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Supreme Court could continue without Scalia

Supreme Court business could continue without Scalia

02/13/16 06:05PM

Pete Williams, NBC News justice correspondent, explains that the Supreme Court could continue hearing cases without Antonin Scalia's position filled, making it an eight-person body with cases on subjects ranging from abortion to immigration waiting to be heard. watch

This Week in God, 2.13.16

02/13/16 08:11AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a leading Republican presidential hopeful picking an unexpected fight with one of the world's most prominent religious leaders.
 
Over the course of the presidential campaign, Donald Trump has feuded with a surprising number of people, countries, groups, states, news outlets, and minority groups. But as the New York Times reported, the GOP frontrunner this week directed at least some of his ire at Pope Francis.
Donald J. Trump has a message for Pope Francis ahead of the pope's trip to pray with migrants along the Mexican border: You don't get it.
 
The pope is planning to go to the Rio Grande next week while on a visit to Mexico. He plans to offer prayer and show solidarity with suffering refugees.
 
Mr. Trump does not approve. In an interview with the Fox Business Network on Thursday, the Republican presidential candidate, who has proposed building a wall along the United States's southern border, suggested that Francis was serving as a pawn of the Mexican government.
Echoing a complaint Trump first made several months ago, the Republican candidate complained that the pope "is a very political person." Trump added, "I don't think he understands the danger of the open border that we have with Mexico. I think Mexico got him to do it because they want to keep the border just the way it is. They're making a fortune, and we're losing."
 
For the record, there is no "open border," illegal border crossings have declined, and border security has reached an all-time high in the Obama era.
 
I spoke yesterday with John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, who said, "If Trump wants to persuade Christian voters, he shouldn't pick a fight with the most popular religious leader on the global stage. Pope Francis knows that defending the dignity of immigrants isn't about playing politics. It's a Christian imperative. Trump likes to show off his family Bible, but he missed a central lesson about welcoming the stranger and protecting the refugee."
 
It's true that in the larger electoral context, Trump is making a concerted effort to appeal to Christian voters, and his criticism of Pope Francis probably won't help. Then again, in upcoming primary states like South Carolina, the vast majority of Republican primary voters are Evangelical Protestants, not Catholics, so perhaps Trump is willing to take the chance.
 
Also from the God Machine this week:

Friday's Mini-Report, 2.12.16

02/12/16 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* The latest school shooting: "The double shooting at a Glendale, Arizona, high school Friday morning involved two 15-year-old sophomores who both died of single gunshot wounds, authorities said. The incident at Independence High School was not an active shooter situation once police cleared the scene and found the teens dead, Glendale Police Officer Tracey Breeden said at a news conference."
 
* Syria: "World powers began work Friday on the details of a temporary ceasefire in war-ravaged Syria, but rebels and aid groups on the ground were skeptical the "ambitious" deal could be implemented."
 
* Flint: "The Obama administration plans to extend Medicaid coverage to pregnant women and children affected by the Flint, Michigan water crisis, senior officials told House Democrats on Friday."
 
* Protecting more natural treasures: "President Obama designated three new national monuments in the California desert Thursday, expanding federal protection to 1.8 million acres of landscapes that have retained their natural beauty despite decades of heavy mining, cattle ranching and off-roading."
 
* Encouraging economic data: "U.S. consumers boosted their spending during the year's first month, and finished 2015 on a stronger note than first thought, the latest sign of low unemployment and cheap gasoline outweighing concerns about market turmoil."
 
* Related news: "The U.S. government posted a $55 billion budget surplus in January, up from an $18 billion deficit in the same month a year ago, the Treasury Department said on Wednesday. Analysts polled by Reuters had expected a $45 billion surplus for last month. Treasury officials said the surplus was boosted by the highest receipts on record for the month of January."
 
* A minor miracle: "The Senate on Friday confirmed a handful of ambassadors and State Department officials, including the American ambassadors to Sweden and Norway -- a move that came after Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, lifted his months-long hold on the nominations which were in place because of his objection to the Iran nuclear deal."
Republican presidential candidate Jim Gilmore greets voters outside the polling place at Webster School on primary day Feb. 9, 2016 in Manchester, N.H. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty)

Gilmore's withdrawal shrinks GOP field to six

02/12/16 04:55PM

He was the one presidential candidate who observers routinely forgot about. He was left out of some of the polls; he was excluded from most of the debates; and he didn't really have any money.
 
And as of this afternoon, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore's Republican candidacy has apparently come to an end. The Washington Examiner published his official statement wrapping up his campaign.
"My campaign was intended to offer the gubernatorial experience, with the track record of a true conservative, experienced in national security, to unite the party." Gilmore said, "My goal was to focus on the importance of this election as a real turning point, and to emphasize the dangers of continuing on a road that will further undermine America's economy and weaken our national security."
 
"Nonetheless, I will continue to express my concerns about the dangers of electing someone who has pledged to continue Obama's disastrous policies," Gilmore said. "And, I will continue to do everything I can to ensure that our next President is a free enterprise Republican who will restore our nation to greatness and keep our citizens safe."
To put it mildly, the Virginia Republican was never in contention. A few days before the Iowa caucuses, he told a radio audience, "If I get one vote, frankly, in Iowa, I'll consider it a victory." Gilmore ended up with 12 votes -- the basis for a moral victory, if little else. He then finished 12th in New Hampshire, picking up fewer votes than a couple of candidates who'd already dropped out.
 
This was Gilmore's second presidential campaign, following a brief stint in 2007-2008. He quit soon after launching to instead run for the U.S. Senate in his home state. (He lost by over 30 points.)
 
Note, last year, Gilmore argued, "I bring to the table experience that others don't have," which was not an unreasonable boast. He was a governor of Virginia; he served as an RNC chairman; and he was one of the only candidates to run in this cycle with military experience.
 
Indeed, with Gilmore's departure, the number of military veterans in the presidential race has now reached zero.
 
The only thing I'm not clear on is why Gilmore is quitting now. At the risk of being unkind, his campaign didn't really exist in any tangible way, so there's no reason he couldn't just continue to be a candidate indefinitely. It's not as if the former governor is suddenly less competitive now than he was last week, last month, or last year.
US military soldiers march during the Veterans Day Parade in New York on Nov. 11, 2014. (Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty)

Debate heats up over women, selective service

02/12/16 01:03PM

In December, the Obama administration took the historic step of opening all combat jobs to women. "We cannot afford to cut ourselves off from half the country's talents and skills," Defense Secretary Ash Carter told reporters.
 
Of course, it wasn't long before the next logical question came up: if there are no gender-related restrictions on combat service, why is the selective service system limited to young men? Two weeks ago, the top uniformed leaders from the Army and Marine Corps made the case that it's for that to change, too -- there's no reason, they said, young women should be treated differently when it comes registering for a draft.
 
The result is an unexpected election-year debate, with some policymakers, including the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, taking unexpected positions.
Sen. John McCain on Wednesday came out in support of requiring women to sign up for the military draft, becoming the latest top official to back the historic change. [...]
 
"As women serve in more roles across the armed forces, I support the recommendation of the Army Chief of Staff and the Commandant of the Marine Corps that women should register for Selective Service," McCain said in a written statement. "It is the logical conclusion of the decision to open combat positions to women."
Some of McCain's colleagues clearly disagree. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) this week introduced a bill that would block women from selective service registration.
 
Among Republican presidential hopefuls, Jeb Bush agrees with McCain, while Ted Cruz said he thinks it's "nuts," adding, "[T]he idea that their government would forcibly put them in a foxhole with a 220-pound psychopath trying to kill them doesn't make any sense at all." (I've read Marco Rubio's position a few times, and I'm still not entirely sure what he's trying to say.)
 
Making matters even more interesting, the Wall Street Journal reported this week that a bipartisan group of lawmakers want to bring equality -- not by having women enter the selective service system, but by eliminating the system altogether.

Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.12.16

02/12/16 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.
 
* With both Democratic candidates vying for support from minority communities, it was of interest yesterday when the Congressional Black Caucus PAC formally endorsed Hillary Clinton.
 
* With time running out before the Republicans' South Carolina primary, former President George W. Bush will hit the campaign trail on Monday night in support of Jeb Bush. It will be the former president's first campaign appearance on behalf of his brother.
 
* Speaking of the Palmetto State, local GOP officials believe Trump's South Carolina ground game falls far short of his rivals', but Republicans believe he's likely to win the primary anyway.
 
* Home Depot co-founder Kenneth Langone, a Republican mega-donor, officially made the switch this week from Chris Christie to John Kasich. Langone will not, however, support the Ohio governor's super PAC, saying, "I don't give to super PACs anymore."
 
* And speaking of Kasich, the governor yesterday hired admaker and strategist Rex Elsass, who was part of Rand Paul's presidential campaign.
 
* Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, who quit his Democratic presidential bid fairly early on, announced yesterday that he's decided not to run as an independent. In a speech, the former senator said, "Theoretically it could be done, but it is enormously costly and time sensitive, and I don't see the fundraising trajectory where we could make a realistic run."
President Barack Obama reacts as Joey Hudy of Phoenix, Arizona, launches a marshmallow from his Extreme Marshmallow Cannon in the State Dining Room of the White House during the second White House Science Fair in Washington February 7, 2012.

Setting a high standard for presidential support for science

02/12/16 11:24AM

In President Obama's first inaugural address, he subtly acknowledged that support for science had lagged in the years before his election, but he also made a specific vow: "We'll restore science to its rightful place."
 
It's fair to say it's a promise on which he's delivered. In fact, the president sat down with Popular Science recently, which noted Obama's record as a "very pro-science president," and asked, "Why do you see science and technology as being so important?"
"Science and technology helped make America the greatest country on Earth. Whether it's setting foot on the moon, developing a vaccine for polio, inventing the Internet, or building the world's strongest military, we've relied on innovative scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians to help us tackle the toughest challenges of our time. [...]
 
"We've expanded clean-energy research; we've launched major initiatives in advanced manufacturing, biomedicine, and strategic computing; we've increased preparedness and resilience against climate change; and we're training STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] teachers so every child grows up with the skills they need to compete in the 21st century. Being pro-science is the only way we make sure that America continues to lead the world. Our policies reflect that."
Asked if he considers himself "a nerd," the president noted that his White House prepared a detailed paper on the Death Star, which he hopes means his administration has "at least a little nerd credibility built up."
 
Obama added, "What's remarkable is the way 'nerd' is such a badge of honor now. Growing up, I'm sure I wasn't the only kid who read Spider-Man comics and learned how to do the Vulcan salute, but it wasn't like it is today. I get the sense that today's young people are proud to be smart and curious, to design new things, and tackle big problems in unexpected ways. I think America's a nerdier country than it was when I was a kid-and that's a good thing!"
 
I remember a few months after Obama took office, Time magazine published a piece that said the president showed so much enthusiasm on science, he was "almost strident" on the issue.
 
The negative connotation of the phrase struck me as a mistake. The fact that Obama has demonstrated a real passion, in word and deed, in support of the sciences is something to be celebrated.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio waits to speak at a caucus site on Feb. 1, 2016 in Clive, Iowa. (Photo by Paul Sancya/AP)

Even Romney sees key Rubio idea as 'a tax cut for fat cats'

02/12/16 10:45AM

One of the important things to understand about Marco Rubio is that he takes contemporary Republican thought to levels much of the American mainstream would find ridiculous. Most of the GOP, for example, opposes abortion rights, but Rubio goes further, saying even women impregnated by rapists can be forced by the government to take the pregnancy to term -- a position no Republican nominee, including Reagan, has ever endorsed.
 
Most Republicans are hostile towards cap-and-trade, but Rubio opposes any and all efforts to address the climate crisis, dismissing the very idea as attempts to "control the weather." Nearly every Republican is opposed to President Obama, but Rubio is basing much of his campaign on the assertion that the president is an anti-American traitor hell-bent on national sabotage.
 
And just about every Republican supports tax cuts of one form or another, but Rubio's plan to cut capital gains taxes to literally zero is so extreme, even Mitt Romney has condemned the idea. The New York Times' Josh Barro explained the other day:
When Steve Forbes ran for president in 1996 on a plan that called for no taxes on dividends and capital gains, Mitt Romney, then a private citizen, took out a full-page ad in The Boston Globe attacking his proposal as plutocratic.
 
"The Forbes tax isn't a flat tax at all -- it's a tax cut for fat cats!" Mr. Romney's ad declared, noting that "Kennedys, Rockefellers and Forbes" could end up with a tax rate of zero, while ordinary people would be left paying 17 percent on their wage and salary income under Mr. Forbes's plan.
Barro added that the "mainstream Republican position on capital gains has long been that they should be taxed at a low rate, but not zero." But then along came Rubio, embracing the "once-fringe idea" as a key part of his platform, despite the policy's "extreme generosity to taxpayers who derive their income from investments rather than work."
 
Paul Krugman added that there's literally no evidence that such a policy would produce large economic benefits. All it would do is deliver more wealth to "the very, very rich, with essentially nothing for the vast majority of Americans."
 
And making matters a little worse, just yesterday we received word from the non-partisan Tax Policy Center on what Rubio's plan would cost. Vox's Dylan Matthews reported:
The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.

GOP banking ally borrows a page from Sanders' playbook

02/12/16 09:50AM

In so many ways, the 2016 cycle has been like no other, but Bloomberg Politics published an item today that should surprise even the most hardened observers.
The most striking example of a Republican targeting Wall Street is the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Richard Shelby of Alabama. Shelby, who's being challenged by a Tea Party candidate, Jonathan McConnell, in the state's March 1 primary, has already spent almost $3 million on TV ads -- more than anyone else in Congress -- many of them attacking Wall Street banks.
In fact, Shelby isn't just running against the financial industry in general; he's naming names, calling out specific institutions such as Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, and Wells Fargo in his anti-Wall Street advertising.
 
Elizabeth Wilner, senior vice president for political advertising at Kantar Media, which tracks political ads, told Bloomberg Politics, "Calling out banks by name and logo is extremely rare for Republicans. It's rare, period -- even back in 2012, when we were just emerging from the recession, we saw a lot of ads slamming 'Wall Street banks' or 'big banks.' But few ads specified banks by name, and those tended to be Democratic ads. We've seen more Republican ads slamming individual banks by name in the past few weeks than we probably saw in all of 2012."
 
And as unusual as this is on its face, let's not brush past the punch line: Shelby is the far-right chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. The financial industry has been extremely generous towards the Alabama Republican, directing millions of dollars to his campaign coffers.
 
Consider just how amazing this dynamic is: a GOP senator pursues policies favorable to Wall Street; the finance industry contributes generously to his re-election campaign, the senator then uses the money to run commercials about his distaste for Wall Street and the big banks.
 
If this seems a bit twisted to you, take comfort in the fact that you're not alone.

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