we hadn't done health care reform for the following decade."

I'm glad he reminded reporters about this, because I get the sense it's a point the media often forgets. As Greg Sargent noted, the president was arguing "that Social Security does not belong in the same camp as deficit-busting programs like Medicare and Medicaid." They're just "not in the same category."

It's often left out of the debate, but the truth is, Social Security is in pretty good shape. Its long-term finances could be improved even more with some minor tweaks that most folks probably wouldn't even notice, but there's no crisis, the system isn't going bankrupt, and if policymakers decided not to do anything for a while, that'd be fine, too. Kevin Drum had a good post on this overnight.

The weird thing about this is that Social Security isn't even hard to understand. Taxes go in, benefits go out. Unlike healthcare, which involves extremely difficult questions of technological advancement and the specter of rationing, Social Security is just arithmetic.... Right now, Social Security costs about 4.5% of GDP. That's going to increase as the baby boomer generation retires, and then in 2030 it steadies out forever at around 6% of GDP.

That's it. That's the story. Our choices are equally simple. If, about ten years from now, we slowly increase payroll taxes by 1.5% of GDP, Social Security will be able to pay out its current promised benefits for the rest of the century. Conversely, if we keep payroll taxes where they are today, benefits will have to be cut to 75% of their promised level by around 2040 or so. And if we do something in the middle, then taxes will go up, say, 1% of GDP and benefits will drop to about 92% of their promised level. But one way or another, at some level between 75% and 100% of what we've promised, Social Security benefits will always be there.

This is not a Ponzi scheme. It's not unsustainable.... [S]hort of some kind of financial apocalypse -- in which case we've got way bigger things to worry about anyway -- Social Security benefits will be there for everyone alive today. Why is it that so few people seem to get this?

I guess because they're desperate to privatize, so they delude themselves into accepting falsehoods?

Medicare is facing fairly serious fiscal problems; Social Security isn't. The more the president reminds folks about this, the better.

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

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MILBANK GOES THERE.... It looks like much of the Beltway press was underwhelmed by House Speaker John Boehner's "so be it" problem, but to his credit, the Washington Post's Dana Milbank appreciated the seriousness of this in a terrific column.

To briefly review, Boehner was asked yesterday about expected job losses as a result of Republican budget cuts. "In the last two years, under President Obama, the federal government has added 200,000 new federal jobs," he said. "If some of those jobs are lost, so be it."

Asked exactly how many thousands of Americans would be left unemployed as a result of GOP cuts, Boehner said he didn't know (and apparently, doesn't care). So, Milbank looked into it.

I checked with budget expert Scott Lilly of the Center for American Progress, and, using the usual multipliers, he calculated that the cuts -- a net of $59 billion in the last half of fiscal 2011 -- would lead to the loss of 650,000 government jobs, and the indirect loss of 325,000 more jobs as fewer government workers travel and buy things. That's nearly 1 million jobs -- possibly enough to tip the economy back into recession.

So be it?

Let's assume that Boehner is not as heartless as his words sound. Let's accept that he really believes, as he put it, that "if we reduce spending we'll create a better environment for job creation in America." A more balanced budget would indeed improve the jobs market -- in the long run.

But in the short run, the cuts Boehner and his caucus propose would cause a shock to the economy that would slow, if not reverse, the recovery. And however pure Boehner's motives may be, the dirty truth is that a stall in the recovery would bring political benefits to the Republicans in the 2012 elections. It is in their political interests for unemployment to remain higher for the next two years. "So be it" is callous but rational.

This is pretty provocative stuff for a member of the D.C. establishment in good standing. Of course, given that the Speaker of the House, by his own admission, has announced his support for a budget plan that would make unemployment worse, on purpose, I'm not sure why more of Milbank's colleagues aren't taking this more seriously.

What's more, PolitiFact looked into Boehner's claim about 200,000 new federal jobs and found that the Speaker's claim just isn't true. This is important -- Boehner wants to force hundreds of thousands of Americans from their jobs, deliberately, and he's basing this decision in part on a statistic that he's simply made up.

How'd this guy even get to be Speaker in the first place? What kind of national leader looks at a 9% unemployment rate and presents a plan to knowingly make it worse?

I realize Boehner has a response. In his mind, those hundreds of thousands of workers who'd be laid off would, in time, get jobs in the private sector. The argument is exceedingly weak on policy grounds, but it's even worse as a rhetorical pitch: "Let's make unemployment worse on purpose, and maybe someday, these jobless Americans will find new jobs somewhere else."

Let's take that debate to the public, and see if voters buy it.

In general, the establishment media isn't pouncing on this -- some are strangely insisting it's not worth the attention -- but Chris Matthews mentioned it yesterday, and Rachel Maddow used this to make a larger case that John Boehner just isn't good at his job. I'm inclined to agree.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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February 15, 2011

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

* Bahrain: "Thousands of demonstrators poured into this nation's symbolic center, Pearl Square, late Tuesday in a raucous rally that again demonstrated the power of popular movements that are transforming the political landscape of the Middle East."

* Iran: "A day after the most significant street protests in Iran since the end of the 2009 uprising there, members of the Iranian Parliament called on Tuesday for the two most prominent opposition leaders to be prosecuted and sentenced to death for stirring unrest."

* Egypt: "The military officers governing Egypt convened a panel Tuesday to revise the country's constitution that included both a distinguished Coptic Christian jurist and a member of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, offering the first significant evidence of the military's commitment to moving the country toward democratic rule."

* Secretary of State Hillary Clinton makes clear that the foreign-aid cuts proposed by House Republicans, if approved, will prove "devastating to our national security, will render us unable to respond to unanticipated disasters and will damage our leadership around the world."

* Would the Senate approve the House's proposed cuts? According to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), no.

* Chevron's guilty: "An Ecuadorian judge on Monday ordered Chevron Corp. to pay $8.6 billion to clean up oil pollution in the country's rain forest in what is believed to be the largest-ever judgment in an environmental case. And if the U.S. oil giant doesn't publicly apologize in the next 15 days, the judge ordered the company to pay twice that amount." As far as affected farmers are concerned, it's not enough.

* Pushing back against union-busting efforts: "Demonstrators gathered in large numbers at the Wisconsin state Capitol on Tuesday, to protest Republican Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposal to help close the state's shortfall by removing nearly all collective bargaining rights for public employees. As the Wisconsin State Journal reports, over 10,000 protestors gathered at the state Capitol building Tuesday, with thousands also crowded inside the building itself."

* Slowly but surely, this story keeps getting more interesting: "A feud between a security contracting firm and a group of guerrilla computer hackers has spilled over onto K Street, as stolen e-mails reveal plans for a dirty-tricks-style campaign against critics of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce." The L.A. Times is picking up on this, too.

* Today's single most ridiculous headline from a legitimate news outlet: "Obama's budget would add $13 trillion to national debt." Is this some sort of joke? Did Fox News staffers invade the McClatchy offices?

* Greg Sargent speaks to the "justifiable homicide" lawmaker in South Dakota, who presented a defense for his bill that appears to clear the way for killing abortion doctors.

* Remember Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, codenamed "Curveball"? He told the Bush administration Iraq had a secret biological weapons program. He was lying. (thanks to A.S. for the tip)

* I don't mind that Thomas DiLorenzo, an economics professor at Loyola University Maryland, appears to be a nut. I mind that he was called to deliver congressional testimony last week.

* A good slogan: "Put women and children last."

* And MoveOn.org has a powerful new ad responding to Republican efforts to limit women's reproductive rights. It's likely to generate some attention.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (4)

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On Friday February 11, the day Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak stepped down, CBS correspondent Lara Logan was covering the jubilation in Tahrir Square for a 60 MINUTES story when she and her team and their security were surrounded by a dangerous element amidst the celebration. It was a mob of more than 200 people whipped into frenzy.

In the crush of the mob, she was separated from her crew. She was surrounded and suffered a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating before being saved by a group of women and an estimated 20 Egyptian soldiers. She reconnected with the CBS team, returned to her hotel and returned to the United States on the first flight the next morning. She is currently in the hospital recovering.

What heartbreaking violence. If that group of Egyptian women and soldiers hadn't acted, this monstrous crime could have been even worse.

Steve Benen 5:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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THE THREAT OF A SHUTDOWN, CONT'D.... At the White House press conference this morning, ABC's Jake Tapper brought the "s" word into the discussion -- "shutdown."

"House Republicans, as you know, want to start cutting now, want to start cutting this year's budget," Tapper noted. "Are you willing to work with them in the next few weeks so as to avoid a government shutdown?" President Obama explained a bit about what a continuing resolution is, before stressing the importance of making cuts that don't undermine the economy.

"[W]e've got to be careful. Again, let's use a scalpel; let's not use a machete. And if we do that, there should be no reason at all for a government shutdown. And I think people should be careful about being too loose in terms of talking about a government shutdown, because this is not an abstraction. People don't get their Social Security checks. They don't get their veterans payments. Basic functions shut down. And that, also, would have an adverse effect on our economic recovery. It would be destabilizing at a time when, I think, everybody is hopeful that we can start growing this economy quicker.

"So I'm looking forward to having a conversation. But the key here is for people to be practical and not to score political points."

The problem, of course, is that some lawmakers appear a little too eager to score political points, and deliberately avoid being practical.

Linda Bilmes, a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, led a budget seminar for nearly 40 House freshmen before the start of the new Congress.

She believes freshman conservatives are itching to make a dramatic statement by shutting down the government.

"It was clear there was a group of new members who in my mind were more concerned with making statements than working with their own leadership to solve the nation's problems," said Bilmes. "Nothing I've seen in the last week changes my mind.

"There are certainly some elements within the Tea Party group that are looking to make a dramatic statement."

Just so we're clear, this is a sentiment that suggests Republicans would shut down the government, not just as a result of an irreconcilable dispute with the White House, but because GOP lawmakers want to shut down the government.

On a related note, House Republicans had to know this was coming, but the White House went ahead and made the threat formal today -- President Obama would have no choice but to veto the GOP's proposed cuts for the remainder of the fiscal year, if they reached the Oval Office.

"If the president is presented with a bill that undermines critical priorities or national security through funding levels or restrictions, contains earmarks, or curtails the drivers of long-term economic growth and job creation while continuing to burden future generations with deficits, the president will veto the bill," the White House said in a statement. It added that while the administration supports reducing spending to cut the deficit, "the administration does not support deep cuts that will undermine our ability to out-educate, out-build, and out-innovate the rest of the world."

Just as a reminder, something has to do be done by March 4 -- 17 days from today -- or the shutdown will begin.

Steve Benen 4:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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IT'S NOT A GAME.... House Speaker John Boehner was asked this morning about expected job losses as a result of Republican budget cuts. "In the last two years, under President Obama, the federal government has added 200,000 new federal jobs," he said. "If some of those jobs are lost so be it."

Asked exactly how many thousands of Americans would be left unemployed as a result of GOP cuts, Boehner said he didn't know. Apparently, he doesn't care, either.

Democrats, not surprisingly, are on the offensive. Time's Mark Halperin thinks Dems are choosing to "ignore a real debate."

Both sides engage in this kind of all-hands-on-deck exploitation of stray remarks by the opposition to try to win a wipe-out victory in one or more news cycles. From the DNC to liberal interest groups to Democratic members of Congress, the piling on Boehner is meant to drown out discussion of issues and define the budget fight on favorable terms. Again, Republicans pull this stunt too all the time. It is one of the Beltway's most unattractive sideshows, even when (especially when) it becomes the main event.

This strikes me as wildly off-base. Halperin is arguing, in effect, that this is some kind of superficial "gotcha" moment, and little more than a distraction from what should be a substantive debate.

But that's just not the case. Job creation and the 9% unemployment rate represent a national crisis and the top priority for Americans nationwide. The Speaker of the House, by his own admission, prefers a budget plan that would make unemployment worse, on purpose. This morning, Boehner had no qualms about admitting that his own policies would put thousands of Americans out of work -- and he doesn't care.

This wasn't a "stray remark"; it was an acknowledgement of the most serious flaw in Republican budgetary policy, which as best as I can tell, is pretty important this week. To care about Boehner's concession isn't to "ignore a real debate"; it's to appreciate the debate that matters most.

John Boehner intends to force thousands of teachers, police officers, medical professionals, and food inspectors from their jobs, and this morning said he doesn't much care. Under the circumstances, the question isn't why Democrats find this interesting -- the question is why Mark Halperin doesn't.

Steve Benen 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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A ONE-SIDED FIGHT OVER JOBS.... At the White House press conference this morning, Fox News correspondent Mike Emanuel asked a good question.

"The number one concern for many Americans right now is jobs," Emanuel noted. "Taking a look at your budget, there are tax hikes proposed for energy, for higher-income people and also for replenishing the state unemployment funds. Do you worry about the impact on jobs, sir?"

Now, it seemed a little ironic that a question about jobs would come from the Republican network, just as the GOP decided jobs no longer matter. For that matter, the notion that tax hikes necessarily undermine job growth is patently absurd. But given how little talk there is about jobs this week, I was glad to hear the question anyway.

For his part, President Obama responded:

"Well, actually, if you look at that budget, there's a whole bunch of stuff in there for job creation. I think some folks noted, for example, our infrastructure proposals, which would create millions of jobs around the country. Our investments in research and development and clean energy have the potential for creating job growth in, you know, industries of the future.

"You know, my belief that the high-end tax cuts -- or the Bush tax cuts for the high end of the population, folks like me -- my belief is that that doesn't in any way impede job growth. And most economists agree."

Obama's response has the added benefit of being true. USA Today had a good report on this today.

President Obama's proposed fiscal 2012 budget is potentially a massive job-creation engine, with plans to generate millions of them by repairing and expanding highways, bridges and railways. [...]

The plan calls for $53 billion to build a high-speed rail system, $336 billion for highways and a "national infrastructure bank" that would combine public and private money to build national or regional transportation systems.

Associated General Contractors (AGC), a trade group for the construction industry, estimates the plan could create about 5.4 million construction jobs and 10 million more jobs in related industries and the broader economy.

Given how little Republicans now care about job creation, it's likely the job-creation efforts in the White House's budget plan will be eliminated entirely.

But the point is, someone is still focusing on the jobs crisis -- which, the last time I checked, remained the top issue of concern for most Americans -- and it's not the guy who said "so be it" when told his budget plan would force thousands of Americans from their jobs.

I'd hoped at this point we'd see a credible debate underway between two competing visions on how to create jobs. As of this week, only one vision showed up.

Steve Benen 2:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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WHEN NONSENSE SPREADS LIKE A CANCER.... House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) will go to great lengths to avoid denouncing birther lunacy. This may have something to do with their reluctance.

Birthers make a majority among those voters who say they're likely to participate in a Republican primary next year. 51% say they don't think Barack Obama was born in the United States to just 28% who firmly believe that he was and 21% who are unsure. The GOP birther majority is a new development. The last time PPP tested this question nationally, in August of 2009, only 44% of Republicans said they thought Obama was born outside the country while 36% said that he definitely was born in the United States. If anything birtherism is on the rise.

In other words, the Republican fringe is no longer the fringe. We now have a poll showing a majority of GOP primary voters accepting a ridiculous conspiracy as fact. The same poll found that just 28% of these Republicans accept reality.

The split, such as it is, within GOP primary voters leads to interesting divisions. Public Policy Polling found that the more deeply confused these Republicans are, the more likely they are to like Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and Mike Huckabee.

And given that this poll suggests most primary voters are, in fact, birthers, candidates hoping to run sane campaigns will be at a disadvantage in the coming months.

All of this, of course, comes against a backdrop in which Republican state legislators in nearly a dozen states are already pushing birther legislation.

It's quite a political party the GOP has put together, isn't it?

Steve Benen 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... As of this morning, the official Republican line has gone from "where are the jobs" to "to hell with the jobs." As a substantive matter, that's not exactly new, but as a rhetorical matter, I didn't expect this much candor from the House Speaker.

If House Republicans succeed in cutting tens of billions of dollars in discretionary spending over the next six months, some of the most immediate victims will be federal employees, many of whose jobs will be slashed as their agencies pare back.

At a press conference in the lobby of RNC headquarters Tuesday morning, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) shrugged this off as collateral damage.

"In the last two years, under President Obama, the federal government has added 200,000 new federal jobs," Boehner said. "If some of those jobs are lost so be it. We're broke."

That's a rather extraordinary acknowledgement. Confronted with accusations that his own budget plan would kill jobs, Boehner not only conceded that the charges are correct, he went on to say he simply doesn't care.

Mark the day and time -- the House Republican leadership no longer thinks it matters if GOP policies force thousands of American workers from their jobs.

Remember, as far as Boehner is concerned, this is a feature, not a bug. The GOP plan calls for deep reductions in education, transportation, law enforcement, food safety, environmental protections, and community health centers, among many other areas. The result -- indeed, the intended result -- is to lay off thousands of teachers, police officers, medical professionals, food inspectors, etc. "So be it," Boehner said.

For Democrats hoping to prove that the GOP plan would make unemployment worse, this is manna from heaven. It's one thing to levy an accurate charge; it's another when the target of the criticism tells reporters the charges are true.

And for those who happen to take facts seriously, let's also note that Boehner has no idea what he's talking about. On a per capita basis, the federal workforce is already at its lowest level since 1962, and practically all of the recent job growth has come from the private sector, not the public sector.

Postscript: And as long as we're adding context, don't forget that Boehner thinks "we're broke," but doesn't have a problem adding the cost of tax cuts to the national debt. He freely admits he doesn't care if thousands of Americans lose their jobs, but he cares a great deal if millionaires and Exxon Mobil lose their tax breaks.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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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:

* Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), the new chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, "guaranteed" this week that "the House will be in play this cycle." He added, "I can guarantee you that the Republicans are already nervous and will be more nervous as we get deeper into the cycle."

* Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R), as he moves closer to a presidential campaign, is denying reports that he lobbied on behalf of the Mexican government in support of "amnesty" policies. Using the preferred rhetoric of the GOP base, Barbour said in a statement that he "never advocated amnesty for illegal aliens."

* In New Hampshire, a WMUR Granite State Poll shows former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as the clear frontrunner in next year's Republican presidential primary with 40% support. Sarah Palin is struggling badly in the state with 6%.

* In the special election to replace former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) threw her support yesterday to Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn (D), giving Hahn an early edge.

* In New York, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) will seek a full term next year, a new Siena poll shows her faring well. Though Gillibrand does not yet have a key GOP rival, her approval rating is up to 57%, and 52% are inclined to support her re-election.

* Controversial Maricopa Sheriff Joe Arpaio (R) is expressing interest in running for the seat of retiring Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) in 2012.

* In Utah, a new Deseret News/KSL poll shows incumbent Sen. Orrin Hatch leading Rep. Jason Chaffetz in a hypothetical Republican primary by 10 points. Chaffetz has not yet said whether he intends to run.

* In Florida, Sen. Bill Nelson (D) fares relatively well in a new Mason-Dixon poll, but there are signs of trouble. In hypothetical match-ups against Rep. Connie Mack (R) and former Sen. George LeMieux (R), Nelson leads by 5 and 14 points, respectively. In both cases, however, the incumbent is below 50%.

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

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PATRIOT ACT CLEARS ITS HOUSE SPEED-BUMP.... Last week, the House Republican leadership brought up the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, assuming it would quickly clear the chamber. It didn't go well -- a contingent of Republicans balked and the bill fell short of the two-thirds majority it needed at the time.

Late yesterday, the House GOP had more success.

The House on Monday voted to reauthorize and extend through Dec. 8 three ways in which Congress expanded the Federal Bureau of Investigation's counterterrorism powers after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Last week, an effort to extend these provisions of the so-called Patriot Act and a related intelligence law failed to pass after falling just short of the two-thirds' majority needed under a special rule. On Monday, however, the bill was able to pass with only a simple majority -- and it did so, 275 to 144.

Looking at the roll call, 27 Republicans broke party ranks and opposed the measure, and 65 Democrats did the opposite. In general, most Republicans supported Patriot Act reauthorization, and most Democrats opposed it. This is nearly identical to last week's vote totals, but this time, only a simple majority was needed for passage.

There was, incidentally, an interesting motion to recommit from House Democrats.

Every Member of Congress takes an oath to protect and defend the Constitution. While Members of Congress are all united in their commitment to protect our country against its enemies, they should be equally united to uphold the Constitution.

Today, Democrats offered a motion to recommit on legislation to extend expiring provisions of the PATRIOT Act to ensure that PATRIOT Act powers are not used to violate the Constitutional freedoms and protections guaranteed to all Americans. The motion included two parts:

No Constitutional shortcuts. When investigating American citizens, the government must comply with the Constitution, even in national security investigations

Challenging unconstitutional action. If a citizen challenges the government's use of PATRIOT Act power in a court of law, the case must be expedited to ensure the individual's rights are upheld.

A total of two House Republicans -- Texas' Ron Paul and North Carolina's Walter Jones -- voted for this, while 234 did not.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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SCRUTINIZING CLARENCE THOMAS.... Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has been in the news quite a bit lately, and none of the developments puts the far-right jurist in a positive light.

Court watchers continue to marvel, for example, at Thomas' reluctance to speak or ask questions during high court oral arguments, but that's only a mild curiosity compared to some of the more notable recent controversies. There's also his wife's bizarre right-wing political activism and lobbying efforts, though they have only a tangential connection to Clarence Thomas directly.

The more meaningful issues, however, raise questions about the justice's veracity. We learned in January, for example, that Thomas was required to report his wife's income on his financial disclosure forms, but for several years, for reasons that remain unclear, he chose not to.

This month, it's an even more serious controversy that's raising eyebrows.

Discrepancies in reports about an appearance by Justice Clarence Thomas at a political retreat for wealthy conservatives three years ago have prompted new questions to the Supreme Court from a group that advocates changing campaign finance laws.

When questions were first raised about the retreat last month, a court spokeswoman said Justice Thomas had made a "brief drop-by" at the event in Palm Springs, Calif., in January 2008 and had given a talk.

In his financial disclosure report for that year, however, Justice Thomas reported that the Federalist Society, a prominent conservative legal group, had reimbursed him an undisclosed amount for four days of "transportation, meals and accommodations" over the weekend of the retreat.

The event in question was organized by the right-wing Koch Brothers.

To be sure, whether Thomas "dropped by" or stayed for four days may seem pretty thin as scandals go, but the fact that he's offered competing versions of events about this retreat matters. Indeed, in this case, Thomas attended an event where powerful conservatives discussed strategies for overturning campaign finance laws. This was soon followed by Thomas participating in a case related to campaign finance laws, and concluded with Thomas ruling to overturn campaign finance laws, giving the Koch Brothers considerably more political power.

If Thomas, as a guest at the retreat, was part of these strategy talks, then maybe he should have recused himself from the case?

For that matter, if Thomas is telling the truth and only "dropped by" the event briefly, why did he seek reimbursement for four days? Was this a gift Thomas failed to report? Or perhaps he claimed these reimbursements in order to evade taxes?

I'm still trying to imagine what the response would be if a similar situation arose with a center-left justice. How quickly would congressional Republicans raise the specter of impeachment?

If you missed it, Rachel Maddow had an interesting segment on this.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Update: Speaking of the Thomases, don't forget to check out T.A. Frank's 2007 piece on D.C. power couples.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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TALKING ENTITLEMENTS.... As the budget fight gets underway in earnest, it's worth appreciating how small the battleground is. The budget is rather enormous, but at this point, policymakers are largely ignoring entitlements, defense, and interest on the debt -- which combined represent roughly three-fourths of the entire budget.

Entitlements, at this point, could be part of the debate, but neither the White House nor congressional Republicans are eager to put forward any ideas, knowing the other would exploit the efforts politically.

Some administration advisers wanted [President Obama] to propose specific changes to fix Social Security, which has accumulated surpluses to date but before long will begin paying out more than it takes in from payroll taxes.

But, Democrats say, Mr. Obama and his political team figured that Republicans are unwilling to talk compromise this soon after their return to power in the House and that a president facing re-election next year would be unwise to risk proposing bold but controversial ideas, like small reductions in cost-of-living adjustments for future Social Security beneficiaries, only to be rebuffed.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) insisted this isn't good enough, and it's incumbent on responsible leaders to be bold in offering controversial entitlement-reform plans.

Asked yesterday, however, whether he and his caucus would do just that, Ryan responded, "I wish I could tell you the answer to that."

Indeed, it was one of the more striking aspects of the Republican message yesterday. GOP officials were outraged that the White House didn't touch entitlements in its budget plan, but seemed lost and confused when asked whether Republicans would touch entitlements in their budget plan.

Ryan, for example, said he didn't know what his party would do, and didn't know when he might figure it out. At nearly the exact same time, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Republicans would tackle entitlements, but he wouldn't say how or when.

With the right hand unaware of what the other right hand is doing, is it any wonder the White House is reluctant to start throwing out ideas on a sensitive area administration officials don't really want to pursue anyway?

In the bigger picture, we do have a sense of what Republicans are thinking. They're being clumsy about it, but as Brian Beutler noted this morning, "Republicans seem to be coalescing around the same objective: to put Social Security and maybe even Medicare on the chopping block. "

The questions, then, are what Republicans will propose, when they'll propose it, and how Democrats will respond. Under the circumstances, if GOP leaders are waiting for the White House to take the first move and stick the president's neck out, they'll be waiting a long time.

If Republicans want to cut Social Security and Medicare, they're going to have to say so.

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

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CULTURE WAR IN SOUTH DAKOTA TAKES A RADICAL TURN.... A month into the new legislative session in South Dakota, Republican efforts have gone from odd to frightening with disconcerting speed.

Two weeks ago, one Republican lawmaker in the state had a very silly proposal to force residents to purchase firearms. Last week, GOP officials in the legislature launched a plan to make surrogacy arrangements for couples who can't have children a felony. (thanks to J.S. for the tip)

But Kate Sheppard reports today on just how far Republican culture warriors in South Dakota's legislature are willing to go.

A law under consideration in South Dakota would expand the definition of "justifiable homicide" to include killings that are intended to prevent harm to a fetus -- a move that could make it legal to kill doctors who perform abortions. The Republican-backed legislation, House Bill 1171, has passed out of committee on a nine-to-three party-line vote, and is expected to face a floor vote in the state's GOP-dominated House of Representatives soon.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Phil Jensen, a committed foe of abortion rights, alters the state's legal definition of justifiable homicide by adding language stating that a homicide is permissible if committed by a person "while resisting an attempt to harm" that person's unborn child or the unborn child of that person's spouse, partner, parent, or child. If the bill passes, it could in theory allow a woman's father, mother, son, daughter, or husband to kill anyone who tried to provide that woman an abortion -- even if she wanted one.

For all the ridiculous paranoia on the right about creeping "sharia law," here we see a Republican plan at the state level to make it legal to assassinate medical professionals as part of a larger culture war.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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THE PROSPECTS OF A 'GRAND BARGAIN'.... Rumors occasionally make the rounds about a "grand bargain" between Democrats and Republicans. The idea is based on the notion of an all-inclusive compromise that would encompass deficit reduction, tax reform, the debt ceiling, and giving entitlements some sort of haircut.

In a piece that made the rounds yesterday, Elizabeth Drew writes in the New York Review of Books that such an agreement is no longer just an abstraction.

[D]espite all the confrontational rhetoric between the two parties about budget priorities, the White House and Republican congressional leaders, in private talks, have agreed on the need to try to reach a bipartisan "grand bargain" over the budget -- a sweeping deal that could include entitlements and tax reforms as well as budget reduction. A Senate Republican leadership aide confirmed this, saying, "In fact, for anything to happen, it will require such a White House/congressional leadership bargain." The preferred idea is that, just as they did late last year on the tax bill, they would reach an agreement and then unveil it to the public.

At the same time, a bipartisan group of leading senators have met in an effort to cut the deficit -- which could become a part of the debt-reduction puzzle. The thinking is that the Tea Party allies might be brought along in the end, because their primary goal is to reduce the deficit. The details will be difficult, but a surprising sort of deficit-cutting fever has broken out on Capitol Hill, fueled in part by a fear that at some point the bond markets and foreign lenders will call in their loans, setting off a disastrous financial crisis. Right now, there's a game of chicken going on over who will offer their proposals first, but this should be resolvable.

With due respect to Drew, who does fine work, I'm not sure what to make of this.

Note, for example, that the report doesn't say that there is a "grand bargain"; it says that the relevant players will try to reach a "grand bargain." There's obviously a big difference -- one can choose to compete in a marathon, but crossing the finish line is something else altogether. For that matter, even if the White House and GOP leaders worked out some massive compromise package, there's no reason to think House Republicans, who have fairly specific demands and expectations, would go along.

What's more, Drew's assumptions about the motivations of the Republicans' Tea Party crowd appear to be off a bit. As Kevin Drum explained, "[I]t ain't the case that the tea party movement's 'primary goal' is reducing the deficit. Its primary goal is to reduce taxes and its secondary goal is to lift the intolerable burden of tyranny that Barack Obama has imposed on us. (Its tertiary goal is whatever bee happens to be up Glenn Beck's bonnet the week you ask them.)"

Also keep in mind, the fact that there have been some bipartisan talks in the Senate isn't exactly new. Informal discussions began in December, and have been progressing slowly since.

We talked about these discussions, reportedly overseen by Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), two weeks ago, most notably the fact that Chambliss agrees that tax increases will have to "be a part of the mix" in any serious deficit reduction plan -- a realization that makes success in the GOP-led House all but impossible.

Taken together, the notion of a "grand bargain" is interesting, and worth keeping an eye on, but I wouldn't count on any breakthroughs anytime soon.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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THEY WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR DEBT REDUCTION, BUT THEY WON'T DO THAT.... There was an interesting online poll at MSNBC.com yesterday, asking respondents, "Does the president's budget take the right steps toward addressing the federal deficit." The question, of course, presupposed that deficit reduction deserves to be prioritized.

As Joan McCarter noted, the options to choose from were telling. The unscientific survey had four options. The White House (1) is making worthwhile cuts; (2) should do more to cut entitlements; (3) should do more to cut defense spending; or (4) should cut spending, but not too much in a weak economy.

As Joan asked, "Gee, how about tax increases, anyone?"

The political discourse has been successfully manipulated: deficit reduction is at the top of the national to-do list, above job creation and everything else. But the conversation is exceedingly limited -- the notion of raising taxes to close the budget gap isn't even supposed to be considered.

By historical standards, this is bizarre. Democratic and Republican officials have traditionally considered tax increases necessary evils, used to keep deficits from spiraling out of control. It's why Reagan raised taxes seven out of the eight years he was in the White House, and why his tax increases were approved with plenty of Republican votes on the Hill.

But notice how far standards have shifted. GOP officials argue that the deficit and the larger debt have reached the level of a national crisis that threatens the very fabric of civilization. Told that some modest tax increases would quickly help make a significant dent in our fiscal problem, however, they suddenly paraphrase Meatloaf: "We would do anything for debt reduction, but we won't do that."

I'm glad to see President Obama is more sensible.

President Barack Obama's budget proposal ... includes tax increases for oil, gas and coal producers, investment managers and U.S.-based multinational corporations. The plan would allow Bush-era tax cuts to expire at the end of 2012 for individuals making more than $200,000 and married couples making more than $250,000. Wealthy taxpayers would have their itemized deductions limited starting in 2012, including deductions for mortgage interest, charitable contributions and state and local taxes.

The budget plan also includes tax cuts aimed at middle- and lower-income families, including a big Earned Income Tax Credit break and a popular business tax credit for research and development. All told, "the budget proposal would impose about $730 billion in new taxes on businesses and wealthy individuals over the next decade, while cutting about $400 billion in taxes on middle-income families, the working poor and other businesses, for a net tax increase of about $330 billion."

Now, no one seriously expects congressional Republicans to go along with such a plan, but that realization itself is telling -- these reasonable, targeted tax increases wouldn't undermine the economy, but they would make a big difference in reducing the deficit, the crisis the GOP pretends to care deeply about. And yet, the knee-jerk reaction was instantaneous.

Americans needs to make sacrifices, Republicans say, to help fix the budget mess Republicans created. But the GOP's friends, including the wealthiest Americans and oil companies, must be shielded from such sacrifices. Indeed, leading GOP officials spent yesterday demanding deficit reduction in the morning, and pushing tax cuts that would make the deficit worse in the afternoon, unconcerned about the contradiction.

I don't imagine the White House's proposed tax increases will go anywhere, but I'm glad they're in the plan anyway, if only to add a touch of sanity to an otherwise foolish debate.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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February 14, 2011

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

* Iran: "Hundreds of riot police officers deployed in key locations in central Tehran and other major Iranian cities on Monday, beating protesters and firing tear gas to thwart opposition marches that marked the most significant street protests since the end of 2009, news reports and witnesses' accounts from Iran said."

* Egypt: "Egypt's military leaders have told a coalition of young opposition leaders that they plan to convene a panel of distinguished jurists to submit a package of constitutional amendments within 10 days for approval in a national referendum within two months, setting a breakneck schedule for the transition to civilian rule."

* Egypt's generals yesterday imposed martial law and dissolved parliament. These were not unexpected developments.

* It's genuinely amusing to see Egypt's state media quickly shift gears from pro-government propaganda to celebrating Mubarak's ouster.

* New waves of unrest in Yemen and Bahrain.

* Iraq: "A suicide bomber blew himself up Saturday near a crowd of Shiite pilgrims at a bus depot in the northern Iraqi city of Samarra, killing 38 people and wounding scores of others, police and officials said."

* Afghanistan: "Taliban fighters deploying car bombs and rocket-propelled grenades killed at least 17 members of the Afghan security forces and two civilians in the southern city of Kandahar on Saturday, the U.S.-led coalition said in a statement."

* Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's (R) union-busting efforts are not going unchallenged.

* OMB Director Jack Lew suggested to reporters today that there's some kind of agreement in place with congressional Republicans not to shut down the government. I haven't heard this elsewhere, and I find this rather hard to believe.

* Remember the sophisticated and potentially deadly bomb found last month in Spokane? Those responsible for the attempted domestic terrorism remain at large.

* My best wishes to Andrew Sullivan as he returns from a lengthy absence due to illness. Now, Andrew, if you wouldn't mind correcting the doc-fix error you made today....

* Ave Maria University, the struggling -- and extremely conservative -- Catholic university in Naples, Florida, is under new management. Its new president will be Jim Towey, who's best known for running the Bush administration's legally-dubious faith-based schemes.

* South Carolina State Sen. Lee Bright (R), who apparently has too much time on his hands, wants the Palmetto State to create its own currency. Seriously.

* Former U.S. Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod has filed suit against right-wing activist Andrew Breitbart. For his part, Breitbart is changing his story as to why he published the deceptive video that ruined Sherrod's career in the first place.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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REPLACING ONE TAXPAYER-FINANCED HEALTH PLAN WITH ANOTHER.... Congressional Democrats have gained some traction this year pressing their Republican colleagues on their participation in Congress' health plan. The point isn't subtle -- the same GOP officials who are trying to take health care benefits away from their constituents are allowing their constituents to finance their health care benefits.

A small handful of Republicans have made an effort to appear consistent on this, turning down the government-subsidized coverage available to all lawmakers. But within this small group, Rep. Leonard Lance (R) of New Jersey is fairly unique.

A progressive political action committee criticized Lance for taking advantage of taxpayer-funded insurance. Lance's office was outraged and explained that the conservative congressman is not participating in the federal plan.

And that's when it gets funny.

[I]t turns out he receives medical care for practically nothing, thanks to the taxpayers of New Jersey. Lance receives family health coverage that is free except for co-pays, the state Department of Treasury confirmed Friday. The former state senator, assemblyman and Kean administration official qualified for retirement in 2006, his 25th year of service. He retired in January 2009, when he moved on to Washington, and enrolled in the state's free health plan for retirees.

The family plan Lance is enrolled in is the most expensive of the 10 options available. His coverage costs $1,906.42 per month, or $22,877.04 per year.

Yes, this is the guy who hates big government and wants to make sure struggling families go without government-subsidized coverage. Lance picked the most expensive plan he could find for his family, and is more than happy to have his constituents pick up the tab. (These are, by the way, some of the same state-based benefits Republican Gov. Chris Christie is eager to cut.)

And he's awfully pleased with himself for turning down the federal insurance plan.

Greg Sargent added, Rep. Lance's chief of staff appears to realize that by protesting the ad attacking him, he's only created more problems. The aide told the Courier-Post: 'I should have kept my mouth shut.'"

Too late.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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THE EXTRAORDINARY TIMING OF JIM DEMINT AND MIKE PENCE.... Almost immediately after President Obama's budget proposal was released, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) issued a statement condemning it. As the right-wing senator put it, the White House's budget "would push us over the edge into generational debt." He added that policymakers need to "save our nation from the coming fiscal crisis."

Around the same time, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) issued a similar response to the White House budget plan, insisting it would "not get the debt or deficit under control." He added that policymakers must embrace "fiscal discipline" for "the sake of our children."

About two hours later, DeMint and Pence unveiled the "Tax Relief Certainty Act." It would, according to their joint press release:

Make permanent the 2001 and 2003 individual income tax relief for all hard-working Americans -- preserving the 10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33% and 35% income tax brackets, rather than allowing President Obama and Democrats to increase the top tax bracket to 39.6% and increase taxes on the lowest earning Americans in the bottom 10% bracket;

Permanently repeal the immoral and unfair death tax, which increases from 35% to 55% on Jan. 1, 2013. Permanent repeal of the death tax would increase GDP by $118.8 billion and lead to $23.3 billion per year in new federal revenue;

Prevent the tax increase on capital gains and dividends income for all Americans, rather than allowing the Democrats to increase the rates to 20% from the current 15%; and

Permanently patch the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT).

Honestly, it's like having a policy debate in a Lewis Carroll novel.

These guys, like their right-wing brethren, have spent the entire day saying that deficit reduction, debt reduction, and fiscal responsibility are the most important problems facing the country. That's wrong, but that's their argument.

On the exact same day, the exact same conservatives presented a plan to pass massive tax cuts, costing hundreds of billions of dollars, without a plan to pay for any of it.

In other words, in the morning, DeMint and Pence want to make the deficit better, and in the afternoon, DeMint and Pence want to make the deficit worse.

Anyone who takes these clowns seriously really isn't paying close enough attention. Indeed, if our political discourse made more sense, every Republican whining today about the president's budget would be asked (a) whether they demanded expensive tax cuts late last year without any way to pay for them; and (b) whether they contributed to Bush/Cheney leaving a $1.3 trillion deficit for Obama to clean up.

Steve Benen 3:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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ABOUT THOSE PELL GRANT CUTS.... The White House budget proposes a variety of spending cuts, but the reductions to the Pell grant program stands out, in large part because it's so unexpected. President Obama has made education such a high priority, and Democrats have been so critical of Republican efforts to gut education spending, it seemed like these cuts were out of character.

But there's more to it than may be apparent at first glance. First, Dems' criticisms of House Republicans on education are entirely accurate -- the GOP plan calls for devastating cuts to Head Start, Pell grants, and Title I grants (which help schools with kids who live in poverty), among other things.

Does the White House plan undercut Democrats' criticism of the GOP plan? Not really.

What Republicans are proposing is straight-up slashing of the Pell grant program -- those who rely on the grants to pay tuition will just be out of luck. The administration's proposal only cuts Pell grants for summer classes, and it's based on the belief that the grants cost more than expected, but didn't, in practice, produce the intended result (improving graduation rates).

The administration decided that the answer was no and that eliminating the program was the kind of budget cut that the government should be making, given the deficit. One reason to be skeptical that summer grants are making a big difference is that enrollment in summer classes has risen only marginally in the last year.

Jonathan Cohn added:

[I]f Obama gets his way, Pell Grants would provide basically the same academic-year assistance to basically the same population that it does now. The one key difference would be grants for summer tuition. They are a new feature of the Pell Grant program and many low-income students now use them. Obama would eliminate those grants.

But Obama's proposed cut comes after two years of bolstering student aid. And it is far smaller than the reduction than the GOP would impose. While House Republicans haven't provided details of their long-term plans for the program, their rhetoric and their existing proposals suggest they would cut Pell Grant funding at least in half. Awards would drop dramatically, starting with next fall's grants, and making it difficult if not impossible for millions of students to attend college.

When I asked around on this, reliable sources also emphasized that the White House's proposed "cuts" to Pell grants affects a fairly new program -- it's only within the last year that students could receive two Pell grants in one year (one for the academic year, one for the summer).

If it were up to me, there wouldn't be any cuts to the program. But the administration's proposal obviously isn't in the same league as what Republicans are proposing, and Obama's recommended cuts don't forfeit Dems' credibility when it comes to slamming the GOP's efforts to gut education spending.

Steve Benen 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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MAYBE SESSIONS CAN DEBATE HIMSELF ON THE BUDGET.... President Obama's new budget proposal intends to cut the deficit by $1.1 trillion over the next decade. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama was asked on CNN this morning whether he considers that "a good start." He replied:

"No, it's not. This is a ten-year budget. It sets the president's plans and what the country should do for the next 10 years.... $1 trillion reduction is insignificant and does not get us off the right course."

I assume he meant to say "wrong course," but misspoke. Fine.

But literally two minutes later, in exact the same interview, Sessions reflected on House Republicans' proposed cuts.

"[E]ven the $100 billion House proposal in reducing spending will amount to $1 trillion. And that's a step. I mean, because, you carry it out for ten years and you save $1 trillion in that fashion."

Remember, Jeff Sessions is the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, so presumably he has some familiarity with these issues.

I'm not sure why the far-right senator thinks $1 trillion in deficit reduction is unacceptable and insignificant when the White House does it, and acceptable and significant when House Republicans do it, but watching the video of him making the case sure is amusing.

Steve Benen 1:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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THE WRONG PRIORITY AT THE WRONG TIME.... The White House issued its budget proposal this morning, and as expected, Republicans don't like it. But as various GOP offices release statements responding to the budget plan, there's a common theme of the complaints.

Hatch: "Regrettably, this budget keeps our nation on a reckless fiscal path"

Rubio: "The President's budget falls far short of tackling our national debt in a serious way"

Alexander: "I still don't see a sense of urgency from the president about the massive federal debt"

Right, and I don't see any sense of urgency from congressional Republicans about the massive unemployment rate, so I guess we're even?

Honestly, I liked the Republican message more when they were asking, "Where are the jobs?" It at least paid lip-service -- though nothing else -- to a pressing national need. Now they're not even bothering to maintain the pretense of interest.

Ask the American mainstream what they consider to be the top national priority, and invariably, polls show "jobs and the economy" as the overwhelming choice. Ask congressional Republicans the same question, and they care about the deficit and the debt, just so long as no one tries to raise taxes to address them. (This from a party that inherited a massive surplus in 2001, turned it into a massive deficit, and added $5 trillion to the debt in just eight years.)

I realize this is well-tread ground, but the reactions to the administration's budget are striking in that Republicans are simply choosing to pretend unemployment isn't a problem at all. It's as if someone hypnotized the entire party and convinced them we reached full employment and can now turn our attention elsewhere.

Five weeks into the new 112th Congress and its House GOP majority, we've gone from Republicans ignoring job creation to crafting a plan to put more Americans out of work on purpose to saying job creation just isn't as important as the deficit anyway.

Voters who backed Republicans in the midterms because of unemployment should probably be feeling some buyer's remorse right about now.

Steve Benen 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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U.S., CHINA, AND WILDLY WRONG PERCEPTIONS.... With news today that China now has a larger economy than Japan, Gallup has an interesting new poll showing Americans' perceptions of global economic powerhouses. Unfortunately, the perceptions aren't even close to being right.

By 52% to 32%, Americans are more likely to name China than the United States as the leading economic power in the world today, with Japan a distant third at 7%. This is China's strongest lead on this Gallup measure, first asked in 2000, and is a major change from 2009, when China and the U.S. were nearly tied in Americans' perceptions about the leading power. [...]

China is enjoying explosive economic growth and, as a result, has made impressive gains in the rank-order of national economies in the past decade. However, the Gallup data suggest Americans may not be aware that, on the basis of GDP, China's economy still trails the United States'.

"May not be aware" seems like a dramatic understatement. Gallup asked respondents, "Which one of the following do you think is the leading economic power in the world today: the United States, the European Union, Russia, China, Japan, or India?" A majority chose China, with the U.S. as a distant second.

This tends to annoy the White House, and with good reason -- it's completely wrong.

As of today, China has a $5.88 trillion economy, edging past Japan's $5.47 trillion economy. The United States, meanwhile, has an economy of over $14 trillion. It's larger than China's and Japan's put together, and then some.

Americans live in easily the largest economic powerhouse on the planet, but they just don't realize it. President Obama noted in his State of the Union address, "[T]he world has changed; the competition for jobs is real. But this shouldn't discourage us -- it should challenge us. Remember, for all the hits we've taken these last few years, for all the naysayers predicting our decline, America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world."

Either most Americans didn't hear him or they didn't believe him. It's a shame -- what Obama said happens to be true.

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

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

* As expected, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) launched his U.S. Senate campaign today, becoming the first candidate to officially enter the race to replace retiring Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). A few seconds later, Flake was endorsed by the right-wing Club for Growth.

* On a related note, while Flake will likely have primary foes, some Republicans have already withdrawn from consideration. Former Rep. John Shadegg and sitting Gov. Jan Brewer both said over the weekend they're not running.

* On the other side of the aisle, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, the former Democratic governor of Arizona, has reportedly expressed some interest in the Senate race, and party officials continue to ponder whether Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) would be well enough to run for the seat, if she were still interested.

* Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) won the presidential straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference, and former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) came in second. I'm still not sure why anyone cares, but this caused a bit of a stir over the weekend.

* Late last week, Public Policy Polling released a survey showing President Obama leading the leading GOP presidential contenders in hypothetical match-ups in nine key states: Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia, Iowa, and Nevada.

* The Democratic gubernatorial primary is getting pretty crowded in West Virginia, with Secretary of State Natalie Tennant becoming the fourth contender. The special election will be held later this year.

* Sarah Palin has hired Michael Glassner as her chief of staff. Given Glassner's long history in Republican campaigns, the move suggests the former half-term governor may be eyeing a presidential campaign.

* And if Republicans in Utah had to choose between their former governor, Jon Huntsman, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in a Republican presidential primary, it wouldn't be close -- Romney leads Huntsman in a new Deseret News/KSL poll by 30 points, 56% to 26%.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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BARBOUR'S PROUD TO BE A LOBBYIST, BUT IS HE PROUD OF HIS CLIENTS?.... As he gears up for a presidential campaign, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) is working on explaining his professional background. He's been a governor for seven years; he's well known for having been the chairman of the RNC in the mid-90s; but he was also a successful corporate lobbyist -- and voters don't always have warm feelings about lobbyists.

By way of a defense, Barbour isn't apologizing for this work. Instead, he's bragging about it, hoping to turn a negative into a positive. He proudly declared on Fox News yesterday, "I'm a lobbyist.... The guy who gets elected president will immediately be lobbying. That's what presidents do for a living."

Barbour added, "I am perfectly glad to look at the clients that I worked with when I was there. But let me just make this very plain. I'm a lobbyist, a politician, and a lawyer. You know, that's the trifecta. And I am willing to have my record in front of everybody."

As his presidential campaign gets underway, Barbour's client list will no doubt draw quite a bit of scrutiny. Michael Scherer noted last night, however, that one client in particular may be of interest to Republican primary voters.

According to a State Department filing by Barbour's former lobbying firm, The Embassy of Mexico decided to retain Barbour's services on August 15, 2001, to work on, among other things, legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for foreigners living illegally in the United States -- what opponents of immigration reform call "amnesty."

"Haley Barbour and I will lead the BG&R team," wrote Lanny Griffith, Barbour's former business partner, in the filing. According to subsequent filings, Barbour's work included "building support in the legislative branch for passage of a bill related to Section 245(i) of the Immigration and Nationality Act." As part of that work, Barbour's firm arranged meetings and briefings with "Senators, members of Congress and their staffs, as well as Executive Branch Officials in the White House, National Security Council, State Department, and Immigration & Naturalization Service." Barbour's firm charged Mexico $35,000 a month, plus expenses.

As a substantive matter, the policy Barbour pushed is hardly unreasonable. For that matter, John McCain won the nomination after having supported "amnesty" (though he flip-flopped on the issue to pander to the base), and Reagan backed "amnesty" and GOP voters consider him some kind of deity.

But the kind of folks who vote in Republican presidential primaries tend to be pretty right-wing, and make no effort to hide their hostility towards Mexican immigrants. I'll look forward to Barbour's spin.

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

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THE OPENING MOVE.... I'm reluctant to devote too much attention to President Obama's proposed budget for the 2012 fiscal year, since we know going into the process that a Republican-led House probably won't even read it. But it'd be a mistake to simply blow off the White House's proposal -- today's unveiling has substantive and political significance.

On the former, the administration's first two budgets were, by progressive standards, pretty solid documents, presented with the luxury of strong Democratic majorities. This year's budget, obviously, comes in the wake of the midterm elections and the swearing in of the new House GOP majority.

As a result, this new budget is far less encouraging -- it makes painful cuts in some areas, while boosting investments in forward-thinking priorities like infrastructure. It's an infinitely better plan than what Republicans have talked about, but given that the GOP vision is stark raving mad, that's setting the bar for quality at a very low point.

But as the discussion gets underway, let's also note the politics. Jonathan Cohn had a good piece on this overnight.

The most important question about Obama's budget, then, is how well it positions him and his allies in the coming debate over these sorts of priorities.

You could make a case that, by embracing the Republican narrative on the size of government and calling for a five-year budget freeze at present levels, Obama has effectively bid too low in the negotiation over federal spending -- that he's committed himself, and the country, to less government than it needs. (It's happened before!) Or you could make the case that, by making "tough" proposals to cut programs he supports, he's establishing the credibility with voters that he needs in order to marginalize the Republicans and to preserve more spending than might otherwise be possible. (It's happened before!)

I really don't know which argument is right.

Neither do I, but I don't think the "establishing the credibility" tack is necessarily a mistake. I've criticized the Obama White House on several occasions about pre-emptive concessions, and I can see why this would fall under that umbrella -- if the West Wing knows congressional Republicans are going way too far in one direction, perhaps the White House should prepare for coming negotiations by moving aggressively in the other direction, pushing spending increased on everything, better positioning the president to reach a more progressive compromise.

But Obama's preferred approach is about making him appear reasonable against GOP extremism. As the fight progresses, the president will tell the public, "I presented a budget plan with deep cuts, even to programs I care about, which will lower the deficit considerably. Instead of working on a sensible compromise, Republicans are going too far and now want to shut down the government." The point is to push the GOP into fighting the White House to do some very unpopular things -- things the president and his team suspect Republicans will drop when push comes to shove, for fear of a public backlash.

The last time there was a budget showdown like this one was 1995. The new Republican majority overreached, overplayed a weak hand, and lost the public. The likelihood of seeing this play out a similar way 16 years later appears fairly strong.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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BIRTHER NONSENSE SPREADING IN STATE CAPITALS.... House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) doesn't want to talk about it. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) doesn't want to talk about it. But their Republican allies in state legislature don't mind talking about it at all.

The opening of 2011 state legislative sessions has been accompanied by a spate of birther-related bills, the clearest indication yet that the controversy surrounding President Barack Obama's place of birth will continue to simmer throughout his reelection campaign.

Lawmakers in at least 10 states have introduced bills requiring presidential candidates to provide some form of proof that they are natural-born citizens, a ballot qualification rule designed to address widespread rumors on the right that Obama was not born in the United States.

This is more than just annoyance about idiotic jokes at CPAC, this is about 10 legislatures advancing actual legislation in response to insane conspiracy theories.

Adam Serwer had a smart item the other explaining the "post-birtherism" phase of Republican thought: "Since the Republican base has long seemed impossible to sway from clinging to certain symbolic beliefs in the face of verifiable facts, conservatives have adapted to birtherism by making a joke out of it.... But by making jokes about it, conservative political figures manage to avoid taking a position one way or the other. They mollify the birther elements of the Republican base who simply can't accept the legitimacy of a black man in the White House by signaling agreement with them, while allowing Republicans averse to conspiracy theorizing to dismiss it all as a jest."

And while that's certainly true, let's not forget that in nearly a dozen state capitals, Republicans haven't quite gotten to the "post-birtherism" phase, because they're still stuck in the actual birtherism phase.

Also note, Dave Weigel explained recently that some of the GOP birther bills in state legislatures go even further than demanding proof of birth in the United States, and actually target Barack Obama specifically, removing any pretense of larger principles of transparency and accountability.

Congressional Republican leaders don't want to "tell people what to think," but would they at least be willing to characterize these crazy state efforts as ridiculous?

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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A LITTLE KNOWLEDGE GOES A LONG WAY.... Two weeks ago, the House Appropriations Committee finished its staff assignments. One week ago, the committee picked an arbitrary number, and presented a plan to slash domestic spending in a variety of key areas, including education and law enforcement. This week, the House is likely to vote on the committee's plan.

The Center for American Progress' Scott Lilly, a former staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, noted late last week that a lot of these lawmakers literally don't know what they're doing.

With many of the 93 freshmen members of the House still asking rudimentary budget questions such as: "what is the difference between an authorization and an appropriation?" or "how do outlays differ from budget authority?" the time frame that Rep. Rogers and his leadership are committed to means that not only will those voting on the proposal have little opportunity to understand it but the authors themselves will not have fully vetted or completely understood what they are proposing.

There have been no hearings, no requests for testimony, and no opportunity even for staff charged with proposing the cuts to do agency-by-agency analysis of the possible negative consequences. Members will vote [this] week on the package without fundamental knowledge of how major budget changes in literally thousands of federal programs will impact the country in general or their own constituents in particular.

This really isn't going to go well. Indeed, it's no way to run an effective government.

For what it's worth, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) appeared on Fox News yesterday, and raised the specter of a temporary extension before March 4 to avert a government shutdown.

"I think that's a very viable possibility: a short-term extension while we work out a compromise," the Wisconsin Republican said.

I'd still put the odds of a shutdown at around 50%, but a temporary extension would at least push the cliff a little further away. The problem, though, may get even worse if House Republicans still demand $100 billion in cuts after the extension, when the time frame for the remainder of the fiscal year shrinks even more, necessitating even more ridiculous spending cuts over a shorter period of time.

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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IF BOEHNER WANTS TO TALK ABOUT JOBS, WE CAN TALK ABOUT JOBS.... During his appearance yesterday on "Meet the Press," House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) didn't talk too much about job creation, but he did raise a point about unemployment that stood out.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) vowed Sunday that House Republicans will fight for deeper spending cuts in the coming months, calling President Obama's yet to be released budget plan one that will further hamper the nation's economic recovery.

"He's going to present a budget tomorrow that's going to continue to destroy jobs by spending too much, borrowing too much, taxing too much," Boehner said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Now, the notion that the president's agenda is going to "continue to destroy jobs" is pretty silly. The employment picture has improved considerably since the Obama White House inherited an economy in freefall from Boehner's Bush/Cheney buddies. Just last year, the private sector created nearly 1.3 million jobs -- that's more that the net total for the entire eight years Bush was president.

But putting that aside, this is an especially odd argument for Boehner to make right now, given that he and his House Republican caucus are pushing a budget plan that would, on purpose, lay off thousands of American workers.

Consider the cuts the House GOP wants to make this fiscal year. We're talking about deep reductions in education, transportation, law enforcement, food safety, environmental protections, and community health centers, among many other areas. The result -- indeed, the intended result -- is to lay off thousands of teachers, police officers, medical professionals, food inspectors, etc.

It is, to borrow a phrase, the epitome of a "job-killing" plan. Given the GOP agenda, this is a feature, not a bug -- the whole point is to reduce the public-sector workforce, and push these thousands of workers into unemployment.

With this in mind, it's almost amusing to see the House Speaker tell a national television audience that we need to avoid an agenda that would "destroy jobs." Is he not aware of what he's proposed?

In effect, Boehner is arguing, "Obama's agenda might put more Americans out of work. It's better to go with my agenda, which will definitely put more Americans out of work."

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

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A SIMPLE QUESTION THAT DESERVED A SIMPLE ANSWER.... A few weeks ago, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) appeared on "Meet the Press," and was asked by host David Gregory whether he's prepared to denounce those who question President Obama's faith and citizenship. Cantor squirmed for a while, but never got around to the denunciation.

Yesterday, Gregory raised the same point with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), and showed him a clip of a Fox News focus group this week, filled with Iowa Republicans who are convinced the president is a secret Muslim. "As the speaker of the House, as a leader, do you not think it's your responsibility to stand up to that kind of ignorance?" the host asked.

"David, it's not my job to tell the American people what to think," the Speaker replied. Boehner added that he accepts the state of Hawaii's records on the president's birthplace, and accepts Obama's faith "at this word," but said three times that it's not his "job" to stand up to ignorance.

"[T]he American people have the right to think what they want to think," Boehner added. "I can't -- it's not my job to tell them."

I realize the House Speaker is not a political fact-checker or myth-buster. When Boehner says, over and over again, that it's not his job to telling Americans "what to think," that's not necessarily wrong.

But consider a hypothetical. Imagine if there was a poll that showed a significant chunk of the population believes that the House Republican caucus, in its spare time, sells heroin to children. It's not true, and there's no evidence to support it, but for the sake of this hypothetical, let's say a whole lot of people believe it anyway.

If asked about poll results like these, I suspect Boehner would say something along the lines of, "That's ridiculous, and anyone who thinks that way believes in pure nonsense."

I doubt very much the Speaker would reply, "The American people have the right to think what they want to think. It's not my job to tell them."

Insane beliefs in garbage deserve to be called out as such. It's really not that complicated.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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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:

* The more the spotlight shines on House Republicans' proposed budget cuts, the worse they look.

* House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) believes the best way to protect "our children's future," is to cut Head Start, student loans, Title I grants (which help schools with kids who live in poverty), and nutritional aid for pregnant women and women with young children.

* A big chunk of the population believes they "have not used a government social program." They're wrong.

* Perhaps no one was more disappointed by the developments in Egypt than al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

* After "Face the Nation" bumped Harry Reid for John McCain, it was all Republicans, all the time on the Sunday shows.

On Saturday, we talked about:

* Should the national Democratic Party just give up on the South?

* Egypt wasn't about the U.S., but it's fair to say President Obama handled the crisis very well.

* In his weekly address, the president repeated the comparison of the government's budget with a typical family's budget, but gave it an interesting twist.

* Republican misuse of CBO findings is a great example of politics at its most inane.

* In "This Week in God," we covered, among other things, the new "In God We Trust" plan from the House GOP.

* Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is taking union-busting to levels unseen in a long while.

* Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) tried to argue that he's glad he voted for TARP and he regrets voting for TARP at the same time. It didn't go well.

Steve Benen 7:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (4)

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February 13, 2011

A MISGUIDED AGENDA POISED TO CAPTURE THE SPOTLIGHT.... About two weeks ago, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, working under the assumption that spending cuts aren't nearly as popular as Republicans might think, launched an interesting ad campaign.

The DCCC targeted 19 GOP House incumbents, nearly all of whom represent districts won by President Obama in 2008, blasting their support for a spending-cut plan that would "cut education" and "cut science and technology research," which would in turn cost jobs. Soon after, some of the Republicans facing the heat felt a little defensive.

In other words, the ads had the intended effect. GOP lawmakers in competitive districts wanted to be seen as cutting spending, but started getting nervous when Dems told their constituents about the breadth of the possible cuts.

That was two weeks ago, and the DCCC was riffing off an outline released by the Republican Study Committee, which hadn't necessarily been endorsed by the chamber's leadership. Now, however, House GOP leaders have presented the details of their plan, and it's not pretty.

Paul Krugman noted some of the cuts that jumped out at him, including deep reductions in aid for pregnant women and women with young children, NOAA, NASA, energy efficiency programs, scientific research, counter-proliferation, FEMA, environmental protections, community health centers, and Centers for Disease Control. Summarizing the Republican philosophy, Krugman concluded, "Don't start thinking about tomorrow."

Jonathan Cohn also weighed in with a more detailed piece, explaining, "Now we know what life will be like if the House Republicans get their way: Financial aid for college will decline, food-borne illness will spread more easily, Head Start programs will shrink, and Big Bird might be out of business." Among the many cuts:

About 8 million college students would see their Pell Grants fall by about 15 percent, with the maximum grants of $5,550 declining by $845. "Our students count on that money, and we don't have the resources to try to make that up," one college financial aid officer told the New York Times in December, in response to talk such a cut might be coming.

Head Start funding would fall by more than $1 billion, forcing some combination of lower spending per child and fewer children in the program. The analysis I saw predicted more than 200,000 low-income children would lose slots in the program, although some of that may reflect the loss of funding from the expiring Recovery Act. Either way, it's a pretty big hit. Oh, and about 55,000 instructors and teachers could lose jobs as part of the cut.

In absolute terms, the cut to the USDA's food inspection program may seem a lot smaller -- just $100 million. But that will almost certainly mean fewer inspectors, which is no small thing. As the non-partisan organization OMB Watch has noted, in recent years the number of inspectors has not kept up with the number of food producers -- and "at no other regulatory agency does the size of the inspectorate need to be so closely aligned to the size of the industry it regulates."

Title I grants, which help schools with particularly needy populations, would fall by $700 million, affecting 2,400 schools and one million children. Another 10,000 instructors and aides would likely lose their jobs, as well. This is a direct hit on low-income children and the communities in which they live.... Americorps? The House Republicans would wipe out its funding entirely. And the Corporation for Public Broadcasting? Same thing.

Cohn added that these cuts, if approved, would have a "devastating impact on public services," which is true, and I suspect is the point. What's more, it's also worth emphasizing that a package of cuts like this one is the very definition of a "job-killing" plan -- Republicans would respond to the ongoing unemployment crisis by deliberately putting thousands of Americans out of work.

Which brings us back to the DCCC ad campaign that made some in the GOP nervous a couple of weeks ago. I can't help but wonder how Republicans in competitive districts will respond when ads tell their constituents, "Representative So-and-so voted for massive tax breaks for the wealthy, right before voting to slash education spending, aid for pregnant women, and safeguards that keep our food supply safe. He said we could afford massive giveaways to billionaires, but we can't afford student loans, better roads, and clean air."

Republicans are convinced the public will reward them for gutting the budget, cutting services, and putting more Americans out of work. I have a hunch their confidence is misplaced.

Steve Benen 11:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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DEFINE 'JEOPARDIZE'.... As defenses of massive spending cuts go, this one isn't exactly persuasive.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) defended proposed Republican budget cuts to popular domestic programs Sunday as necessary to maintaining fiscal health.

"No matter how popular sounding these programs are, they jeopardize our children's future," the House Budget Committee chairman said on "Fox News Sunday."

So, let me get this straight. In order to help protect the interests of our children, we have to cut Head Start, student loans, Title I grants (which help schools with kids who live in poverty), and nutritional aid for pregnant women and women with young children.

By making these cuts, Paul Ryan believes he's helping make children's futures brighter. Presumably, the House Budget Committee chairman also intends to teach kids about fire safety by handing them matches and lighter fluid, and encouraging them to play.

Indeed, as far as Ryan is concerned, we just can't afford Head Start, student loans, Title I grants, and nutritional aid for pregnant women and women with young children, but we can afford tax breaks for people who don't need them, costing far more money.

This is Republican thinking in a nutshell.

Steve Benen 10:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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THOSE WISELY-USED, UNDER-ACKNOWLEDGED GOVERNMENT SOCIAL PROGRAMS.... The lack of self-awareness is almost amusing.

In a smart column today, Bruce Bartlett looks at why it will be so hard for politicians to cut government spending: because so many Americans who say they support cutting government programs don't realize just how much they benefit from them.

Remember, for example, when a town hall attendee famously told his congressman to "keep your government hands off my Medicare"? Apparently that bewilderingly blinkered sentiment is hardly unique.

Bartlett relied on research from Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler, who reported on beneficiaries of government social programs who sincerely believe they "have not used a government social program." For example, 53% of those who've received student loans don't realize that counts. The same goes for 44% of Social Security recipients, and 40 percent of Medicare recipients.

It's not that these folks are lying; it's just that they don't understand. When they think of "government social program," they very likely think of "welfare" -- the kind of aid that they've never sought and don't think they'll ever need.

I often think of this piece from Matt Taibbi, who attended a Tea Party rally over the summer.

After Palin wraps up, I race to the parking lot in search of departing Medicare-motor-scooter conservatives. I come upon an elderly couple, Janice and David Wheelock, who are fairly itching to share their views.

"I'm anti-spending and anti-government," crows David, as scooter-bound Janice looks on. "The welfare state is out of control."

"OK," I say. "And what do you do for a living?"

"Me?" he says proudly. "Oh, I'm a property appraiser. Have been my whole life."

I frown. "Are either of you on Medicare?"

Silence: Then Janice, a nice enough woman, it seems, slowly raises her hand, offering a faint smile, as if to say, You got me!

"Let me get this straight," I say to David. "You've been picking up a check from the government for decades, as a tax assessor, and your wife is on Medicare. How can you complain about the welfare state?"

"Well," he says, "there's a lot of people on welfare who don't deserve it. Too many people are living off the government."

"But," I protest, "you live off the government. And have been your whole life!"

"Yeah," he says, "but I don't make very much."

The point is that congressional Republicans are desperate to make devastating, job-killing cuts to the budget, and think they're on safe political ground because voters say they support spending cuts. GOP officials might be surprised to learn just how many Americans rely on government spending, and want to keep the benefits that apply to them.

Steve Benen 9:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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CHANGING THE REGIONAL NARRATIVE.... Adam Serwer had a good item the other day, raising a point I haven't seen emphasized elsewhere: al Qaeda can't be at all pleased about developments in Egypt.

When DNI James Clapper said that Egypt was an opportunity to "change the narrative," he was referring specifically to the idea at the center of the jihad declared by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, that the only way to topple the oppressive dictators of the Muslim world was through violence and terrorism. Egyptians proved the extremists wrong today, and while it's only the first battle in a longer war for democracy, there can be no question that the world knows again the power of strategic nonviolence as a tool for freedom.

In its decades of murder, terrorism and violence against the West and against Muslims, al-Qaeda and their allies have achieved nothing even distantly resembling the triumph the Egyptian people have secured in the past few weeks, and the Tunisian people before them. Because of what happened today, they are closer to the brink of annihilation than ever before.

Good point. Indeed, as extraordinary as the 18 days of Egyptian protests were, they're all the more astonishing given how peaceful they were. Even after being provoked by pro-Mubarak forces, the demonstrations were non-violent and the number of casualties was very low.

The people of Egypt, in other words, did what Osama bin Laden said couldn't be done.

Adam flagged this portion of President Obama's remarks, which drove the point home nicely: "This is the power of human dignity, and it can never be denied. Egyptians have inspired us, and they've done so by putting the lie to the idea that justice is best gained through violence. For in Egypt, it was the moral force of nonviolence -- not terrorism, not mindless killing -- but nonviolence, moral force that bent the arc of history toward justice once more. And while the sights and sounds that we heard were entirely Egyptian, we can't help but hear the echoes of history -- echoes from Germans tearing down a wall, Indonesian students taking to the streets, Gandhi leading his people down the path of justice. As Martin Luther King said in celebrating the birth of a new nation in Ghana while trying to perfect his own, 'There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom.' Those were the cries that came from Tahrir Square, and the entire world has taken note."

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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MAYBE MCCAIN FIGURED OUT WHO'S ON THE 'RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY'.... I really have retired my ongoing count of John McCain's Sunday show appearances. I'm sure folks have gotten the point -- Sunday show bookers continue to be obsessed with McCain, and they shouldn't be.

And with that in mind, I won't mention that the senator is making his 29th appearance in the last two years this morning, just like I also won't mention that McCain will be on "Face the Nation" for the second time in just four weeks.

I will mention, though, that McCain's wasn't scheduled to be on "Face the Nation," which had booked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to appear, but host Bob Schieffer explained Friday that the show bumped Reid to get McCain (again) as part of the show's coverage of developments in Egypt.

Faiz Shakir's take was spot-on.

It's sadly telling that Schieffer, a veteran Sunday morning host, feels the need to frequently turn to a Republican Senator to discuss a foreign policy issue, rather than hosting any number of qualified Democratic voices to opine on Egypt.

McCain has waffled on his views regarding the pro-democracy protests. Initially, he expressed fear about the movement, calling it a dangerous "virus" that could spread throughout the Middle East. But following President Hosni Mubarak's decision to step down, McCain issued a statement applauding the "Egyptian people" for "beginning ... their country's transition to democracy." Moreover, in late January, McCain told CNN it would not be wise for the Obama administration to "cut [Mubarak] loose." A few days later, he was demanding Obama call on Mubarak to resign immediately.

Right, and this is partly why I started keeping track of McCain's appearances in the first place. The media in general, and Sunday show bookers in specific, consider the Arizona senator a knowledgeable, credible expert on foreign affairs and national security. If there's evidence to support this assumption, McCain's kept it well hidden -- on CNN's Sunday morning show two weeks ago, he urged President Obama to support "the right side of history" in Egypt, but couldn't quite explain which side that is.

There are actual experts on Egypt and U.S. policy in the region. It's a shame "Face the Nation" doesn't want to book them.

Postscript: Looking over the guest lists for all of the Sunday shows, viewers will see two Republican senators (McCain, Graham), three Republican House members (Boehner, Ryan, Schilling), three likely Republican presidential candidates (Barbour, Gingrich, Pawlenty) ... and zero Democrats from Congress or the Obama administration.

In other words, it's a typical Sunday.

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

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February 12, 2011

WHISTLING PAST DIXIE.... As the major parties begin shaping their 2012 strategies, Democrats are confronted with a question that's come up before: do they even try to compete in the South?

Mark Schmitt had a good piece this week, suggesting the answer is pretty obvious.

In his 2006 book, Whistling Past Dixie, political scientist Tom Schaller argued that the Democratic Party should learn to ignore the South. Presidential elections and congressional majorities could be won without the region, and the Mountain West was the land of political opportunity. Ignoring the South, and the reactionary politics of its white voters, would have the additional benefit of freeing the party to pursue a "non-Southern platform" of public investment and liberal social policies.

At the time, the book annoyed people. Many Democrats couldn't imagine giving up the party's base in the South. After all, the last Democrat elected president (Bill Clinton) captured five Southern states, and the previous Democrat (Jimmy Carter) won all of them. When Democrats controlled the House before 1994, they relied on Southern Democrats for their majority. Entire institutions, such as the once-influential Democratic Leadership Council, were built around the assumption that the party needed to recapture the affection of white Southerners.

Three elections later, Schaller's is the only plausible strategy for Democrats.

While the region looked slightly more favorable for Dems during the Democratic waves of 2006 and 2008, the 2010 cycle was brutal for Democrats in the South, and the party's strength has arguably reached its lowest point in American history. It's not a coincidence that more than a dozen Democratic officials in the South switched parties since November.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Jay Bookman offered a competing take this week, responding to Schmitt and concluding that his argument is "flat wrong."

Purely as a matter of strategy, if the South is considered Republican territory, Democrats ought to make them defend it. It's better to take the offense on the other guy's soil than to fight defensively on your own. And in terms of electoral college math, if you lose an Ohio, you'll want a chance to take Virginia. [...]

But there's a more important issue: When Schmitt advocates abandoning the South and pursuing "a 'non-Southern platform' of public investment and liberal social policies," when he celebrates the hope that Democrats will no longer have to "twist their policies beyond recognition to accommodate Southern Democrats who are doomed anyway," he's really talking about washing his hands of the white working class. (Schmitt sounds the same note with his repeated stress on pursuing the affluent.)

The real danger, then, is ideological. A national Democratic Party that no longer tries to compete in the South, that pursues ""a 'non-Southern platform' of public investment and liberal social policies," also handicaps itself in non-Southern states where the white working class remains numerous. In attitude, needs and cultural identity, the white working class of Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and the intermountain states of Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado aren't much different from their Southern peers. That white blue-collar vote also plays a larger role in Florida politics than outsiders probably understand.

I've read both pieces a couple of times -- by all means, follow the links and read their full arguments -- but I find myself torn.

So, I thought I'd open it up for some weekend discussion. Do Democrats give up on the region that's moved sharply to the right, or do they fight to keep in competitive* Southern states?

* I make a distinction between states in the South. Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina are competitive in ways Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi are not.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (113)

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GETTING A FOREIGN CRISIS RIGHT.... The temptation in some U.S. political circles to make every development, everywhere, about us is as common as it is misguided. We're an influential superpower, but we're not responsible for guiding all international affairs.

That said, in the wake of the successful uprising in Egypt, it's not unreasonable to consider whether the Obama administration handled developments correctly. Egypt is a close U.S. ally, and U.S. officials were in frequent communication with Mubarak, his cabinet, and the Egyptian Army over the 18-day revolution. We don't yet know the extent to which we influenced events, but it's fair to say we weren't passive observers.

The question, then, is whether President Obama and his team got this right. Michael Cohen makes a compelling case that they did.

At times I've been fairly critical of this president's handling of foreign policy, but credit must be given -- this Administration handled this situation about as deftly as possible. This was truly an American diplomatic tour de force.

From the beginning the White House was caught betwixt and between -- not wanting to be seen supporting the status quo, particularly when the winds of change seemed to be blowing in the direction of reform and yet at the same time not be seen as throwing a key ally under the bus.

And while obviously critics can point to individual mistakes (Wisner's wandering off the reservation, Panetta's bizarre comment yesterday in congressional testimony that Mubarak was out the door) on the whole this Administration did a really excellent job -- sending public signs that a crackdown would not be acceptable, working the military behind closed doors, trying to ensure a soft landing that wouldn't lead to violence, but still never backing down from the public position that an immediate transition to democracy (and not one in September) was the only acceptable course. (I'll be curious to see the impact of Obama's statement last night on Mubarak and the Egyptian military, but it was absolutely spot-on).

In a sense we helped throw Mubarak under the bus without directly delivering the push.

I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on U.S. policy towards Egypt. I can say as a matter of domestic politics, however, that the White House seemed to make a priority of Egyptians having ownership of their own democratic revolution, while taking steps to ensure its success. Obama and his team walked this narrow line extremely well.

The New York Daily News' Tom DeFrank had a similar assessment.

After a shaky beginning, Obama and his foreign policy handlers seem to have gotten this crisis right. Hosni Mubarak and his repressive baggage are gone, but America's relationship with a critical Mideast ally and partner in the war on global terror remains intact.

Moreover, Obama has positioned himself as a soulmate for the hundreds of thousands of ordinary Egyptians who stormed the Arab country's streets in peaceful protest instead of another American leader playing ball with an aging autocrat. [...]

Obama aides point out that the hopeful outcome wasn't mere luck. Vice President Biden dug deep into his Rolodex to nudge longtime friends and counterparts. U.S. diplomats worked other Arab leaders to persuade Mubarak he was done. Senior military commanders tapped longstanding ties with Egyptian generals to counsel caution with demonstrators.

Politically, Obama was showcased as dealing with an authentic world crisis instead of worrying about his intense but below-the-radar campaign for a second term.

One Republican told DeFrank about the administration's handling of developments in Egypt, "How can you complain about him over this? It's no contest."

There's something to be said for grown-ups running the White House.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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HOW TO USE THE WRONG COMPARISON THE RIGHT WAY.... The headline on the new White House weekly address raises a familiar refrain, which I've never liked: "It's time Washington acted as responsibly as our families do."

We've been hearing this for a long while, usually from the right -- during tough economic times, families and businesses scale back, so government should, too. The line has a certain intuitive charm that much of the public likes, which masks how wrong it is -- the government needs to step up even more to keep the economy going when families and businesses pull back. It's how FDR and Democrats ended the Great Depression in the 1930s, and how Obama and Dems prevented a sequel in 2009.

But in this morning's address, President Obama managed to use the comparison that rankles in a way that resonated. He noted having received a letter from Brenda Breece, a mom in Missouri who works as a special-ed teacher. Her husband worked at a local Chrysler plant for nearly 40 years, but took early retirement when the plant closed, and his pension check goes quickly.

Like a lot of folks, the Breece family is struggling to get by, sacrificing to cut costs, using coupons, etc. But, as Obama explained, "they also know what investments are too important to sacrifice." In this case, Brenda and her husband are scaling back dramatically, but they're also helping pay their daughter's college tuition.

The president explained in his address, as he prepares to release his new budget on Monday, "Families across this country understand what it takes to manage a budget. They understand what it takes to make ends meet without forgoing important investments like education. Well, it's time Washington acted as responsibly as our families do."

This is an important pitch. Next week, Republicans are going to say, "Families are cutting back in these hard times, and they expect Washington to do the same." Obama is trying to turn this around, arguing in effect, "Families are cutting in some areas, but are still investing in areas like their kids' college tuition, and there's no reason Washington shouldn't do the same."

It's a compelling way to frame the argument. Congressional Republicans think the way to prepare for the future is to scrap investments in education, infrastructure, transportation, law enforcement, medical research, and environmental protections. The White House is laying the groundwork for the defense -- some cuts make sense, cuts that forgo important investments do not.

As the address put it, "[J]ust as the Breece family is making difficult sacrifices while still investing in the future -- by helping their daughter pay her tuition -- my budget does the same. I'm proposing that we invest in what will do the most to grow the economy in the years to come. This means job-creating investments in roads, high-speed speed trains, and broadband. This means cutting-edge research that holds the promise of creating countless jobs and whole new industries, like clean energy and biotechnology. And it means improving our schools and making college more affordable -- to give every young person the chance to fulfill his or her potential, and receive the job training they need to succeed. Because it would be a mistake to balance the budget by sacrificing our children's education."

Expect to hear a lot more of this from the White House as the showdown over the budget moves closer to a shutdown.

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

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THE CBO, THE ACA, AND BREATHTAKING IGNORANCE.... If the painful stupidity of our policy discourse brings you down, it's probably best to just skip this post now. It stems from Republicans' inability to understand the phrase "reduction of labor," despite the fact that this really isn't that complicated.

At a House Budget Committee hearing on Thursday, Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.) pressed Douglas Elmendorf, director of the Congressional Budget Office, on the effects of the Affordable Care Act on employment figures. Elmendorf explained that the reform law, given the projected "reduction of labor," there would be "a reduction of 800,000 workers" by the year 2021.

Yesterday, Republicans seized on this, but in the process, ma