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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 3.4.15

03/04/15 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* Ferguson: "The Department of Justice on Wednesday cleared former Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson of committing any civil rights violations in the shooting death of black teen Michael Brown Jr."
 
* Related news: "The Department of Justice released a scathing, 102-page report in full on Wednesday, condemning the Ferguson Police Department of routinely violating the constitutional rights of African-Americans living in the St. Louis suburb. The months-long investigation unearthed instances of when money and racial bias factored into the police department's unlawful activities."
 
* I wasn't in the room for the Supreme Court's oral arguments this morning, but I'd recommend checking out reports from some folks who were, including Suzy Khimm, Jonathan Cohn, Brian Beutler, Sarah Kliff, Sahil Kapur, and Ian Millhiser.
 
* On a related note, predictions at this stage are inherently tricky and routinely wrong.
 
* Keystone: "The Senate's attempt to override President Barack Obama's veto of the bill to approve the Keystone XL pipeline failed on Wednesday afternoon, effectively ending the measure, NBC News confirmed. The final vote was 62-37, but the measure needed a two-thirds majority of the Senate to pass."
 
* Keep an eye on this story: "Underscoring the Iraqi government's determination to control the timetable and tactics in the battle against the Islamic State, the country's defense minister declared on Wednesday that the most challenging operation, driving the militants from Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, would be 'planned, timed and executed by Iraqis.'"
 
* Predictable: "A House investigative committee is preparing to send out subpoenas later Wednesday to gather a deeper look into former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton's nearly exclusive use of personal e-mails to do her official business as the government's top diplomat, according to people familiar with the probe."
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy waves before signing new regulations for power plants at EPA headquarters June 2, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Blocking the EPA's science board from considering science

03/04/15 04:30PM

In the last Congress, the House Republican majority made no secret of its hostility towards the Environmental Protection Agency, pushing measures like the absurd, "Secret Science Reform Act." As the new Congress stumbles out of the gate, the same measures have been deemed a priority in the lower chamber once again.
 
But of particular interest this week is the Republican effort to "improve" the EPA's Science Advisory Board. Pending legislation would, among other things, prevent EPA experts in a given field from participating in "advisory activities." It's a bizarre approach -- if a state was doing an investigation into smog, for example, EPA experts who've conducted research on smog would be legally barred from offering guidance.
 
This bill, by the way, passed the House in 2014, before getting ignored by the Senate, which was led by Democrats at the time.
 
This year, the bill's back, with an additional provision: members of the EPA's Science Advisory Board would now be prohibited, by law, from even considering research on climate science from a variety of sources, including the U.S. Global Change Research Program's National Climate Assessment. Dave Roberts' responded:
So. When considering what to do about carbon pollution, EPA may not consider what America's best scientists have concluded about it, what an international panel of scientists has concluded about it, how the federal government has officially recommended calculating its value, or the most comprehensive solutions for it. [...]
 
As I've said many, many times, most Americans have no idea how bats**t crazy the House GOP has gone.... It's amusing in its own dark way, but it's not a sitcom or a satire. It's real life.
Wait, it gets a little worse.
Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia And Hillary Clinton Speak At Law Conference (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Antonin Scalia's unintentional humor

03/04/15 02:46PM

During oral arguments this morning in the King v. Burwell case, Justice Antonin Scalia heard Solicitor General Don Verrilli warn of dire consequences if the Supreme Court strips millions of families of their health care insurance subsides. The Republican jurist just didn't believe the consequences would be ignored by the people's representatives.
 
It led to an unintentionally amusing exchange:
SCALIA: What about Congress? You really think Congress is just going to sit there while all of these disastrous consequences ensue? I mean, how often have we come out with a decision such as the ­­ you know, the bankruptcy court decision? Congress adjusts, enacts a statute that takes care of the problem. It happens all the time. Why is that not going to happen here?
 
VERRILLI: Well, this Congress?
The room, not surprisingly, erupted in laughter. Congratulations, Congress, you've literally sunk to the level of a punch line.
 
But more to the point, Scalia wasn't kidding. "I don't care what Congress you're talking about," he added. "If the consequences are as disastrous as you say, so many million people ­­ without insurance and whatnot -- yes, I think this Congress would act."
 
On a purely theoretical level, this is not ridiculous. Major new laws have routinely needed minor technical fixes for generations, and many of these corrections are intended to bring clarity to ambiguous phrases. Under normal circumstances, the King v. Burwell case wouldn't even exist because Congress would have clarified the ACA structure years ago.
 
And, again in theory, if the Supreme Court were to decide in this case that the statute needs clarification, a sane, mature, responsible legislative branch would simply add a few words to the ACA law and ensure that consumers receive the same insurance subsidies they're receiving now.
 
But that's all the more reason to understand exactly why Scalia is wrong.
"Obamacare"  supporter Margot Smith (L) of California pleads her case with legislation opponents Judy Burel (2nd R) and Janis Haddon, both of Georgia, at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, March 28, 2012.

For some, a Supreme Court case is a matter of life or death

03/04/15 12:40PM

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in King v. Burwell this morning, and by most accounts, it's not at all clear how the justices intend to rule. The four center-left justices seemed unmoved by the plaintiffs' ridiculous argument; Scalia and Alito seemed eager to destroy "Obamacare"; Roberts said almost nothing; and Kennedy hinted he might back the ACA on federalism grounds.
 
We probably won't know for sure until June, when the ruling is issued. But in the interim, it's worth taking some time to think about families that will experience some sleepless nights between now and then.
 
Robert Schlesinger noted yesterday that a far-right ruling would produce "real human misery," and it's an important point. We're not just talking about numbers on a page; this is about whether real-world families have access to medical care.
 
Sarah Kliff recently highlighted the story of a woman named Marilyn Schramm, who's wondering whether King v. Burwell should cause her to move to a blue state.
She is a 63-year-old retiree who lives in Texas, and since November 2013 she's purchased health insurance through Healthcare.gov. She has a policy that costs about $800 per month. Schramm, who earns $28,000 from her pension, pays about half the cost, and the federal government covers the rest with a subsidy.
 
Schramm has colon cancer. Doctors diagnosed it this fall, after she started feeling stomach pains during an RV trip through Tennessee. Doctors there removed the tumor, and she's now in Austin receiving chemotherapy, which should continue through this summer.
There's nothing academic about this case for Schramm and her loved ones. Under the Affordable Care Act, she can receive chemotherapy. If Republicans gut the Affordable Care Act, she'll likely lose her coverage and the treatment she needs.
 
This is obviously one person, but the point is that she's emblematic of millions more. The Huffington Post ran a powerful piece the other day shining a spotlight on real people who'll face dire straits if GOP justices rule the wrong way in this ludicrous case. Yahoo News ran a similar article, as did The Christian Science Monitor.

Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 3.4.15

03/04/15 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items that won't necessarily generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers:
 
* Right-wing neurosurgeon Ben Carson moved closer to launching his Republican presidential campaign yesterday, forming an exploratory committee. To date, he and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are the only White House hopefuls who've taken this formal step.
 
* Speaking of Carson, the likely presidential candidate told CNN this morning that he believes homosexuality is "absolutely" a choice. He even tried to offer proof of his argument: "A lot of people who go into prison go into prison straight – and when they come out, they're gay. So, did something happen while they were in there? Ask yourself that question."
 
* How strong is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's (R) financial standing in the 2016 race? He's urging donors not to contribute to him too much right now. The Washington Post reported, "The move reflects concerns among Bush advisers that accepting massive sums from a handful of uber-rich supporters could fuel a perception that the former governor is in their debt. The effort is also driven by a desire to build as broad a pool of donors as possible among wealthier contributors."
 
* Speaking of Jeb, in an apparent pander to his party's far-right base, Bush has announced his opposition to the U.S. Export-Import Bank. Complicating matters a bit, the Export-Import Bank helped Jeb Bush's business interests in the not-too-distant past.
 
* In the latest national Quinnipiac poll, a majority of self-identified Republicans said they believe President Obama is neither a Christian nor a patriot. When GOP candidates pander to the fever swamps, keep this statistic in mind.
 
* Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) had an interesting explanation for his unique presidential candidacy: "When I look at this race and look and see where everybody else is and look at what else is going on, I realize we'll probably be the only person in the race for a minimum wage increase. We'll probably be the only person in this race that's for scaling back legal immigration."
Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie speaks at the Freedom Summit in Des Moines, Iowa, January 24, 2015.

Christie faces pushback on questionable Exxon deal

03/04/15 11:20AM

After Exxon damaged more than 1,500 acres of wetlands in northern New Jersey, the state filed a major lawsuit against the oil giant. Over the course of several years, the case seemed to be going pretty well for New Jersey -- Exxon's culpability was effectively already decided. The only remaining question was how much Exxon would pay in damages.
 
The state had a specific price tag in mind: $8.9 billion. Of that total, $2.6 billion would help restore the damaged areas and $6.3 billion would cover compensatory damages.
 
But on the eve of a court judgment, the Christie administration had an announcement: they'd agreed to settle the case. Exxon would pay New Jersey $250 million -- about 3% of the $8.9 billion originally sought -- and most of that money would go towards closing the governor's budget shortfall, rather than environmental repair.
 
The Asbury Park Press reports today that some state lawmakers "intend to intervene," struggling to understand why the Christie administration would agree to such a settlement.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and Sen. Raymond Lesniak said they'll file a motion to intervene in the lawsuit because the reported settlement amounts to just 3 cents for every dollar of the estimated damages.
 
"The agreement would sell us short by failing to make up for the harm to natural resources and the threat to the public's health," Sweeney said. "It would let Exxon off the hook when they have already been held responsible."
The same article added that ExxonMobil "contributed $500,000 to the Republican Governors Association last year," when it was chaired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R). (The paper may be understating the oil company's generosity towards the Christie-led RGA.)
 
Democrats in the state Senate aren't the only ones with questions about Christie's deal with Exxon -- two state Assembly leaders announced this morning that hearings into the settlement have been scheduled for March 19.
 
The editorial board of the Newark Star-Ledger, meanwhile, is urging the Christie administration to "come clean" on the Exxon deal.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker speaks at the American Action Forum on Jan. 30, 2015 in Washington, DC.

Walker pushes for new abortion restrictions

03/04/15 10:40AM

For a candidate who frequently talks about "leadership," Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) has an unfortunate habit of dodging fair questions.
 
In recent weeks, for example, the Republican governor has dodged easy questions about evolution and President Obama. During his re-election campaign last fall, Walker also dodges questions about contraception access, pay equity, and marriage rights.
 
And then, of course, there's abortion. As a candidate for re-election last year, the governor refused to say whether he'd support a 20-week abortion ban, instead making campaign ads saying he supports an abortion policy that "leaves the final decision to a woman and her doctor."
 
Oddly enough, after Walker won re-election and started gearing up for a presidential campaign, he adopted a new posture.
Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin said Tuesday that he would sign a ban on abortions after 20 weeks, coming out strongly on an issue important to social conservatives that he played down in his re-election campaign last year.
 
"As the Wisconsin Legislature moves forward in the coming session, further protections for mother and child are likely to come to my desk in the form of a bill to prohibit abortions after 20 weeks,'' he wrote in an open letter. "I will sign that bill when it gets to my desk and support similar legislation on the federal level.''
It's a curious brand of leadership that leads a politician to believe he should hide beliefs like these until after voters have cast their ballots.
US House Speaker John Boehner returns to his office after a visit to the House floor for procedural votes for legislation to fund the Department of Homeland Security at the Capitol in Washington, Feb. 27, 2015. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The scope of House GOP's schism comes into focus

03/04/15 10:04AM

Late last week, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) thought he had a short-term plan to deal with Department of Homeland Security funding. It failed miserably -- the Speaker's own members, once again, ignored his guidance, killed his bill, and left Boehner humiliated.
 
Asked over the weekend about the fiasco, other Republican leaders tried to downplay intra-party divisions. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) told Fox News that "about 80 percent of our conference" endorsed Boehner's plan, as if that were impressive. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said of his trouble-making colleagues, "We're talking about maybe 40 or 50 people at most."
 
Scalise and King were wildly understating the scope of the problem. For one thing, for House Republicans to have effectively lost control over a fifth of their conference is, on its face, a serious problem. For another, the problem is actually far broader, as we saw yesterday afternoon.
Only 75 House Republicans joined Democrats on Tuesday to approve legislation funding the Department of Homeland Security without provisions to undo President Obama's executive actions on immigration.
 
The 75 Republicans who voted with all 182 Democrats in the 257-167 vote are mostly centrists, appropriators or lawmakers in tough reelection races next year.
The final roll call on the clean bill to fund DHS is online here. Note that of the 242 House Republicans to vote on the measure, less than a third followed Boehner's lead and voted to take care of Homeland Security through the end of the fiscal year.
 
In other words, when GOP officials characterize this as an isolated problem, limited to "maybe 40 or 50 people at most," there's ample evidence to the contrary.
President Barack Obama takes part in a MSNBC town hall event on immigration in Miami, Florida on Feb. 25th, 2015. (Photo by Charles Ommanney for MSNBC)

Obama balks at health care backup plan

03/04/15 09:20AM

Last week, Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska acknowledged what is plainly true: if the Supreme Court's GOP justices gut the Affordable Care Act, the impact on many families' lives will be devastating:  "Chemotherapy turned off for perhaps 12,000 people, dialysis going dark for 10,000. The horror stories will be real."
 
Naturally, Sasse's op-ed blames the Obama administration. "Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell claimed in Senate testimony earlier this month that the administration has no plan to help the seven million citizens who could lose their coverage in the weeks following such a ruling," he complained.
 
This is a surprisingly familiar tack. Congressional Republicans are outraged that the White House has not yet unveiled a backup plan on what to do if the Supreme Court takes a sledgehammer to the American health care system. The whining is built on a curious foundation -- Republicans used to say, "We're outraged you reformed the healthcare system." Now these same Republicans are adding, "We're also outraged you didn't create a backup plan for what happens after we tear down the healthcare system."
 
It's all the more reason to take note of President Obama's response to the GOP criticisms.
President Barack Obama on Monday said he thinks there is no "plausible legal basis" for the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down a key plank of Obamacare, defending his administration's lack of a contingency plan. [...]
 
"Look, this should be a pretty straightforward case of statutory interpretation," Obama said.
In the same Reuters interview, the president added, "There is, in our view, not a plausible legal basis for striking it down. And what if the Supreme Court takes an implausible path?
Milton Persinger, left, and Robert Povilat wait for a marriage license at the Mobile County Probate office, Feb. 10, 2015, in Mobile, Ala. (Photo by Sharon Steinmann/AP)

Alabama court re-imposes marriage ban

03/04/15 08:40AM

As of a few weeks ago, the status of marriage rights in Alabama was no longer in dispute, despite some strange legal wrangling. Federal courts had struck down the state ban on marriage equality, and though Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore (R) tried to intervene, telling state courts to ignore federal court rulings, U.S. District Judge Callie V.S. Granade, appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush, explicitly told Alabama that this matter is not optional.
 
And so, Alabama joined the growing collection of states in which same-sex marriage is now legal. That is, until last night.
The Alabama Supreme Court ordered all the state's probate judges late Tuesday to stop issuing marriages licenses to same-sex couples, the latest in a growing legal tussle playing out in Alabama over whether the decisions of federal justices trump those made by state judges. [...]
 
"...Each such probate judge is temporarily enjoined from issuing any marriage license contrary to Alabama law as explained in this opinion," [the Alabama justices] wrote.
State Supreme Court justices in Alabama are elected, and in the current makeup of the court, all nine jurists are Republicans.
 
The case was brought to the state court by a group called Liberty Counsel, an organization created in part by Jerry Falwell's ministry.
 
So what happens now? According to a report from al.com:
A general view of the US Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., Dec. 30, 2014. (Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty)

ACA faces high court test, security for millions on the line

03/04/15 08:00AM

About two years ago at this time, the fight over the future of the Affordable Care Act was effectively over. President Obama had won re-election; the Supreme Court had endorsed the law's constitutionality; Republican leaders were referring to "Obamacare" as "the law of the land"; GOP governors were grudgingly accepting Medicaid expansion; and systemic improvements were taking root.
 
For all intents and purposes, the debate over health care reform had been settled. The ACA had won and the nation was benefiting as a result.
 
But as it turns out, anti-health care forces had one last Hail Mary pass left to throw, and as Suzy Khimm explained, it lands at the Supreme Court today.
The Supreme Court will hear a case on Wednesday that could jeopardize the future of Obamacare and imperil insurance coverage for millions of Americans.  [...]
 
If the plaintiffs prevail, more than 7 million Americans in up to 37 states are expected to lose the subsidies they receive to help pay for their insurance coverage they purchases on the federal Obamacare exchanges.
The case may seem complicated, but the dispute is actually pretty straightforward.

Obamacare in court and other headlines

03/04/15 07:25AM

Obamacare goes to the Supreme Court. (New York Times Magazine)

Opening statements in the Boston Marathon bombing trial today. (AP)

Clinton ran homebrew computer system for official emails. (AP)

NJ lawmakers say they will go to court to block Chris Christie's Exxon settlement. (NJ.com)

Koch network offers a clue of whom it will back in the 2016 GOP primary. (Washington Post)

Alabama reacts to state Supreme Court halting gay marriages. (AL.com)

Pentagon calls briefing about a planned assault on Mosul a mistake. (AP)

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