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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 12.17.14

12/17/14 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* Welcome home: "The U.S. contractor who was freed Wednesday after five years in captivity in Cuba expressed support for restoring normal relations between the U.S. and Cuba, and celebrated his return to American soil. 'What a blessing it is to be a citizen of this country,' Alan Gross said in a short speech from his lawyer's Washington, D.C. office."
 
* Russia: "Trading in the Russian ruble was volatile early Wednesday morning, rallying briefly on news that the Finance Ministry was ready to sell some of its foreign currency reserves, and then weakening again."
 
* The day after: "Pakistan's army and intelligence chiefs traveled to Afghanistan on Wednesday to seek help locating the Pakistani Taliban commanders responsible for the massacre of students at a school here in Peshawar the day before, officials said."
 
* New York: "Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's administration announced on Wednesday that it would ban hydraulic fracturing in New York State because of concerns over health risks, ending years of uncertainty over the disputed method of natural gas extraction."
 
* A surprising retreat: "Sony Pictures has decided to pull their upcoming comedy 'The Interview' from distribution amid security concerns and reports that the five largest movie theater chains in the U.S. had decided to hold off on screening the film."
 
* Arizona: "The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday blocked the state of Arizona from enforcing a policy that denies driver's licenses to young immigrants granted legal status by President Barack Obama in 2012."
 
* As if the White House beat wasn't busy enough today: "President Obama granted clemency to 20 individuals -- including 12 pardons and eight commutations."
 
* No rush: "The Federal Reserve on Wednesday said it would be "patient" in deciding when to begin to increase interest rates, suggesting that the recent burst of positive U.S. economic data hasn't moved up widely-expected plans to begin to raise rates sometime next year."
 
* Does Russia's economic crisis threaten the U.S. economy? Not exactly. In fact, it might even help us a little, at least in the short term.
President Barack Obama speaks at an event on Oct. 2, 2014 in Evanston, Ill. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty)

The 'Obama refuses to lead' crowd falls silent

12/17/14 04:56PM

Kevin Drum pauses today to take stock of the recent actions from President Lame Duck.
So how have things been going for our bored, exhausted, and disengaged president? He's been acting pretty enthusiastic, energized, and absorbed with his job, I'd say.
It's funny, in a way, to think about how long ago the midterm elections seem. Seven weeks ago, President Obama was apparently supposed to be a defeated man, crushed by an electoral rebuke, pushed into irrelevancy by an ascendant far-right majority in Congress. It was up to the White House, the Beltway said, to start looking for new ways to make Republicans happy.
 
There's a script that lame-duck presidents are supposed to follow, and gosh darn it, Obama would be expected to play by the rules, slipping further and further out of frame.
 
But given today's developments, it's striking to realize what the president has done over the 58 days since the midterms.
 
Obviously, there's today's historic announcement about U.S. policy towards Cuba. There's also Obama's breakthrough climate agreement with China, the successful secret mission that freed American prisoners in North Korea, and the sharp reduction of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
 
And that's just foreign policy. Closer to home, the president has unveiled a major new immigration policy that will bring new hope to 5 million immigrants; he's taken the lead on net neutrality; and he's scored a series of confirmation victories in the closing days of the Senate.
 
All of this comes against the backdrop of an improving job market, a highly successful ACA open-enrollment period, falling gas prices, a Russian crisis that arguably benefits the United States, and the number of Ebola cases in the United States falling to zero.
 
The White House's many critics don't want to hear this, but if Obama were a Republican, it's likely we'd be inundated with coverage about how "President Comeback just got his mojo back."
Image: Marco Rubio

Rubio struggles with condemnations of Obama's Cuba policy

12/17/14 04:00PM

The politics of President Obama's new U.S. policy towards Cuba does not fall neatly along partisan lines. Plenty of Republicans and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are celebrating the White House's announcement, while a handful of Democrats, most notably Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), aren't at all pleased.
 
But among all critics, few have been as vocal and visible today as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who's been apoplectic about the administration's breakthrough. That's not unexpected, though the far-right senator's complaints seem deeply flawed and poorly thought out.
 
In an official written statement, for example, the Florida Republican called the White House's shift "inexplicable."
"While business interests seeking to line their pockets, aided by the editorial page of The New York Times, have begun a significant campaign to paper over the facts about the regime in Havana, the reality is clear."
It almost sounds as if Rubio thinks "business interests" -- in this case, farmers and Rubio's allies at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- should accept limits on free enterprise, even as other countries trade with an American neighbor. Doesn't the senator usually see "business interests" as "job creators"?
"But most importantly, the regime's brutal treatment of the Cuban people has continued unabated. Dissidents are harassed, imprisoned and even killed. Access to information is restricted and controlled by the regime."
Right, and that's after 54 years of the exact same U.S. policy. How more decades of a failed policy would Rubio recommend to improve the conditions of the Cuban people? Isn't it at least possible that Cubans will benefit better relations and expanded opportunities with the United States?
 
Rubio later said Obama's moves "will tighten" the Castro regime's grip on power "for decades." I suppose that's possible, but my follow-up question for the senator is simple: hasn't the Castro regime already had a tight grip on power for decades? Has the old, ineffective U.S. policy weakened that grip in any way whatsoever?
 
Rubio then raised concerns that normalized relations won't address Cuba's human rights record, which is an odd argument coming from a senator who was defending torture just last week.
President Barack Obama speaks at an event on Oct. 2, 2014 in Evanston, Ill. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty)

Obama announces dramatic shift in U.S./Cuba policy

12/17/14 12:44PM

For more than a half-century, the United States has had one policy towards Cuba. The policy been embraced by presidents in both parties, it's been unwavering, and it's been entirely consistent.
 
It's also failed miserably.
 
U.S. foreign policy towards Cuba has been built on a foundation of isolation: as a result of Fidel Castro's regime, Americans have imposed a tough trade embargo on the island nation 90 miles from U.S. soil, while maintaining no diplomatic ties. The idea from the outset was to use this isolation to strangle the oppressive Cuban government, but in practice, it's done nothing of the sort.
 
But year after year, election after election, both parties were too afraid of the political consequences to suggest a change. Everyone just went along, keeping the woefully ineffective policy in place. It hasn't produced any tangible results for the last 54 years, but maybe if we stick with it, eventually the policy will succeed.
 
It would take real leadership to change course and adopt a more sensible policy. President Obama offered that leadership today.
In a surprise move, President Obama planned to announce on Wednesday that Washington is moving to restore full diplomatic relations with Havana, following the release of imprisoned American aid worker Alan Gross.
 
President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro spoke yesterday on the phone for 45 minutes to "review and finalize" the plan, according to senior administration officials.
 
High-level negotiations between Washington and Habvana began last spring, facilitated by the Canadian government and the Vatican. Pope Francis personally intervened, sending a letter to Presidents Obama and Raul Castro urging the release of Gross and the three Cubans imprisoned in U.S., and calling for closer relations, according to senior administration officials.
It would be up to Congress to lift the decades-old embargo -- an unlikely step given Republican control of the House and Senate -- but that doesn't make today's developments any less significant.
 
On the contrary, this is among the most significant breakthroughs for U.S. foreign policy in a generation.

Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.17.14

12/17/14 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:
 
* In the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Hillary Clinton leads each of her likely Republican opponents by double digits in hypothetical 2016 matchups.
 
* In related news, the former Secretary of State also strongly condemned torture yesterday after receiving the "Ripple of Hope" award from the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.
 
* Within hours of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) moving forward with his presidential plans, Sen. Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) team took out Google ads against the likely rival: "'Join a movement working to shrink government. Not grow it,' the ad states, with a link to RandPAC, Paul's longstanding federal leadership committee, and a page asking supporters to give their email address and zip code to 'Stand With Rand.'"
 
* Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has made no secret of his interest in the 2016 race, is reportedly unfazed by Bush's announcement. A top Rubio aide said his decision will not be based on "who else might be running."
 
* Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), also reportedly interested in the 2016 race, was in Iowa yesterday, making the case that his progressive vision appeals to the American mainstream. "It's not a left-wing agenda," the Vermonter said.
Blake Farenthold

Texas' Farenthold faces new lawsuit from former staffer

12/17/14 11:45AM

Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas has been in the news quite a bit recently, but given the developments, it seems likely the congressman would prefer to have a lower profile.
 
We learned earlier this week, for example, that the GOP congressman has owned an obscene domain name for several years as part of an online business he used to run. Yesterday, Farenthold was sued by a former Capitol Hill aide who alleges she was fired after complaining about mistreatment.
The staff member, Lauren Greene, is accusing Mr. Farenthold, a Texas Republican, and his chief of staff, Bob Haueter, of retaliating after she complained about a hostile work environment.
 
The suit says that Mr. Farenthold regularly made comments designed to gauge whether Ms. Greene -- who most recently was his communications director -- was interested in a sexual relationship, and that the congressman told his executive assistant that he was having "sexual fantasies" about Ms. Greene.
 
It also accuses Mr. Farenthold of drinking "to excess" on numerous occasions. Staff members who accompanied him to Capitol Hill functions were put on "redhead patrol" to keep him out of trouble, according to the lawsuit, which was first reported by The National Law Journal.
Greene is reportedly seeking "unspecified monetary damages for lost pay and emotional distress."

Worst. Congress. Ever?

12/17/14 11:06AM

Shortly before the 2006 midterms, when voters threw out the Republican-led Congress in a Democratic wave, Matt Taibbi wrote a great piece for Rolling Stone about the "Worst Congress Ever."
 
"These were the years," Taibbi wrote, "when the U.S. parliament became a historical punch line, a political obscenity on par with the court of Nero or Caligula -- a stable of thieves and perverts who committed crimes rolling out of bed in the morning and did their very best to turn the mighty American empire into a debt-laden, despotic backwater, a Burkina Faso with cable."
 
The article included this quote from Jonathan Turley: "The 109th Congress is so bad that it makes you wonder if democracy is a failed experiment."
 
The least-productive Congress in modern history drew to an abrupt close late Tuesday as the U.S. Senate extended dozens of expired tax breaks but failed to renew a federally backed terrorism insurance program supported by big businesses and major sports leagues. [...]
 
"Thank God it's over!" Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W. Va.) said as he exited the Senate chamber afterward.... Asked about the conclusion of the unproductive congressional session as he boarded an elevator,
The Washington Post's report added, "Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) paraphrased the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: 'That which cannot be spoken must be passed over in silence.'"
 
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a 32-year veteran of Congress, added that this Congress has been "disgraceful."
 
Looking just at congressional productivity, it's hard to disagree. According to the tallies published by NBC News and Congress.gov, the 113th Congress passed a total of 203 bills into law since early last year. As the above chart shows, that's the lowest total since officials started keeping track several generations ago -- and it breaks the record set by the 112th Congress.
 
All of which leads to a straightforward question: is this the worst Congress ever?
An activist holds up a sign outside the State Department during a protest of the Keystone XL pipeline on March 7, 2014 in Washington.

McConnell puts Keystone at the top of the to-do list

12/17/14 10:15AM

Just a few days after the 2014 midterm elections, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) delivered the official weekly Republican address, vowing to the public, "We'll work to approve the Keystone XL pipeline." One week later, Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) delivered the weekly GOP address and he, too, demanded Keystone approval.
 
Two weeks later, Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) gave the official Republican address, which he used to highlight Keystone. And two weeks after that, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) delivered the GOP address, which once again put the spotlight on Republican support for the pipeline.
 
Given this near-obsession, yesterday's news hardly came as a surprise.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) announced Tuesday that he will move the Keystone XL pipeline as the first order of business in the GOP-controlled Senate next year.

 
"We'll be starting next year with a job-creating bill that enjoys significant bipartisan support," he said. "The first item up in the new Senate will be the Keystone XL pipeline."
There's arguably some symbolic significance to this. It will be the first Republican-led Congress in eight years, so the first issue on the to-do list presumably helps reflect the party's top policy priority.
 
And apparently, the GOP remains preoccupied with a Canadian pipeline.
 
The question is, why.
Barack Obama, Edna Pemberton

Obamacare enrollments continue to impress

12/17/14 09:27AM

The Affordable Care Act's open-enrollment process got off to a genuinely awful start last year, and was, for a time, one of the biggest news stories in the country. For much of the political world, the two months of healthcare.gov troubles were "Obama's Katrina," Watergate, and the end of progressive governance, rolled up into a single package.
 
A year later, the great start to the open-enrollment process has largely been treated as an afterthought, though the successes are hard for anyone to deny.
More than 1 million people used the U.S. healthcare.gov system to sign up for Obamacare plans in the seven days ending Dec. 12, the best week yet for enrollment in the program's second year.
 
In total, 2.5 million Americans have signed up for health insurance plans since Nov. 15, when the online system opened for business, the government said today in a statement. The Obama administration's goal for 2015 is to get 9.1 million paying customers in plans sold under the law.
 
Of people who have enrolled so far using healthcare.gov, 52 percent already had coverage under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and 48 percent were new customers.
To provide some additional context, last year, after three months, 2.2 million consumers had signed up for coverage through healthcare.gov. This year, after one month, it's 2.5 million.
 
What's more, this figure understates the national total because it doesn't include Americans who've enrolled in state-based exchange marketplaces.
 
Charles Gaba, whose projections are eerily good -- and have actually been slightly more accurate that HHS's own figures on occasion -- has revised his projections and believes total ACA enrollments should reach 12.5 million by the end of the open-enrollment period.
 
Even many "Obamacare" optimists didn't expect to see this much success at this point.
Reporters gather around U.S. Senator Ted Cruz as he talks to reporters after a Republican Senate caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington October 16, 2013.

Being Ted Cruz means occasionally having to say you're sorry

12/17/14 08:41AM

In politics, a good apology can be tricky, though the key is understanding exactly what the offending party is apologizing for.
 
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) seems to realize he's enraged many of his own Republican allies, and he's taking steps to make amends, but it's not entirely clear he understands why he's drawn his party's ire. Manu Raju reported yesterday afternoon:
Ted Cruz privately apologized to GOP senators Tuesday for interrupting their holiday schedules by his surprise tactics that effectively brought the Senate into session over the weekend.
 
According to five senators who attended Tuesday's caucus lunch, Cruz offered the apology in unsolicited remarks, saying that he regretted if any of his colleagues' schedules were ruined by his maneuvering. He didn't say whether he would do something similar again, senators said.
In October 2013, after Cruz took the lead in shutting down the federal government, there was a caucus meeting in which the far-right Texan faced a barrage of angry questions from his GOP colleagues. Yesterday, however he reportedly made brief remarks and heard nothing from the other Republican senators.
 
Cruz probably shouldn't interpret their silence as acceptance.
 
Senate Republicans are obviously capable of speaking up for themselves, but as best as I can tell, their apoplexy wasn't just about Cruz ruining their Saturday plans away from Capitol Hill. Rather, the outgoing GOP minority believed they would be able to scuttle some of President Obama's nominees, but thanks to Cruz's pointless and counter-productive stunt, driven in part by the Texan's confusion about parliamentary procedure, Democrats were able to get practically everything they wanted -- in exchange for nothing.
 
Yesterday on the Hill, there was even talk of the "Cruz Confirmations."
Demonstrators protest during an immigration reform rally in front of the U.S. Capitol on Capitol Hill in Washington in this October 13, 2009 file photo.

Judge takes aim at Obama's immigration policy

12/17/14 08:00AM

The headlines yesterday afternoon, at first blush, were entirely unexpected. A federal judge in Pennsylvania had apparently declared President Obama's new immigration policy unconstitutional, which didn't seem to make any sense given that no one had brought a challenge the White House policy to this district court.
 
So what actually happened? This one's a doozy.
The case involves an undocumented Honduran man named Elionardo Juarez-Escobar who pled guilty to charges of "illegal re-entry" after he was already deported in 2005. After returning to the United States a short time later, the Juarez-Escobar was eventually put on the Department of Homeland Security's radar once again after he was arrested for drinking and driving and operating a vehicle without a driver's license.
U.S. District Court Judge Arthur Schwab, appointed to the bench by George W. Bush, was responsible for sentencing in the Juarez-Escobar case, but Schwab decided the Obama administration's recent executive actions might apply to the defendant, so the judge took it upon himself to go after the president's policy at the same time.
 
The 38-page memo from Schwab, available in its entirety here (pdf), is a mess. More importantly, it doesn't seem to have any legal weight -- as msnbc's Amanda Sakuma reported, the opinion "will not likely have any direct impact or serve to invalidate the policy." The White House policy remains fully intact; Schwab's angry missive was effectively little more than a press release.
 
Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, a law professor at Pennsylvania State University and expert in prosecutorial discretion in immigration law, told msnbc, "It strikes me as odd for a single judge to devote so many pages of a memo to his feelings about the president's executive action when the case itself is about an individual immigrant who faces illegal re-entry charges. There's a little bit of political theater, and maybe the judge had a bad day."
 
What makes this story especially interesting, though, is appreciating just how many bad days Judge Schwab has had.

Cruz is sorry and other headlines

12/17/14 07:57AM

Sen. Ted Cruz apologizes to Senate colleagues. (NY Times)

Secretive nonprofits flourished--and succeeded--in 2014 state elections. (Center for Public Integrity)

First on GOP's 2015 to-do list: Keystone XL pipeline. (Wall Street Journal)

Pres. Obama won't allow oil and gas drilling in Alaska's Bristol Bay. (Time)

Congress passed sweeping legislation to help Americans with disabilities. (Time)

Carolinas politicians McCrory and Sanford take unusual stock payouts. (AP)

One of the Sydney hostages tells how he escaped. (AP)

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