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Republican Wisconsin State Senator Glenn Grothman waves as he walks through the Wisconsin State Capitol.

Passing the torch to a new generation of fringe lawmakers

08/25/14 10:26AM

When this Congress ends in January, it will mark the end of an era for some truly remarkable members of Congress. Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Steve Stockman (R-Texas), and Paul Broun (R-Ga.) have given voice to some bizarre and twisted ideas in recent years, but each will be absent when the next Congress takes the oath of office in early 2015.
But before anyone gets too optimistic about a more reasonable House of Representatives, it's worth appreciating an unnerving fact: the far-right torch is being passed to a new generation of extremists.
In Wisconsin's 6th congressional district, for example, state Sen. Glenn Grothman was originally declared the winner of last week's Republican primary, but that announcement was rescinded when the tallies turned out to be closer than expected. Late Friday, however, Grothman was named the primary victor after all.
After the 11 counties in the district verified their vote counts Wednesday, Grothman maintained his lead by 219 votes, or 0.47 percent, but it was unclear whether the second place finisher, state Sen. Joe Leibham, would call for a recount.
Leibham announced Friday that he would not request a recount, despite the small margin. [...] Grothman will face Democrat and Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris in the fall.  The Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rates the race as Safe Republican.
At first blush, this may seem like a fairly obscure race, but it's worth appreciating just how far to the right Glenn Grothman really is.
A Tea Party member reaches for a pamphlet titled "The Impact of Obamacare", at a "Food for Free Minds Tea Party Rally" in Littleton, New Hampshire in this October 27, 2012. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)

A muddled message on medical care

08/25/14 10:01AM

Running against health care is proving to be far more challenging than Republicans hoped in 2014. Last week, for example, the New York Times asked Joni Ernst, the far-right U.S. Senate candidate in Iowa, about her intention to cut domestic spending. The Republican candidate said there are "a number of things that need to be trimmed across the board," before turning her attention to social-insurance programs.
"What we have to do is protect those that are on Medicaid now; those that are on Social Security now. That, we need to protect. We have made promises to these people," Ernst said. For emphasis, she added, "[T]hose that are already engaged in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, we need to protect that for them."
There is. of course, a problem: Ernst is a fierce critic of the Affordable Care Act, which she wants to repeal. In practice, if the Republican candidate has her way, roughly 120,000 Iowans who "are on Medicaid now" would lose access to medical care. In effect, Ernst is trying to have it both ways -- she wants to honor the "promises" made to people who rely on social-insurance programs, but she also wants to repeal the ACA (while privatizing Social Security and turning Medicare into a voucher scheme).
But Ernst's position is almost coherent compared to former Sen. Scott Brown's (R-Mass.) latest pitch in New Hampshire.
Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown on Thursday touted his votes for Romneycare, the Massachusetts health care plan adopted under former Gov. Mitt Romney, at a forum held to criticize Obamacare.
In remarks to about 10 seniors, Brown said he shouldn't be speaking about what he did as a state senator in Massachusetts, but the Massachusetts health plan he voted for in 2006 addressed problems with the uninsured. "We addressed pre-existing conditions. We addressed catastrophic care," Brown said.
Hmm. So Scott Brown opposes "Obamacare" and wants to see the federal law scrapped. At the same time, Scott Brown supports "Romneycare," which is effectively the same thing.
It led Jed Lewison to ask whether Brown now believes "people in his old state deserve all the benefits of Obamacare, but not the people in his new state."
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker addresses members of the media during a stop at the Madison GOP field office in Madison, Wis., Wednesday, July 23, 2014.

Wisconsin's Walker confronted with damaging new details

08/25/14 09:12AM

For all the current and former Republican governors facing serious scandals -- Rick Perry, Bob McDonnell, Chris Christie, et al -- let's not forget about Gov. Scott Walker. The Wisconsin chief executive is in the middle of a tough re-election fight -- which he'll have to win to move forward with his presidential plans -- and a lingering controversy is making his task more difficult.
To briefly recap, Wisconsin election laws prohibit officials from coordinating campaign activities with outside political groups. When Walker faced a recall campaign, however, he and his team may have directly overseen how outside groups -- including some allegedly non-partisan non-profits -- spent their campaign resources.
Late Friday night, the allegations surrounding the governor's office appear to have grown far more serious. Consider this report from Madison's Wisconsin State Journal.
Gov. Scott Walker personally solicited millions of dollars in contributions for a conservative group during the 2011 and 2012 recalls, which prosecutors cited as evidence the governor and his campaign violated state campaign finance laws, records made public on Friday show.
Among the groups that donated money to Wisconsin Club for Growth during that time was Gogebic Taconite, which contributed $700,000, according to the records. The company later won approval from the Legislature and Walker to streamline regulations for a massive iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin.
In an April court filing unsealed briefly on Friday, a lawyer wrote, "Because Wisconsin Club for Growth's fundraising and expenditures were being coordinated with Scott Walker's agents at the time of Gogebic's donation, there is certainly an appearance of corruption in light of the resulting legislation from which it benefited."
I think it's safe to say these revelations do not cast Walker and his team in a positive light. On the contrary, Friday's night's evidence appears quite damning.
Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks during an event at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, August 21, 2014.

Flubbing the details on Perry's indictment

08/25/14 08:28AM

More than a week after Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) was indicted on two felony counts, the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan shared her concerns about the case on national television yesterday. The exchange was one of my favorite of any Sunday show this year.
NOONAN: I think, yes, it was local Democratic overreach. It's just a dumb case. I don't think it should have been brought. Naturally he looks like someone who is...
STEPHANOPOULOS: But the prosecutor is a former Republican, I think.
NOONAN: That may be. But when you look at this case, it just looks crazy.
Of course, this is less about what "may be," and more about what is. In this case, the Republican columnist had nine days to get the basic details straight, but Noonan nevertheless raised the specter of "local Democratic overreach" -- despite the fact that local Democrats had literally nothing to do with the indictment.
Told that her key complaint was based on a falsehood, Noonan didn't acknowledge her error, deciding instead to say the indictment "looks crazy" anyway. Wayne Slater joked that the Wall Street Journal pundit "looked confused" by the details she should have known but didn't.
For the record, Democratic officials in Travis County recused themselves from the case, and the prosecutor in this case, Michael McCrum, worked in the Bush/Quayle administration. What's more, McCrum, who enjoys a solid reputation as a credible attorney, was appointed to oversee this case by a Republican judge. To see this as "local Democratic overreach" is to simply not understand what happened.
It is, however, this kind of confusion that has created an amazing political environment. The Dallas Morning News reported late last week that Perry is so encouraged by the political reaction to his indictment that his political action committee "is selling T-shirts with his mug shot on the front. On the back is the mug shot of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg."
Remember, in this case, the reference to Perry's "mug shot" is literal.
A view of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

'The key decisions' aren't just in the president's hands

08/25/14 08:00AM

The political world's preoccupation with President Obama's vacation is excessive, but it also obscures a more salient point. Republicans and pundits may be outraged that the president took some time off and played some golf, but Congress is in the middle of a much longer break -- and lawmakers have some work to do.
In his latest Sunday-show appearance, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) complained bitterly about the White House's foreign policy before turning his attention to ISIS. "There is no boundary between Syria and Iraq," McCain told Fox News. "One of the key decisions the president is going to have to make is airpower in Syria."
There's certainly ample room for debate about the merits of airstrikes in Syria, but the part of McCain's comments that stood out for me was the notion that this is a "key decision" that "the president is going to have to make."
I hate to sound picky, but there's an institution popularly known as "Congress." Under our system of government, it's supposed to play a role in these "key decisions," too.
Indeed, around the same time as McCain's comments, House Homeland Security Committee Chair Michael McCaul (R-Texas) talked to ABC's George Stephanopoulos about lawmakers' role.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And, Congressman, if you get the kind of expansion [into Syria] you and General Allen then are talking about, won't that require a new authorization from Congress? The 2001 authorization targeted al Qaeda, not ISIS. It would be a real stretch to put this under the Iraq authorization of 2002. So won't Congress have to act here?
MCCAUL: We believe that the administration should be in consultation with Congress. So far, they have, under the War Powers Act. But once that period of time expires, we believe it's necessary to come back to the Congress to get additional authorities and to update, if you will, the authored use of military force.
As my colleague Mike Yarvitz noted, when McCaul says "we believe" it's not entirely clear who he's referring to -- is this the position of the House Republican leadership? -- but his comments nevertheless point to a possible congressional vote on the horizon.
That is,  at least in theory.

Funeral in Ferguson and other headlines

08/25/14 07:53AM

Michael Brown's father asks for calm on the day of his son's funeral. (St. Louis Post Dispatch)

The White House is sending 3 representatives to Michael Brown's funeral. (St. Louis Post Dispatch)

Pres. Obama orders review of military equipment supplied to police. (The Hill)

House Homeland Security Chairman says Congress will eventually have to approve airstrikes in Iraq. (The Hill)

British Intelligence identify man they believe killed journalist James Foley. (NBC News)

U.S. writer held by Qaeda affiliate in Syria is freed after nearly 2 years. (NY Times)

Russia plans to send a second aid convoy to Ukraine. (BBC)

Appeals court to hear arguments over Kansas, Arizona voter-ID law. (Wichita Eagle)

Napa, Northern California dig out from historic earthquake. (SFGate)

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A tablet of the Ten Commandments, which is located on the grounds of the Texas Capitol Building in Austin, Texas, is seen in a Tuesday Oct. 12, 2004 photo.

This Week in God, 8.23.14

08/23/14 08:58AM

First up from the God Machine this week is an amazing church-state story out of Alabama, where one public official is pushing a strange new argument about the Ten Commandments.
In an effort to educate the public on the divine origins of America's founding documents, Jackson County Commissioner Tim Guffey (R) has proposed erecting a Ten Commandments monument, as well as displays of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, outside the county courthouse.
"If you look at the documents that was written -- the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence -- they are all stemmed from the word of God, from the Ten Commandments," Guffey, who proposed the projects at a recent commission meeting, told WHNT on Thursday.
As the Huffington Post report explains, Guffey is working from the premise that the Ten Commandments, as the tenets appear in the Old Testament, is "not for any type of religion" and he may be pushing a religious display, but he's "not doing it to push religion at all."
To be sure, social conservatives seeking government backing for Ten Commandments displays isn't unusual, as evidenced by the Texas monument pictured above. But this Alabama controversy is rare -- ordinarily, proponents of the Decalogue don't pretend it's secular [edited for clarity].
Regardless, there are some fairly obvious problems with Guffey's pitch. For example, the U.S. Constitution does not "stem from" the Ten Commandments -- it's an entirely secular document that separates church from state. For that matter, to argue that a Biblical list of commandments that begins, "I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no other gods before me" is not religious seems a little silly.
But the larger point is that some conservatives are so eager to have government extend official support to their religious beliefs that they're willing to argue that their sacred texts have no religious value at all. It's ironic, in a way -- it's tempting to think opponents of religion would want to strip sacred texts of their spiritual significance. Here we have the opposite.
Also from the God Machine this week:
Is the US waging war on ISIS? Will it be?

Is the US fight against ISIS a war? Will it be?

08/22/14 11:00PM

Congressman Adam Schiff, a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee, talks with Rachel Maddow about whether the military action against ISIS constitutes a war, and whether Congress is capable of doing its duty of debating the authorization of... watch

Ferguson themes cast long shadows over US

Ferguson themes cast long shadows over America

08/22/14 10:35PM

Rachel Maddow asks of the spotlight on Ferguson, 'when the angle of the light changes, are we going to keep seeing this as clearly as we have for the past two weeks? How long can we keep seeing this and will it be long enough to start making it better?" watch

Friday's Mini-Report, 8.22.14

08/22/14 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
* Ukraine: "The Russian military has moved artillery units manned by Russian personnel inside Ukrainian territory in recent days and was using them to fire at Ukrainian forces, NATO officials said on Friday."
* Related news: "More than 200 trucks from a long-stalled Russian convoy said to be carrying humanitarian aid crossed the border into eastern Ukraine on Friday without Red Cross escorts, drawing angry accusations from Ukraine that Moscow had broken its word and mounted what a senior Ukrainian security official called a 'direct invasion.'"
* Word choice matters: "The White House said Friday that the beheading of American journalist James Foley by ISIS militants constituted a terrorist attack against the United States. 'When you see somebody killed in such a horrific way, that represents a terrorist attack -- that represents a terrorist attack against our country and against an American citizen,' said Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser."
* Gaza: "One day after three top Hamas commanders were killed in an Israeli airstrike, at least 18 Palestinians were killed Friday by firing squads in Gaza City, sentenced to death by a 'revolutionary resistance court' for collaborating with Israel during a time of war."
* Ferguson: "Thousands of dollars have been raised for the officer who fatally shot unarmed teen Michael Brown. A crowdfunding website was created on Monday to raise funds for Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, who killed 18-year-old Brown on Aug. 9.... Nearly 6,000 people had raised more than $234,000 by mid-afternoon on Friday, through a GoFundMe site."
* Protests: "Contrary to concerns about violence or vandalism, protesters held peaceful events in Washington Thursday night in response to events in Ferguson, Mo. What had been billed as a 'Day of Rage' in front of the White House drew about two dozen people, including D.C. and St. Louis natives, and a cadre of local press."
* Pushing back against the GAO: "The White House on Friday rejected findings by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) that President Obama broke the law when he swapped Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban leaders from Guantanamo Bay."
* On a related note, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) seemed delighted by the GAO report. But if Boehner considered the Bergdahl swap illegal, why didn't he include this in his anti-Obama lawsuit?
* 30 feet is ridiculously close: "A Chinese fighter jet this week flew within 30 feet of a Navy surveillance and reconnaissance plane in international airspace just off the Chinese coast, the Pentagon said Friday. The encounter, known as an intercept, was 'very very close, very dangerous,' said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary."
Combating poverty: "A true measure of a president's priorities lies hidden in plain sight in his budget proposals. Under that standard, Mr. Obama has been more committed to communities like Ferguson than any Democratic president in the past half century. By looking at what percentage of the budget presidents propose to spend to fight poverty, we can compare their degree of commitment."
* We'll see: "House Republicans won't shut down the government in September, Heritage Action is 'constructive at the end of the day' and a person can write a book without necessarily running for president. Those were some of the points Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., hit home during an exclusive interview with CQ Roll Call Wednesday afternoon from the ornate Union League Building in downtown Philadelphia."
* Did the Affordable Care Act cause trouble at a Chicago Cubs game this week? No, which is why it's a shame so many in the media have reported this incorrectly.
* Good move: "The Washington Post editorial board said Friday it will stop using the word 'Redskins' when referring to Washington's football team, joining a growing list of other commentators who have renounced the term because they believe it disparages Native Americans."

Obama admin eyes new contraception compromise, post-Hobby Lobby

08/22/14 04:03PM

It's been a couple of months since the Supreme Court's conservatives, in a 5-4 ruling, sided with Hobby Lobby. In the case, the private, for-profit corporation sought an exemption from the Affordable Care Act's contraception policy, and the Republican-appointed justices agreed.
But as a matter of public policy, that left an unresolved problem in need of a remedy: employees at "closely held" companies run by religious conservatives still need access to birth control. It was only a matter of time before the Obama administration unveiled a new set of rules to guarantee access for these affected workers.
And today, as msnbc's Irin Carmon reported, the White House unveiled its new policy.
The new policies are intended to fill gaps left by two Supreme Court moves: The landmark Hobby Lobby decision saying contraceptive coverage violated the religious liberty of a for-profit corporation, and a preliminary order in Wheaton College v. Burwell. With today's regulations, employees of for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby will be able to access an "accommodation" where the insurer directly provides the cost-free coverage with no financial involvement by the employer. That accommodation was originally limited to religiously-affiliated nonprofits like Little Sisters of the Poor; houses of worship are fully exempt.
For nonprofits like Wheaton College that object to even that accommodation -- which involves them signing a form to their insurer -- the Obama administration has created a new accommodation to the accommodation. (Yes, it gets complicated.) 
Irin, of course, is correct. It does get complicated.
The good news, under the newly unveiled rules, Americans will still have the contraception access they deserve, regardless of their boss' religious beliefs. The bad news is, navigating the process, designed to accommodate anti-contraception private employers, isn't easy.
Obama Meets With Leaders Of Honduras, Guatemala And El Salvador At White House

So much for politics stopping at the water's edge

08/22/14 12:45PM

We talked earlier about Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who brought three television cameras, three photographers, six reporters, a political aide, two press secretaries, and far-right activist David Bossie to Guatemala for a "stage-managed political voyage." But it appears that wasn't the only reason for the trip.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told the Guatemalan president the surge of child immigrants flooding the U.S. border this year is a result of President Obama's policies, not problems in Central America.
"I told him, frankly, that I didn't think the problem was in Guatemala City, but that the problem was in the White House in our country, and that the mess we've got at the border is frankly because of the White House's policies," Paul told Brietbart News in an article published Thursday.
According to the report in The Hill, the Kentucky Republican sat down with Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina for 45 minutes, and the senator discussed politics with the foreign head of state.
"I think what's happened at the border is all squarely at the president's lap," Paul said. "The problem and the solution aren't in Guatemala. The problem and solution reside inside the White House."
As a substantive matter, the senator's position is tough to defend or even understand. President Obama didn't sign the 2008 human-trafficking measure into law; he didn't create awful conditions in Central American countries; and he didn't encourage anyone to lie to desperate families about what would happen to their children. If there's a coherent explanation for why the White House to blame, it's hiding well.
But even putting that aside, since when is it kosher for U.S. officials to travel abroad to condemn U.S. leaders like this?