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Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-UT., talks to reporters as he walks to the weekly Senate policy luncheons in the U.S. Capitol on June 4, 2013.

Investigation prompts new scrutiny of dietary supplements

03/30/15 12:56PM

The New York state attorney general's office recently accused dietary-supplement retailers of putting deeply flawed products on shelves for consumers. According to the state investigation, some "herbal supplements" made fraudulent claims, while some others included potentially dangerous unlisted ingredients.
 
The New York Times reports today, however, that the latest retailer in the industry is taking steps to address safety concerns.
GNC, the country's largest specialty retailer of dietary supplements, has agreed to institute sweeping new testing procedures on its herbal products that far exceed quality controls mandated under federal law. [...]
 
Experts said the announcement marked an initial but significant step forward for the $33 billion-a-year supplement industry, which is loosely regulated and plagued by accusations of adulteration and mislabeling.
GNC will reportedly begin an 18-month process subjecting it products to "additional quality-control measures," which will include "advanced DNA testing to authenticate all of the plants that are used in its store-brand herbal supplements."
 
The retailer's progress will be worth watching, but it's worth pausing to consider some more fundamental questions, such as why it was a state investigation, and not a federal one, that sparked the recent controversy. For what matter, why is it that GNC's announcement is the result of voluntary actions, as opposed to required safeguards imposed by regulatory agencies?
 
That's where the story takes an interesting, and more political, turn -- and attention turns to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who has long shown a great interest in the subject.

Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 3.30.15

03/30/15 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:
 
* Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) took a not-so-subtle shot at some of his likely White House rivals yesterday, telling George Stephanopoulos, "The presidency of the United States is not some crown to be passed between two families."
 
* Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is accusing Republican leaders of cutting off his access to super PAC contributions. Though he wasn't specific, Cruz said that there were "multiple reports" from big-money fundraisers in D.C. that "they had been told in no uncertain terms, do not write a check to these guys." In context, "these guys" referred to Cruz and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).
 
* In Florida, Public Policy Polling's latest survey shows Hillary Clinton leading each of the likely GOP presidential candidates in hypothetical match-ups, including a three-point lead over Jeb Bush in his own home state, 47% to 44%.
 
* In Nevada, Harry Reid has already thrown his support to former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto in the race to replace him, but Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) has nevertheless suggested she's likely to run, too.
 
* As expected, Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) kicked off her U.S. Senate campaign this morning, hoping to take on incumbent Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) next year. Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran and a former official in the Department of Veterans Affairs, may yet face a primary challenge.
Loretta Lynch listens during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee Jan. 28, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty

GOP senators 'in a quandary' over Loretta Lynch

03/30/15 11:23AM

In late 2007, then-President George W. Bush's Attorney General nominee, Michael Mukasey, was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, at which point Republican senators demanded a vote.
 
"Judge Mukasey has waited almost seven weeks for a vote," then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said at the time. "This process has gone on long enough."
 
That was nearly a decade ago. Now, Loretta Lynch A.G. nomination has been waiting 142 days -- more than 20 weeks -- and Mitch McConnell believes the process should drag on even longer. Indeed, with the Senate giving itself time off this week and next, Lynch will have waited more than 22 weeks by the time the chamber gets back to work in mid-April.
 
The New York Times reports that when it comes to replacing Eric Holder, the Senate Republican majority doesn't actually want to defeat Lynch, so much as they want to avoid voting for her.
Senate Republicans bolted for a two-week spring recess with the confirmation of Loretta E. Lynch as attorney general in jeopardy, and themselves in a quandary: Accept a qualified nominee they oppose because she backs President Obama's policies or reject her and live with an attorney general they despise, Eric H. Holder Jr. [...]
 
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, now finds himself in the conundrum that has bedeviled his counterpart in the House, Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio: Members of his party will vote no on Ms. Lynch but hope "yes" -- that she will squeak through.
The article quoted Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) conceding that President Obama is going to "nominate someone who's most likely aligned with his policy positions," but Tillis is opposed to Lynch. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) added that she could hardly expect a better nominee, "not in terms of qualifications or personal attributes."
 
But Capito will also vote no.
 
It's reached a point that's practically farcical -- Republicans can't find anything wrong with Lynch; they're impressed with Lynch's qualifications and background; they believe she's more than capable of doing the job; and they'd be pleased to see Lynch replace Holder.
 
They just don't want to vote for her.
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul address attendees during the Republican National Committee spring meeting at the Peabody hotel in Memphis, Tenn., May 9, 2014. (Photo by William DeShazer/The Commercial Appeal/AP)

Rand Paul's religious pandering reaches new level

03/30/15 10:40AM

The time pressure on sitting U.S. senators is fairly intense. A lawmaker has to attend committee hearings, caucus meetings, and meetings with constituents. They have to invest time in fundraising. They have to talk to the media, both in D.C. and in their home states. They occasionally even work on legislation.
 
For senators weighing national office, the pressure is even more burdensome -- add extensive traveling to the already long to-do list.
 
But we learned this month that Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), despite this grueling schedule, has somehow managed to write two books recently, both of which will be released in 2015. "Taking a Stand: Moving Beyond Partisan Politics to Unite America," will reportedly hit shelves in mid-May. The Courier-Journal recently reported on the other book on the way:
[The website of Paul's publisher, Center Street] says the senator will author Our Presidents & Their Prayers: Proclamations of Faith by America's Leaders. That book is due out on Sept. 8.
 
In the 144-page book, "Rand Paul reveals the practices of each President of the United States and sheds light on how religion played a part in their governing and personal lives," the publisher's description says.
The religious right movement is looking for a presidential candidate to rally behind. It seems the junior senator from Kentucky believes he can be that candidate -- and if that means shameless pandering, so be it.
 
Speaking to a group of pastors last week, Rand Paul went so far as to say, "The First Amendment says keep government out of religion. It doesn't say keep religion out of government."
 
Oh my.
 Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker waits to speak on Jan. 30, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty)

Scott Walker starts steering clear of reporters

03/30/15 10:00AM

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) seems to realize he has a problem with immigration policy. The issue is a top concern to Republican primary voters, and the governor has tried to take steps to bring his position in line with GOP orthodoxy, but Walker has nevertheless given inconsistent responses to questions about immigration, satisfying no one.
 
With this in mind, the Wisconsin Republican took a trip to the U.S./Mexico border on Friday, a sensible photo-op for a presidential hopeful eager to pander to anti-immigration voters in his party.
 
If you didn't hear much about this, there's an explanation: Walker has started keeping news organizations at arm's length. Dylan Byers reported the other day:
Last month, Scott Walker seemed readily available to any reporter who had a question for him. He was basking in the limelight, holding media scrums and granting impromptu interviews.
 
But in the wake of a few controversial, headline-grabbing quotes about evolution and President Obama's religion, the Wisconsin governor and likely Republican presidential candidate has put brakes on his media availability, reporters who follow him say.
 
On Friday, Walker toured the Texas-Mexican border with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. The tour was closed to the press, and Walker did not take part in a media avail afterward.
The whole point of a presidential candidate going to the border and taking a tour alongside a far-right Republican governor is its symbolic value -- public relations is the sole purpose of visits like these. It's Republican Presidential Campaign Politics 101: the candidate shows up, he or she looks concerned, he or she shakes some hands with border guards, and he or she tells reporters about the importance of "getting tough."
 
But Walker has decided to remove political reporters from the equation. As Byers noted, this isn't limited to Friday's border tour -- last weekend, the Wisconsin Republican became the sixth national candidate to visit Greenville, S.C. but the only one of the six who wouldn't take questions from the media.
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush speaks to the media after visiting Integra Biosciences during a campaign stop in Hudson, N.H. on March 13, 2015.

When (and why) Republicans turn on their own

03/30/15 09:20AM

In Republican circles, James Baker is in a unique position: he's a grown-up. In a radicalized party filled with insurgent voices, Baker is an elder statesman with the kind of credibility and stature most political figures strive for but few achieve.
 
It's what happens when someone serves as Reagan's White House chief of staff and Treasury secretary, as well as serving as Secretary of State in the Bush/Quayle administration, where he assembled the international coalition that fought the first Gulf War.
 
With this recent history in mind, it was an important development when Baker publicly criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent antics, calling out the Israeli leader for "diplomatic missteps and political gamesmanship." Baker also made clear that he was unimpressed with Netanyahu's commitment to the peace process and his inflexible opposition to nuclear diplomacy with Iran.
 
This should have been a wake-up call to Republicans -- they can hate the president, but when a foreign ally shows brazen disrespect for the United States, there's nothing wrong with Americans from both parties speaking out.
 
Today's GOP partisans are speaking out, all right, but mostly to condemn James Baker.
When former Secretary of State James A. Baker III accused Israel's leader this week of undermining the chances of peace in the region, he said nothing more than the kinds of things he had said at times when he was in office a quarter-century ago.
 
But the instant backlash from fellow Republicans that prompted Jeb Bush, the son of Mr. Baker's best friend, to distance himself underscored just how much their party has changed on the issue of Israel. Where past Republican leaders had their disagreements with Israel, today's Republicans have made support for the Jewish state an inviolable litmus test for anyone aspiring to national office.
When Bush added Jim Baker to his list of informal policy advisers, it was further proof of the former Florida governor enjoying the backing of the GOP establishment -- effectively borrowing gravitas by surrounding himself with his family's famous aides.
 
But when Baker took a stand in support of the United States against Netanyahu's insolence, Bush felt like he had no choice but to distance himself from his father's Secretary of State, condemning Baker's comments more than once.
 
We have, in other words, entered genuinely bizarre new territory. When there's an international disagreement, today's Republican Party is not only comfortable taking the opposite of the American side -- publicly, shamelessly, and repeatedly -- it also expects every Republican to reflexively fall in line, or face the right's wrath.
Sen. Chuck Schumer and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid answer questions during a press conference Jan. 9, 2014.

Why Schumer is getting the big promotion

03/30/15 08:40AM

Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, so when Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced his retirement on Friday morning, it was easy to imagine a competitive, and perhaps even fierce, race to succeed him. After all, these leadership posts become available very infrequently -- maybe once a decade -- so Reid's departure, among other things, created a rare opportunity for ambitious Senate Dems.
 
Of course, Reid recognized all of this, and understood that a divisive leadership fight, possibly splitting the caucus at a difficult time, wouldn't do Democrats any favors. It's why Reid made sure the race for the leadership post was over before it started.
 
Politico had a good piece over the weekend of the "unusually close bond and political alliance" between Reid and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and the conversation the two had on Friday night when the Minority Leader not only told Schumer about his retirement, but also about his endorsement.
The matter was extraordinarily sensitive, especially since Reid made clear he preferred Schumer over Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, who has served as the Nevadan's No. 2 for the past decade.
 
When the Senate finally concluded voting at 3:30 a.m., Reid called Durbin to share the news with him, but he couldn't reach the Illinois Democrat. They didn't personally connect until later Friday morning. But Durbin already sensed something was afoot. Before he spoke with Reid, Durbin told Schumer something that caught his rival off guard: He would support him for leader and would not seek to challenge him.
And with that, the race was over. Schumer is moving up -- whether he's Majority Leader or Minority Leader will be clear in about 20 months -- and his election will likely be uncontested.
 
If my email inbox is any indication, Schumer's promotion has been met with skepticism from many progressive activists. Critics have a legitimate gripe: the New York Democrat has been cozy with Wall Street for much of his career. Like many other Senate Dems, Schumer also supported the Iraq war in the Bush era, and hasn't exactly championed the Obama administration's agenda on stopping Iran's nuclear ambitions through diplomatic means.
 
But it's worth pausing to appreciate the unique responsibilities of a Senate party leader.
In this Jan. 27, 2015 file photo, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence pauses during a speech in Indianapolis, Ind. (Photo by Michael Conroy/AP)

The question Indiana's Pence won't, or can't, answer

03/30/15 08:00AM

If Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) was looking for a way to raise his national visibility in advance of a possible presidential candidate, his new right-to-discriminate law, if nothing else, has given him the national spotlight.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence on Sunday defended his decision to sign a religious freedom bill into law, saying that it was "absolutely not" a mistake.
 
In an interview on ABC's "This Week" the Republican governor repeatedly dodged questions on whether the law would legally allow people of Indiana to refuse service to gay and lesbians, saying that residents of the state are "nice" and don't discriminate and that "this is about protecting the religious liberty of people of faith and families of faith."
The interview between the Republican governor and ABC's George Stephanopoulos featured an extraordinary exchange that matters quite a bit. The host noted, for example, that one of Pence's own allies said the new state law is intended to "protect those who oppose gay marriage," leading Stephanopoulos to ask whether a "florist in Indiana can now refuse to serve a gay couple without fear of punishment?"
 
The governor replied, "This is not about discrimination," which wasn't an answer. So, Stephanopoulos asked again, "Yes or no, if a florist in Indiana refuses to serve a gay couple at their wedding, is that legal now in Indiana?" Pence dodged again.
 
To his credit, the host pressed on, and again the governor wouldn't answer. Which led to Stephanopoulos' fourth effort: "So when you say tolerance is a two way street, does that mean that Christians who want to refuse service ... to gays and lesbians, that it's now legal in the state of Indiana? That's the simple yes-or-no question."
 
Once more, the GOP governor simply wouldn't, or couldn't answer.
 
It was a cringe-worthy display. I'm not even sure why Pence agreed to do the interview in the first place -- the Indiana Republican had to know the question was coming, but the governor was visibly stuck, refusing to respond to the most obvious element of the entire debate.
An artist's concept portrays a NASA Mars Exploration Rover on the surface of Mars.

Week in Geek: Martian marathon edition

03/29/15 10:42AM

This past week, NASA's Opportunity rover on Mars hit a major milestone: a marathon. Launched in July of 2003, Opportunity has been on the surface of the Red Planet since January 2004, well over a decade, shattering its design mission lifetime of just 90 days.

Okay, so maybe 11 years and two months is a bit of a marathon record in a bad way, but you try working long days over 35 million miles from home, in temperature ranges of 170 degrees Fahrenheit, being blasted by solar radiation and occasional dust storms. I bet your marathon pace would be a bit off too.

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Phil Robertson from the series "Duck Dynasty" in an image released by A&E.

This Week in God, 3.28.15

03/28/15 08:31AM

First up from the God Machine this week are some striking comments from a reality television star, kicking up an unexpected dust storm.
 
Back in December 2013, Phil Robertson, one of the stars of a show called "Duck Dynasty," touched off a culture-war fight with controversial comments about minority groups. A&E, which airs the reality show, suspended him, causing an uproar on the far-right.
 
Robertson has remained a notable figure in conservative circles -- his recent CPAC appearance raised eyebrows, and just this week he received continued support from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) -- but it was the reality star's remarks at a Vero Beach Prayer Breakfast that put Robertson back in the national spotlight.
...Robertson offered gruesome details about how an atheist father would react to watching intruders behead his wife and rape and kill his two daughters while they also cut off his penis .... which would supposedly somehow prove a point about following God's laws.
 
"I'll make a bet with you," Robertson said. "Two guys break into an atheist's home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say, 'Isn't it great that I don't have to worry about being judged? Isn't it great that there's nothing wrong with this? There's no right or wrong, now is it dude?'"
 
Robertson kept going: "Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, 'Wouldn't it be something if this [sic] was something wrong with this? But you're the one who says there is no God, there's no right, there's no wrong, so we're just having fun. We're sick in the head, have a nice day.'"
At the same event, Robertson went on to say that American liberals follow Satan and are worse than Stalin and the Nazis.
 
Remember, all of this was at a prayer breakfast.
 
Ed Kilgore added, "[T]his guy is just an actor, right? Maybe so, but he was also a featured speaker at this year's CPAC event, and has been hailed as a great and wise American by more Republican pols than you can count. Hell, Mike Huckabee and Bobby Jindal may ultimately come to blows over their competing claims to be the dude's best friend."
 
And now Phil Robertson is apparently sharing the details of a twisted theological wisdom -- and offering a peek into a specific religious perspective -- which by any fair measure is pretty disgusting.
 
Also from the God Machine this week:
Pilots' mental fitness a concern after crash

Pilots' mental fitness a concern after crash

03/27/15 09:25PM

Dr. Gerald Surya, senior aviation medical examiner, talks with Rachel Maddow about how pilots are evaluated for fitness -including mental fitness- to fly planes, and what stopgaps exist to catch problems when pilots do not honestly self-report issues. watch

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