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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) answers questions from members of the press after speaking at a campaign rally Oct. 22, 2014 in Grayson, Ky. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty)

McConnell digs a hole on Social Security, falls in

10/27/14 10:50AM

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), in the midst of the toughest race of his career, still isn't quite sure how he wants to present himself to voters. On the one hand, the longtime Republican senator is proud to be the nation's top obstructionist, helping create the most dysfunctional Congress in modern history. On the other hand, McConnell wants the public to see him as the consummate dealmaker.
 
To help prove the latter point, the GOP incumbent cited an interesting example last week.
Though he hasn't mentioned it much on the campaign trail over the past year, McConnell specifically touted his effort to push President George W. Bush's plans to reform Social Security in 2005, which would have set up private accounts for retirees.
 
"After Bush was re-elected in 2004 he wanted us to try to fix Social Security," said McConnell. "I spent a year trying to get any Democrat in the Senate -- even those most reasonable Democrat of all, Joe Lieberman -- to help us."
We now know, of course, that Democrats weren't interested in privatizing Social Security. Neither was the American mainstream,  which hated the Bush/Cheney idea. But the fact that McConnell brought this up, unprompted, was a clumsy error from a senator who's usually more disciplined.
 
With time running out in Kentucky, Mitch McConnell decided to remind the state that he wanted to effectively eliminate the popular and effective Social Security system. Indeed, it's been part of McConnell's governing vision for many, many years.
 
When local reporter Joe Sonka asked McConnell whether voters should expect the senator to push Social Security privatization after the midterms, McConnell replied, "I'm not announcing what the agenda would be in advance."
 
Wait, he's not?
Rep. John Barrow campaigns in Augusta, Ga., Nov. 6, 2012.

Dems face betrayal after accepting Republican concessions

10/27/14 10:19AM

In recent years, congressional Republicans have had one specific demand as part of any debt-reduction talks: "chained CPI." The basic idea is that Democrats are supposed to accept a change to how Social Security benefits are calculated, relying on a less-generous Consumer Price Index (CPI) to save money.
 
For Republicans, if Democrats aren't willing to consider this policy, there's no point in even having a conversation. It's not the only provision the GOP expects as part of a deal, but it's the one non-negotiable starting point for any conversation.
 
And so, centrist and conservative Democrats have generally been quick to align themselves with Republicans on this issue, eager to prove their bipartisan bona fides and commitment to "fiscal responsibility." For their trouble, these Dems are now facing a rather ugly betrayal at the hands those they're trying to please. Lori Montgomery reported the other day:
The latest attack came in Georgia, where the National Republican Campaign Committee posted an ad last week accusing Rep. John Barrow (D) of "leaving Georgia seniors behind" by supporting "a plan that would raise the retirement age to 69 while cutting Social Security benefits."
 
Crossroads GPS, the conservative nonprofit group founded by GOP strategist Karl Rove, has run similar ads against North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan (D), Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor (D) and Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.). Crossroads accused Hagan of supporting a "controversial plan" that "raises the retirement age."
Just so we're clear, what we have here is Republicans condemning Democrats for agreeing with Republicans. When the Washington Post asked Crossroads and the NRCC for comment, neither would defend their campaign messages.
 
Imagine that.
 
Part of the issue here is "chained CPI," which Republicans now consider "cutting Social Security benefits," even though Republicans are the ones who've demanded Democrats accept this as part of a fiscal deal.
Georgia U.S. Senatorial candidates including Libertarian Amanda Swafford, left, Republican David Perdue, center, and Democrat Michelle Nunn, right, participate in a debate on Oct. 26, 2014, in Atlanta. (Photo by David Tulis/AP)

'We've got to make a hard right-hand turn'

10/27/14 09:20AM

Georgia's U.S. Senate hopefuls gathered in Atlanta for their latest debate last night, and viewers saw a striking encapsulation of contemporary politics.
 
Michelle Nunn (D), echoing her usual message, emphasized the need for compromise. "I just don't believe that it's one party or the other. I think it has to be both sides coming together," she said. "I think that we do have a very clear contrast in terms of how we see breaking through that dysfunction. I don't think it's about prosecuting the other party; I think it's about problem-solving."
 
At which point, David Perdue (R) dismissed this approach out of hand.
"I disagree," Perdue answered. "When you have a failed presidency, you have to prosecute it," he said.... "When we look at the direction of this country, we've got to make a hard right-hand turn."
Those 31 words are arguably the most emblematic I've heard in a while of the current partisan divide. The Democrat struck a non-partisan tone, emphasizing governing and problem-solving, while the Republican forcefully rejected such an approach, insisting instead on a "hard right-hand turn." Every pundit who likes to maintain the fiction that "both sides" are to blame for Capitol Hill dysfunction should keep this exchange in mind.

Benjy Sarlin reported overnight, "Perdue told reporters after the debate that the 'hard right-hand turn' was 'a metaphorical statement, not a political statement.'"

I honestly have no idea what that means. A Senate candidate appeared at a debate. His opponent said policymakers should focus on governing. He said he disagreed and demanded the United States take a "hard right-hand turn."
 
Obviously, it was metaphorical -- David Perdue wasn't giving anyone driving directions -- but for the far-right candidate to argue his comments weren't "political" is so hopelessly ridiculous, it's alarming that the Republican said this with a straight face.
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) speaks to the media during his weekly briefing at the US Capitol, September 11, 2014 in Washington, DC.

The House GOP's crumbling anti-Obama lawsuit

10/27/14 08:46AM

Americans first learned back on June 24, more than four months ago, about the House Republican plan to file a lawsuit against President Obama. Two weeks later, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced the basis for the case: the GOP would sue to implement an obscure provision of the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans don't actually want to see implemented.
 
When the case was announced, congressional Republicans made it seem as if they were headed to court as part of a bold move to preserve our constitutional system of government against the tyrannical moves of a lawless presidency. But four months later, it looks as if Boehner & Co. got lost on the way to the courthouse.
 
Josh Gerstein reports that the case hasn't even been filed yet.
It takes about 10 minutes to walk from the Capitol to the federal courthouse just down the hill, but House Republicans haven't managed to make that trip in the four months since they announced they'd be suing the president.
 
House Speaker John Boehner came out swinging hard last June when he announced that his chamber would take President Barack Obama to court. The suit, charging that the president grossly exceeded his constitutional authority by failing to implement portions of the Obamacare law, was billed as an election-season rallying point for aggrieved Republicans. But days before the midterms, the House's legal guns seem to have fallen silent.
 
Lawyers close to the process said they originally expected the legal challenge to be filed in September, but now they don't expect any action before the elections.
Republicans not only won't file the case, they also refuse to say why they won't file the case -- party officials refused to explain the delay when asked by Politico for comment.
 
"I thought this was a constitutional crisis and the republic was in jeopardy because Obama overstepped his bounds. Now, they can't even get around to filing it?" former Democratic House Counsel Stan Brand told Gerstein. "It, to me, emphasizes the not-serious nature of it."
 
This arguably understates matters.
A woman reads alert on Ebola inside the Bellevue Hospital where Dr. Craig Spencer is being treated for Ebola symptoms in New York, N.Y., on Oct. 23, 2014. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

The curious case of Kaci Hickox's quarantine

10/27/14 08:00AM

On Friday, Kaci Hickox, a Doctors Without Borders nurse, arrived back in the United States after helping treat patients in West Africa. It was not a happy return: after arriving at an airport in New Jersey, officials put her in quarantine.
 
Hickox's isolation is the result of a new policy endorsed last week by Govs. Chris Christie (R) of New Jersey and Andrew Cuomo (D) of New York, who announced new guidelines requiring 21-day quarantines for those arriving from West Africa -- whether they're showing symptoms or not.
 
The result is a scenario that seems hard to believe: New Jersey has effectively detained a nurse in a tent with no shower, not because she's showing symptoms of the Ebola virus, but because officials fear she might at some point show symptoms of the Ebola virus.
 
Christie defended the mandatory quarantine, saying the nurse was "obviously ill." This was apparently obvious only to the governor -- who has no background in medicine or public health -- and was clearly not obvious to Hickox herself.
 
Christie boasted on one of the Sunday shows yesterday, "I absolutely have no second thoughts about it," adding that he expects his policy to soon become "a national policy." A few hours later, however, second thoughts emerged.
Facing fierce resistance from the White House and medical experts to a strict new mandatory quarantine policy, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said on Sunday night that medical workers who had contact with Ebola patients in West Africa but did not show symptoms of the disease would be allowed to remain at home and would receive compensation for lost income. [...]
 
After Mr. Cuomo's announcement, Mr. Christie issued a statement saying that, under protocols announced on Wednesday, New Jersey residents not displaying symptoms would also be allowed to quarantine in their homes.
The shifts came on the heels of White House pressure on Cuomo and Christie, urging them to adopt policies more in line with science. It's unclear whether the revised approach will allow Hickox to leave her state-mandated tent.
 
There are a few angles to this to keep in mind, not the least of which the dubious legality of New Jersey imposing a mandatory quarantine on a woman who's reportedly asymptomatic. Forcing medical professionals to remain in their homes for 21 days is marginally better, at least with regards to their personal convenience, but remains problematic. Indeed, by the same reasoning, states would have to impose similar penalties on doctors and nurses treating an Ebola patient in the United States.

Ebola quarantine and other headlines

10/27/14 07:57AM

Under pressure, NY Gov. Cuomo says Ebola quarantines can be spent at home. (NY Times) Meanwhile the White House is working on new guidelines for returning healthcare workers. (USA Today)

2nd victim of Marysville, WA high school shooter has died. (NBC News) Teacher hailed as hero for trying to stop the attack. (AP)

Gunman in Ottawa attack prepared a video of himself. (AP)

The Bushes, led by W., rally to make Jeb '45'. (NY Times)

Hawaiians prepare to evacuate as lava approaches a historic village. (L.A. Times)

Joan Quigley, astrologer to a First Lady, is dead at 87. (NY Times)

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Week in Geek: View from a star nursery

10/26/14 10:37AM

This stunning new image taken by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows stars actively being born over 33 million light-years away. Spitzer is one of NASA's Great Observatories, focused on the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Infrared is light that has less energy and a longer wavelength than the red light our eyes can see. Discovered in 1800 by William Herschel (an astronomer), it's somewhat analogous to thermal radiation. You've probably seen it visualized many times in movies and on TV by characters using night-vision goggles. By comparison, Spitzer is like night-vision on steroids.

In the universe, infrared radiation comes primarily from gas and dust. People often think space is completely empty between stars and between galaxies, and while it's true the density of particles drops off dramatically, there is still a considerable amount of gas and dust floating around. This material is important to astronomers because it acts as fuel for star formation and hungry black holes, both of which influence how galaxies grow and evolve.

This image from Spitzer shows active star formation in a galaxy known as NGC 1291 (creatively named as the 1291st object in the New General Catalog). The colors in this image represent wavelengths and not what our eyes would actually see. Shorter infrared wavelengths (closer to red light in the visible spectrum) are blue and longer infrared wavelengths (closer to microwave radiation) are red. The blue areas therefore represent actual stars (stars give off infrared light at higher frequencies) while the red areas represent concentrations of gas and dust.

The concentration of blue in the center tells astronomers that the stars in the central bulge are older and have long exhausted their supply of gas and dust for making new stars. Conversely, the bright red ring shows that large amounts of gas and dust are now concentrated in the outskirts of the galaxy, which will lead to a burst of star formation and millions of new stars. The timeline for when star formation shifts from the center to the outer regions of a galaxy depends strongly on the structure and dynamics of each individual galaxy. So observations like this are not only gorgeous to look at, but are valuable new data points for astronomers working in the field of galaxy evolution.

Here's some geek that took place closer to home:

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Voters line up and wait for the doors to open at Dwelling Place Church in Huntsvilla, Ala., Nov. 6, 2012.

This Week in God, 10.25.14

10/25/14 09:39AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a story out of Alabama, where voters will decide on Election Day whether to change the state Constitution in a provocative way.
 
This year's "Amendment One" in Alabama, on the surface, may seem uncontroversial. Its text seeks to prohibit "the application of foreign laws" that may violate "a right guaranteed by the Alabama Constitution or of the United States Constitution." At first blush, it seems hard to object to a measure like this.
 
But taking this one step further, a question arises: since when does Alabama apply foreign laws that violate Americans' existing rights? If that's never happened -- and it hasn't -- then why change the Constitution to address an imaginary threat?
 
Sarah Jones knows the answer:
The amendment’s text never explicitly references Sharia, but as the Greene County Democrat reports, it’s merely the latest incarnation of anti-Sharia legislation in the state. It’s also the brainchild of State Sen. Gerald Allen (R-Tuscaloosa), who sponsored the original, failed version of the bill in 2011. Critics panned Allen for being unable to name any examples of Alabama Muslims attempting to enforce Sharia. His bill received another major blow when the Anniston Star revealed its text had been partially plagiarized from Wikipedia.
Ah, yes, now it makes sense. This isn't just about prohibiting "the application of foreign laws"; this is about anti-Muslim paranoia. In recent years, the threat of "creeping Sharia law" has been common in right-wing circles -- it was even an element of Newt Gingrich's 2012 presidential platform -- and now Alabama voters are being asked to change their state Constitution to enshrine that paranoia into law.
 
If this sounds at all familiar, in 2010, voters in Oklahoma easily approved their own anti-sharia state constitutional amendment. Its chief sponsor, Republican Rex Duncan, described his measure as a "preemptive strike," which struck me as a clever euphemism for "addressing a threat that does not exist."
 
Federal courts soon after rejected the measure. Don't be too surprised if Alabama's proposal meets a similar fate.
 
Also from the God Machine this week:
Right wing hysteria builds ahead of election

Right wing hysteria builds as election approaches

10/24/14 10:36PM

Rachel Maddow debunks right wing hysteria over video of a man dropping off absentee ballots in Arizona, and highlights Republican Governors Association chair, Chris Christie, speaking plainly about the advantage Republicans have in Republican-run... watch

Ahead on the 10/24/14 Madodw show

10/24/14 08:24PM

Tonight's guests:

  • Dr. Irwin Redlener, National Center for Disaster Preparedness 
  • Plus! Tonight's player on The Friday Night News Dump!

After the jump, a preview from executive producer Cory Gnazzo...

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Friday's Mini-Report, 10.24.14

10/24/14 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* The latest on Dr. Craig Spencer: "The Manhattan doctor diagnosed with Ebola is in stable condition in a hospital isolation unit, city officials said Friday.... His fiancee and two friends are also under quarantine but are not sick."
 
* More safeguards: "In the wake of the first patient to test positive with the Ebola virus in New York City, the governors of New York and New Jersey announced Friday afternoon that they were enhancing the screening at airports in their states and ordering all people who had contact with Ebola patients to be quarantined."
 
* A success story: "Nina Pham walked out of the hospital and into the White House. Two weeks after she tested positive for Ebola, the Dallas nurse was declared free of the virus Friday and discharged from the Washington-area hospital where she had been treated in a special containment unit. A short time later, she was in the Oval Office with President Barack Obama, who hugged her."
 
* Mockery: "The White House says it would be more concerned over House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa's (R-Calif.) criticism of the federal Ebola response if the California lawmaker could correctly pronounce the virus's name."
 
* Egypt: "A militant attack on a security checkpoint in the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt on Friday left at least 26 soldiers dead, according to Egyptian security officials. It was the deadliest attack on the Egyptian military in many years."
 
* North Korea "may be capable of fielding a nuclear-armed missile that could reach U.S. soil, but because it has not tested such a weapon the odds of it being effective are 'pretty darn low,' the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea said Friday."
 
* Iran: "Thousands of Iranians took to the streets of the historic city of Isfahan on Wednesday to protest several acid attacks on women. The attacks had coincided with the passage of a law designed to protect those who correct people deemed to be acting in an 'un-Islamic' way."
 
* A.G. news: "Kathryn Ruemmler, the former White House counsel who had been a top candidate to succeed Eric H. Holder Jr. as attorney general, has asked President Obama to be taken out of the running for the job, a White House official confirmed on Friday."

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