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Friday's Mini-Report, 3.6.15

03/06/15 05:32PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
* ISIS: "The Iraqi military and tribal fighters have pushed ISIS militants from the town of Al-Baghdadi, the U.S. military said Friday. The terror group had held three bridges in the town -- which is located near a U.S. air base -- since September."
* Speaking of ISIS: "News that Islamic State fighters had bulldozed and vandalized the ancient city of Nimrud in northern Iraq provoked widespread outrage on Friday, as archaeologists despaired that the militant extremist group was systematically destroying the priceless relics of a birthplace of civilization."
* Ferguson: "Two city employees in Ferguson, Missouri, have resigned after a Justice Department report highlighted racist emails sent by police and court employees, a spokesman for the city said Friday."
* And speaking of Missouri: "Republican lawmakers in Missouri are calling for the resignation of state party chair John Hancock, after allegations surfaced that he spread anti-Semitic rumors that contributed to the suicide of GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Schweich."
* CIA shakeup: "John O. Brennan, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, is planning to reassign thousands of undercover spies and intelligence analysts into new departments as part of a restructuring of the 67-year-old agency, a move he said would make it more successful against modern threats and crises."
* A vote will be necessary before the fall: "Unless Congress takes action, the U.S. will hit its debt limit on Mar. 16, but will begin taking 'extraordinary measures' on Mar. 13 to finance the government on a temporary basis, according to the U.S. Treasury."
* Strange bedfellows: "Tea Party Republicans contemplating a bid to oust Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) shouldn't count on Democrats to help them unseat the Speaker.... Democrats from across an ideological spectrum say they'd rather see Boehner remain atop the House than replace him with a more conservative Speaker who would almost certainly be less willing to reach across the aisle in search of compromise.
* He's right: "Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) this week joined the Congressional Black Caucus in complaining that none of the Republican leadership in Congress would be attending a commemoration of the 1965 march for civil rights in Selma, Alabama."
Marco Rubio

Rubio's new tax ideas sound pretty old

03/06/15 04:55PM

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) makes no secret of his national ambitions, and in interviews and public appearances, the far-right Floridian has even started to make a specific pitch against Hillary Clinton's candidacy. The former Secretary of State, Rubio says, is "a 20th century candidate" whose agenda is stuck "in the past."
And under the circumstances -- a young and inexperienced senator running against an accomplished former cabinet official -- that's the kind of pitch we should expect to hear. But part of the problem with Rubio's line is that it's his own policy agenda that too often tries to turn back the clock.
In one of the week's under-appreciated news stories, Rubio partnered with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) to unveil a new tax-reform package. As msnbc's Benjy Sarlin explained very well, the proposal is a reminder that it's Rubio who's "moving closer to reviving George W. Bush's agenda than anyone else in the field."
On Wednesday, Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee unveiled the blueprint for their long-awaited tax reform plan, which would cut taxes for individuals, families, businesses, and investors while eliminating a swath of deductions. Individual tax rates would be compressed into two brackets of 15% and 35% while the top corporate tax rate would shrink to 25% from 35%. The centerpiece of the plan, and a potential model for GOP policy in the age of stagnant wages, is a pricey new $2,500-per-child tax credit. It will undoubtedly play a central part in a Rubio presidential campaign should the Florida lawmaker take the plunge. [...]
There's only one catch: Rubio's plan would likely add trillions and trillions of dollars to the deficit. Sound familiar?
I will give Rubio credit for putting pen to paper. So often, we're confronted with political figures who make grand boasts about what's possible, but their vision is limited to bumper-sticker slogans and hollow, poll-tested catch phrases. Rubio and Lee went much further, presenting a relatively detailed package, complete with some specific figures, and to their credit, they invited real scrutiny.
That's the good news. The bad news is, the scrutiny the Republican senators invited has left their plan looking quite ridiculous.
U.S. Sen. Senator Robert Menendez addresses the media on Dec. 15, 2014 at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty)

New Jersey's Bob Menendez faces possible charges

03/06/15 04:12PM

In recent years, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) has faced plenty of allegations, some of which were quickly discredited as nonsense, and some of which just faded away.
But the threat of criminal charges against the New Jersey Democrat apparently lingers.
New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez could face criminal charges later this month as a grand jury continues to consider the case, sources told NBC News' Jonathan Dienst.
The case centers around Menendez's relationship with a wealthy donor named Salomon Melgen. Menendez, the current ranking member on the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been under investigation for accepting free trips from Melgen, according to NBC News. Officials are investigating whether Menendez improperly aided Melgen's business interests in return.
Obviously, charges against a sitting senator would be a major development, though there's reason for some caution here -- we've seen reports like these before.
In fact, I remember the reports suggesting the Justice Department's interest in the senator's alleged misdeeds reached new heights back in January 2014 -- roughly 14 months ago. The scuttlebutt died down soon after.
In other words, this isn't the first time there have been reports about Menendez facing real legal trouble. That doesn't mean he's in the clear -- on the contrary, charges may very well be filed against the senator later this month -- but it does suggest political observers should be patient while we wait to see what happens. The allegations certainly seem serious, but time will tell.
In the meantime, the senator's office issued an official statement this afternoon:.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at an event on Feb. 4, 2015 in Detroit, Mich. (Photo by Paul Sancya/AP)

'Any regrets over the Terri Schiavo fight?'

03/06/15 12:40PM

At last week's CPAC event, Fox's Sean Hannity asked former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), "Any regrets over the Terri Schiavo fight?" The likely presidential candidate responded that he has no regrets at all.
"[I]n this case, here was a woman who was vulnerable, and the court, because of our laws, didn't allow her -- they were going to allow her to be starved to death," Bush said. "So we passed a law, Terri's Law that was a year later ruled unconstitutional. I stayed within the law, but I acted on my core belief that the most vulnerable in our society should be in the front of the line. They should receive our love and protection. And that's exactly what I did."
The far-right audience applauded the answer, though Bloomberg Politics reports today that some social conservatives in Iowa are still bothered Bush didn't defy the judiciary and ignore court orders.
Michael Schiavo, however, has a very different perspective.
Michael Schiavo was the husband of Terri Schiavo, the brain-dead woman from the Tampa Bay area who ended up at the center of one of the most contentious, drawn-out conflicts in the history of America's culture wars. The fight over her death lasted almost a decade. It started as a private legal back-and-forth between her husband and her parents. Before it ended, it moved from circuit courts to district courts to state courts to federal courts, to the U.S. Supreme Court, from the state legislature in Tallahassee to Congress in Washington. The president got involved. So did the pope.
But it never would have become what it became if not for the dogged intervention of the governor of Florida at the time, the second son of the 41st president, the younger brother of the 43rd, the man who sits near the top of the extended early list of likely 2016 Republican presidential candidates.... Longtime watchers of John Ellis Bush say what he did throughout the Terri Schiavo case demonstrates how he would operate in the Oval Office. They say it's the Jebbest thing Jeb's ever done.
"It was a living hell," Michael Schiavo told Politico, "and I blame him."

Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 3.6.15

03/06/15 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:
* The 2015 Iowa Ag Summit, which is organized by agribusiness mega-donor Bruce Rastetter, is tomorrow and will feature quite an (ahem) cattle call. The scheduled speakers, in this order, are Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Lindsey Graham, George Pataki, Rick Santorum, and Scott Walker. Marco Rubio was scheduled to attend, but had to cancel for a family commitment.
* Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), the only women committee chair in the Republican-led House, announced yesterday she'll retire at the end of this term. Her district, Michigan's 10th, tends to lean in the GOP's direction and would be a tough pick-up opportunity for Democrats.
* Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) apparently received a fair amount of criticism from the right this week for not applauding vociferously enough during Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress. Conservative politics can get a little creepy sometimes.
* In the 2012 presidential campaign, it seemed most of the leading Republican presidential candidates had a billionaire benefactor advancing their candidacies. As the 2016 race takes shape, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has already lined up a similar base of support: Norman Braman, a Miami billionaire, is prepared to invest "as much as $10 million into a pro-Rubio super PAC."
* Jeb Bush's team continues to brag to reporters about their fundraising prowess, telling Time magazine that the former governor "has often netted a million bucks a day and sometimes more."
* Hillary Clinton continues to hire staff for her unannounced presidential campaign, hiring Matt Paul, a longtime Tom Vilsack aide, to oversee her Iowa operation.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif shakes hands with US Secretary of State John Kerry, Nov. 24, 2013.

Adventures in Fox News polling, Part IX

03/06/15 11:24AM

As regular readers may know, I hold a special place in my heart for Fox News polling, because unlike independent polls commissioned by major journalistic institutions, Fox News' surveys tend to be ... special.
The latest installment is genuinely amazing, even by Fox standards.
"Do you think it's a good idea or a bad idea to allow Iran to get nuclear weapons 10 years from now in return for it agreeing that it won't obtain nuclear weapons before then?"
The question was asked as part of a series of questions about international nuclear talks with Iran, making it seem as if the proposed agreement would "allow Iran to get nuclear weapons [in] 10 years." Except, that's not even close to being true -- no one, at least not in the Obama administration, is considering a plan to "allow" Iran to have nuclear weapons at any point, ever.
It's an annoying-but-familiar tack: word the question in the most misleading way possible in order to generate a specific result. What's more, it worked -- 84% of poll respondents said such a deal would be a "bad idea."
Paul Waldman responded, "What I wonder is, do the people at Fox think this kind of thing really serves their audience well? I guess they must, or they wouldn't be doing it. But to me, it shows that they look on that audience as a bunch of suckers."
It's a fair point, though part of me suspects polls like these have little do with serving Fox's core viewership.
In this Jan. 10, 2012 file photo, Rep. Sheila Butt, lower right, listens as Gov. Bill Haslam talks in Nashville, Tenn. The Tennessee Legislative Black Caucus said Butt should apologize for a Facebook post they say is racist. (Photo by Mark Humphrey/AP)

A step backwards for diversity in Tennessee

03/06/15 10:46AM

Tennessee's Republican-led legislature this week took up funding for the state's Economic Council on Women, created nearly 20 years ago. It didn't go well.
State Sen. Mike Bell, the Republican chairman of Tennessee's Government Operations Committee, asked the council's executive director this week, "[W]ith women making up 51 percent of the population of the state, why don't we have a men's economic council?" He added, after mentioning a variety of other groups, "If you're going to do an economic council, why not have it cover everybody?"
The committee soon after voted not to fund the state Economic Council on Women going forward.
As disappointing as this was for many, it arguably wasn't the most offensive recent development out of the Tennessee legislature. This was.
The Tennessee Legislature's Black Caucus is calling on state Rep. Sheila Butt to apologize and be dismissed from her leadership role for what members are calling a racist remark on her Facebook page in which she allegedly advocated for creating an NAAWP, an acronym for the National Association for the Advancement of White People.
Butt, a Republican floor leader, reportedly posted: "It is time for a Council on Christian Relations and an NAAWP in this Country," according to The Associated Press. She allegedly wrote the entry in January, but it resurfaced this week before being deleted.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R), pictured above alongside Butt, has criticized the member of the Tennessee House GOP leadership, but said he'd leave it to her to determine whether or not to apologize.
That seems unlikely at this point. Butt has said she was recommending a National Association for the Advancement of Western People, not White People. Yesterday, the Republican state lawmaker added that she's offended by others feeling offended.
A dusk view of the Edmund Pettus Bridge where Route 80 crosses the Alabama River on March 5, 2015 in Selma, Alabama.

The GOP's noticeable absences in Selma

03/06/15 10:08AM

A wide variety of American political leaders will be in Selma tomorrow to honor the 50th anniversary of the events at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Among the attendees will be President Obama and former President George W. Bush.
Politico reports, however, that the Republican congressional leadership will not be on hand for the event [updated: see below].
Scores of U.S. lawmakers are converging on tiny Selma, Alabama, for a large commemoration of a civil rights anniversary. But their ranks don't include a single member of House Republican leadership -- a point that isn't lost on congressional black leaders.
None of the top leaders -- House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy or Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who was once thought likely to attend to atone for reports that he once spoke before a white supremacist group -- will be in Selma for the three-day event that commemorates the 1965 march and the violence that protesters faced at the hands of white police officers.
It's not just the House GOP -- Senate Majority Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is also skipping the event.
In fairness, it's important to note that, as of yesterday, 23 congressional Republicans have said they'll be in Selma for tomorrow's ceremony, so it'd be an obvious overstatement to suggest a complete GOP no-show. But the Republican leadership -- all of which was invited to attend -- plays a unique role in representing the party overall. And yet, these leaders declined.
It's reminiscent of August 2013, when a massive rally was held at the Lincoln Memorial, honoring the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech. Organizers encouraged the congressional Republican leadership to participate in the event, but GOP leaders declined those invitations, too.
Loretta Lynch is sworn in during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 28, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty)

Loretta Lynch nomination lingers for no reason

03/06/15 09:27AM

Loretta Lynch was nominated to serve as U.S. Attorney General 118 days ago. Over the last several decades, no A.G. nominee has had to wait this long for a confirmation vote. And yet, here we are, wondering why the Senate's Republican leadership still won't allow members to vote up or down on Lynch's nomination.
It's tough to defend, and just as important, it's evidence of a Senate that's failing at some rudimentary tasks.
Specifically on Lynch, the Democratic minority yesterday made clear how absurd it is that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell won't bring her nomination to the floor.
Senate Democrats on Thursday intensified their push for a vote on the confirmation of Loretta E. Lynch as attorney general, arguing that her nomination should not be held up because Republicans are angry with President Obama over executive action on immigration.
"The delay is wrong and it is irresponsible," Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said during a conference call with reporters. "She should be judged on her merits and not used as a pawn in a proxy fight over the president's immigration policies."
It's tough to disagree. Lynch sailed through her confirmation hearings; she's already received the Judiciary Committee's bipartisan backing; and by all appearances, she has the votes needed to clear the Senate and get to work.
And yet, McConnell waits. When Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was advanced at the committee level, his nomination was on the Senate floor two days later, and he was confirmed easily. Lynch was nominated before Carter, she cleared committee last week, and yet the whole process is being slow-walked for reasons the GOP has struggled to explain.
Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, told the New York Times, "[O]n the anniversary of Selma, [Lynch] is being told, just be patient and wait your turn. That's wrong and beneath the Senate."
The problem arguably extends beyond Lynch.

Jobs boom continues, unemployment falls

03/06/15 08:47AM

By most projections, economists expected U.S. job growth in February to cool a bit, slipping from its fast pace in recent months. Fortunately, the projections were wrong -- a proper jobs boom is underway.
The new report from Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the U.S. economy added 295,000 jobs in February. The overall unemployment rate dropped 5.7% to 5.5%, reaching its lowest level since May 2008 -- nearly seven years ago.
In terms of the recent revisions, the picture looks largely unchanged. December's totals held steady at 329,000 jobs, while January's picture was revised down slightly, from 257,000 to 239,000.
All told, the U.S. has added an amazing 3.3 million jobs over the last 12 months. In fact, we've had 12 consecutive months of job growth over 200,000 -- the first time Americans have seen this since 1984, more three decades ago. (Update: it's also the first time we've seen private-sector job growth over 200,000 for 12 consecutive months since 1977.)
What's more, February was the 53rd consecutive month of positive job growth -- the best stretch since 1939 -- and the 58th consecutive month in which we've seen private-sector job growth, which is the longest on record.
Gabrielle Giffords, Mark Kelly

The NRA's latest bad idea: taunting Gabrielle Giffords

03/06/15 08:00AM

Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), nearly killed by a deranged assassin in 2011, was back on Capitol Hill this week, encouraging lawmakers to approve expanded background checks. And while opposition from the National Rifle Association comes as no surprise, the far-right group raised eyebrows with a rhetorical shot at Giffords directly.
Hitting a new low in its bullying barrage against gun laws, the National Rifle Association on Thursday targeted Gabrielle Giffords in an attack mocking her 2011 shooting.
"Gabby Giffords: Everyone Should Have to Pass Background Check My Attacker Passed," the NRA tweeted from its main account.
The tweet -- which one lawmaker called "pathetic" -- aimed to argue that background checks don't reduce gun violence and linked to an article on the right-wing Breitbart website.
The Breitbart article that the NRA promoted  noted, accurately, that the gunman responsible for the 2011 massacre in Tucson passed a background check, as did several other notorious killers. As best as I can tell, the Breitbart article is accurate.
That said, both the article and the NRA seem to be badly missing the point.
Fiery explosion as another oil train derails

Fiery explosion as another oil train derails

03/05/15 11:22PM

Mark Stevens, KWQC-TV investigative reporter, talks with Rachel Maddow about a still-burning oil train explosion in Illinois, on a day that included miles of cars stranded in the snow in Kentucky and a plane sliding off the runway in New York City. watch