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Friday's Mini-Report, 8.1.14

08/01/14 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* Cease-fire collapses: "A newly reached cease-fire in the Gaza conflict quickly collapsed on Friday as the Israeli military announced that two soldiers had been killed and a third captured by Palestinian militants who emerged from a tunnel near Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. The Israelis responded with fierce assaults that left dozens more Palestinians dead."
 
* Uganda: "Uganda's Constitutional Court has nullified a draconian anti-gay law that carried, among other penalties, life-long prison sentences for so-called 'aggravated homosexuality.' In a decision Friday from a panel of five judges, the court found Uganda's recently-enacted Anti-Homosexuality Act 'null and void' because it was passed without a quorum of the necessary one-third members of parliament present."
 
* Ebola crisis: "In an ominous warning as fatalities mounted in West Africa from the worst known outbreak of the Ebola virus, the head of the World Health Organization said on Friday that the disease was moving faster than efforts to curb it, with potentially catastrophic consequences including a 'high risk' that it will spread."
 
* He's right: "President Barack Obama sharply criticized Congress Friday for failing to act on key issues, including the border crisis and long-term infrastructure funding."
 
* He's right about this, too: "President Obama said in blunt terms Friday that the United States 'tortured some folks' -- describing a forthcoming report on now-defunct U.S. interrogation techniques he called 'contrary to our values.'"
 
* Florida: "A Florida judge ordered the state Legislature on Friday to submit a redrawn congressional map within two weeks to replace ones for two districts that were ruled illegal. In the ruling, Judge Terry P. Lewis of Florida's Second Judicial Circuit held open the possibility of delaying the November elections."
 
* Argentina: "Stocks fell sharply in Argentina on Thursday as the country entered into economic uncertainty with its second default in 13 years, one forced upon it by New York hedge funds with the backing of U.S. courts."
 
* Wages: "One more sign that life is improving for American workers: paychecks are finally growing faster. The Labor Department reported Thursday that workers' wages and salaries grew by a seasonally adjusted 0.6 percent during the second quarter, the fastest pace since the third quarter of 2008."
 
* Capital punishment: "Amid renewed controversy over capital punishment, Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday called for more transparency in lethal injections. In an interview with Gwen Ifill on 'PBS NewsHour,' Holder said those on death row have a right to know what's in the pharmaceutical cocktails used for their executions, according to a preview obtained by NBC News' Pete Williams. "
 
* Dylan Scott has the latest powerful evidence that the Halbig fans trying to destroy the Affordable Care Act are completely, demonstrably, and unequivocally wrong. Jon Chait described the right's argument as "completely insane," which seems more than fair.
The city of St. Louis held the nation's first big parade to welcome home the troops after the Iraq war, on Jan. 28, 2012.

Congress overcomes GOP opposition on veterans' benefits

08/01/14 04:58PM

It was late February when Senate Democrats pushed a bill to expand health care and education programs for veterans. Despite having 56 votes, Dems couldn't overcome a Republican filibuster at the time -- GOP senators not only opposed the measure, they refused to even allow the Senate to vote on it.
 
The effort that followed wasn't easy, a good bill had to be watered down, and the needlessly long process nearly broke down more than once, but last night the fight finally paid off.
Congress proved able to address at least some of the nation's most urgent problems before leaving town on Thursday, passing legislation to reform the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs and agreeing to fund the federal highway programs. [...]
 
After months of partisan debate, Congress managed to pass a $17 billion bipartisan bill to address mismanagement at the VA and long wait times for veterans seeking health care. Members of both parties spoke out about the need for reform, but bickering over the legislation's price tag threatened the bill's final passage.
The final vote in the Senate was 91 to 3, while the final vote in the House was 420 to 5. The proposal now heads to the White House, where it will get President Obama's signature.
 
But given the circumstances, it's hard not to wonder: why would eight members of Congress oppose a bipartisan VA bill -- in an election year -- when they knew in advance the bill would pass anyway?

One state, two maps, one success story

08/01/14 04:16PM

Is the Affordable Care Act popular? Apparently not. Is it working anyway? Reality certainly seems to be pointing in that direction.
 
Just this week, the evidence is overwhelming, with good news at the state and national level. We're seeing encouraging results when it comes to hospitals, prescription-drug savings, and consumer rebates.
 
But sometimes, you need an image -- or in this case, two related images -- to drive the point home. Consider the before-and-after maps out of Kentucky.
Internal Revenue Service Director of Exempt Organizations Lois Lerner leaves a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee after refusing to testify May 22, 2013 in Washington, DC. The committee is investigating allegations that the...

The other side of those Lois Lerner emails

08/01/14 02:39PM

The last week before Congress' five-week August break is nearly always hectic, and this week was no exception. But for many on the right, one of the more important stories was largely overlooked.
Former IRS official Lois Lerner cursed conservatives in emails released on Wednesday, leading House Republicans to intensify their push for criminal charges.
 
Lerner, in an email conversation with an undisclosed person, suggested that listeners to conservative talk radio were "a**holes." [...]
 
Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) said he hoped the new documents would force Attorney General Eric Holder to take the criminal investigation into the IRS's improper scrutiny of Tea Party groups more seriously.
In a separate email message released at the same time, Lerner described the far-right as "crazies."
 
Because I've published quite a few pieces explaining why there is no actual IRS "scandal," a handful of conservatives emailed this week to say, "See? This is proof."
 
It's hard to say, though, what exactly it's proof of. For example, it's not illegal to call someone an "a**hole" in an email. In fact, Lerner appears to have used language Republicans have used to describe each other -- House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) described Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) as an "a**hole" earlier this year, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has referred to some on the far-right as "crazies," too.
 
Indeed, if Congress is shocked by Democratic officials in Democratic administrations who dislike conservative talk-radio listeners, we're going to need quite a few fainting couches. The idea that this would intensify a "push for criminal charges" seems a little desperate.
 
That said, the story might be marginally more serious if there was evidence that Lerner was talking to another IRS official about conservative "a**holes," as part of some kind of behind-the-scenes conspiracy, but as it turns out, that's not even close to what happened.
Rep. Steve King and Rep. Michele Bachmann leave a House Republican conference meeting on Capitol Hill on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013 in Washington.

Abandoning the pretense of seriousness

08/01/14 12:48PM

The new House Republican leadership team, facing its first real test yesterday, failed miserably. They backed a bill that ostensibly addresses the humanitarian crisis at the U.S./Mexico border, but the bill died before it even reached the floor. Rank-and-file Republican lawmakers had rejected their own party's bill.
 
But instead of leaving town for Congress' five-week break, GOP lawmakers met this morning to work something out, and by all appearances, Speaker John Boehner and his team effectively told right-wing members, "Tell us what you want and we'll say yes." The result is a new bill, set to pass this afternoon.
House Republicans are taking a second shot at passing a border funding package Friday after party leaders failed to whip enough support among conservatives and were forced to pull legislation Thursday. The new version of the bill will add $35 million to offer states that dispatch National Guard service members to the border, adding up to $694 million in emergency funding relief to cope with the flood of unaccompanied minors streaming into the United States.
 
Unwilling to leave Washington without first passing a border package, lawmakers aim to vote on the revised legislation Friday along with a separate vote on legislation to undercut laws protecting young undocumented immigrants.
To appreciate what the House GOP has come up with, note that Reps. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), two of the fiercest opponents of the bill that died yesterday, think this new proposal is awesome.

[Update: King told Roll Call, "The changes brought into this are ones I've developed and advocated for over the past two years. It's like I ordered it off the menu."]

The agreement conservative Republicans reached with very conservative Republicans can charitably be described as a bad joke. This legislation wouldn't address the humanitarian crisis in any meaningful way, and really doesn't even try.
 
The Washington Post's report conceded the legislation "would do little to immediately solve the crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border but would allow [Republican lawmakers] to go home and tell voters that they did what they could."
 
In other words, the post-policy House majority is putting on a little show this afternoon. Even marginally informed observers will recognize this as pointless theater, but GOP members won't care because the point of the exercise will be to create a talking point -- one that no fair-minded person will believe anyway.

Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 8.1.14

08/01/14 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:
 
* The more Republicans talk about presidential impeachment, the happier Democrats are: the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced this morning that it's raised $4.8 million just this week in response to the GOP's recent anti-Obama push.
 
* "McConnelling" has become a fun pastime, with folks using Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) odd stock footage. This week in Kentucky, however, Alison Lundergan Grimes is starting to use the incumbent senator's footage against him in her new web ads.
 
* Speaking of Kentucky, will the National Republican Senatorial Committee come to McConnell's aid? Apparently, not yet -- NRSC Chairman Jerry Moran said yesterday the campaign committee is "not actively engaged in Kentucky." Given McConnell's support from outside groups, their resources may not be necessary.
 
* It was widely assumed that Rep. Scott DesJarlais' (R-Tenn.) multiple personal scandals would derail his political career, but he won re-election in 2012 anyway. Can he win another term? This year, DesJarlais is facing a tough primary challenge from state Sen. Jim Tracy, who launched an aggressive ad this week highlighting the congressman's sordid past.
 
* Major independent pollsters will soon shift their respondent screens from registered voters to likely voters. This is likely to show a more favorable landscape for Republicans, but it won't necessarily be the result of shifting public attitudes.
 
* Christine Jones, the former chief legal officer of GoDaddy, said during an interview this week she sometimes practices shooting firearms with her eyes closed. "Because chances are if somebody attacks you it's gonna be in the night," Jones said.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) leaves after the weekly Senate Republican Policy Committee luncheon, Sept. 24, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Ted Cruz doesn't want credit for destruction in his wake

08/01/14 11:21AM

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) met privately with a group of House Republicans on Wednesday to urge them to ignore their own leadership and oppose their party's border bill. Less than a day later, House GOP leaders were forced to pull their preferred legislation -- too many of House Speaker John Boehner's members were listening to Cruz, not him.
 
When no one seemed sure what the House majority would do next, Democratic lawmakers were heard joking with reporters that they should ask Cruz, since he seems to be in control of the lower chamber.
 
Robert Costa had a fascinating report overnight on the behind-the-scenes efforts, including details from the Wednesday night meeting in Cruz's office, though the far-right Texan apparently doesn't want to be held responsible for his handiwork.
In an interview, Cruz said that he did not dictate what the members should do, but only reaffirmed his position against Boehner's plan.
 
"The suggestion by some that House members are unable to stand up and fight for their own conservative principles is offensive and belittling to House conservatives," Cruz said. "They know what they believe and it would be absurd for anyone to try to tell them what to think."
And yet, by all appearances, Cruz guided their hand, telling House Republicans that "Boehner was distracted and ... they should stick to their principles." The senator "also reminded them to be skeptical of promises from House leaders, particularly of 'show votes' -- legislative action designed to placate conservatives that carry little, if any, weight."
 
For a guy who doesn't try to tell Republicans what to think, Cruz seems eager to offer, shall we say, suggestions.
 
I don't think the political world fully appreciates just how regularly the Texas Republican intervenes in the affairs of the House chamber.
Eric Cantor enters a news conference at the Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington, Oct. 23, 2013.

Eric Cantor exits stage right

08/01/14 10:42AM

Two months after a shocking primary defeat, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) officially ended his tenure as House Majority Leader yesterday. He will not, however, remain on Capitol Hill as a rank-and-file member -- the Virginia Republican announced overnight that he's resigning his seat, effective August 18.
Cantor told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that he will resign from Congress early to "make sure that the constituents in the 7th District will have a voice in what will be a very consequential lame-duck session."
 
Cantor asked Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to call a special election in the district to coincide with the general election expected for November 4, according to the newspaper, allowing the winner to take office immediately rather than with the next Congress in January.
 
"That way he will also have seniority, and that will help the interests of my constituents," Cantor added in his interview with the Times-Dispatch. Virginia is losing much of its congressional seniority this year, due to the resignations of Republican Rep. Frank Wolf and Democratic Rep. Jim Moran.
Cantor will be the 10th member of this Congress to resign before the end of the term, slightly less than the 11 members who resigned during the last Congress, but nevertheless a high total by modern standards. It's not yet clear what the Virginia conservative will do next, though it's widely assumed that Cantor will become a very high-paid lobbyist.
 
But as the former Majority Leader leaves Capitol Hill, it's worth pausing to appreciate Cantor's legacy, such as it is.
Representative Tom Cole waits for an interview at the U.S. Capitol, Oct. 10, 2013.

GOP wants Obama to circumvent Congress less -- and more

08/01/14 10:10AM

Even by congressional standards, the mixed message from Capitol Hill this week was jarring. On Wednesday, House Republicans approved a civil suit against President Obama -- the first such suit in American history -- complaining that the White House shouldn't circumvent Congress when making public policy.
 
Literally one day later, House Republicans killed their own border bill, prompting GOP leaders to issue a statement urging the White House to circumvent Congress.
 
On msnbc's "Morning Joe," Eugene Robinson asked Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a close ally to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), to help reconcile the contradiction. The Republican congressman's response was striking. For those who can't watch clips online:
ROBINSON: There was a contradiction yesterday that I'm still struggling to understand. The leadership statement, when the [border bill] didn't pass essentially said, 'Well, there are plenty of administrative things that President Obama can do and should be doing at the border, and that was a day after the House voted to sue President Obama for taking administrative actions.
 
COLE: (Laughs)
 
ROBINSON: So, how does that square?
 
COLE: Well, I'm not going to disagree with you because it's a point I made myself in conference. Look, you can't say on the one hand that the president's overreaching by acting without legislative authority and direction, and then refuse to give him legislative authority and direction in another area. So, I don't disagree with what you have to say at all.
Oh. Confronted with the obvious contradiction at the heart of the Republican game plan, it appears the Republican response is effectively, "Yep, our position is incoherent." Good to know. [Update: Even Charles Krauthammer is getting annoyed, telling Fox News viewers yesterday, "It is ridiculous to sue the president on a Wednesday because he oversteps the law ... and then on a Thursday say that he should overstep the law."]
 
Cole's candor is refreshing, though it also raises the related point about what the president intends to do about the conflicting messages from his far-right friends on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Mike Enzi pauses for questions on Capitol Hill in Washington,  May 8, 2012.

GOP tantrum derails ambassadorial nominations

08/01/14 09:35AM

Political scientist Norm Ornstein noted last night that "blocking ambassadors when the world is in turmoil and America's national interest is at stake is simply shameful." Senate Republicans, I think he was speaking to you.
 
We've been keeping a close eye lately on the vacant U.S. ambassadorial offices around the world, which comes at an unusually awful time. According to the United Nations, there are 193 nations in the world, and of that total, the United States maintains embassies in 169 countries. As of earlier this week, the ambassador's office is currently empty in a fourth of those embassies because the Senate hasn't confirmed anyone.
 
The Senate Democratic majority was eager to address the problem before Congress left for its five-week break, but in a sad and unnecessary tantrum, the Senate Republican minority had other ideas.
The Senate may not be confirming nominees to posts in a slew of countries before departing for the August recess, but after some procedural maneuvering, the U.S. will be getting a top diplomat in Russia.
 
Senators confirmed the nomination of John F. Tefft by voice vote as the chamber finished evening business after he faced objection to confirmation by unanimous consent earlier in the night.
GOP senators originally blocked a vote on Tefft's nomination to become the Ambassador to Russia, but they eventually changed their mind for no apparent reason. It was a heartening move -- relations with Russia are fairly important right now, as some in Congress might have noticed -- but it doesn't negate the fact that the GOP was far less gracious towards a variety of other nominees who are eager to represent the United States in embassies around the globe.
 
Take Guatemala, for example, which also happens to be pretty important right now. Colby Itkowitz reported:

Job creation tops 200k for sixth straight month

08/01/14 08:47AM

Given where the economy was in the not-too-distant past, it's hard to be disappointed when the economy adds over 200,000 jobs a month, and yet, given expectations and the last few jobs reports, today's data is a bit of a letdown.
 
The new report from Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the U.S. economy added 209,000 jobs in July. The overall unemployment rate ticked slightly higher to 6.2% -- still hovering around a six-year low. (This is one of those times when an uptick is good news, not bad, since more people are entering the workforce looking for jobs.)
 
Once again, public-sector layoffs did not drag down the overall employment figures. Though jobs reports over the last few years have shown monthly government job losses, in July, the private sector added 198,000 while the public sector added 11,000. The latter may not sound like much, but after several years in which that total was negative, it's at least somewhat heartening.
 
Perhaps most strikingly, the U.S. economy has now added over 200,000 jobs per month for six consecutive months. The last time Americans saw results like these? Way back in 1997.
 
As for the revisions, May's totals were revised up from 224,000 to 229,000, while June's figures were also revised up, from 288,000 to 298,000. Combined, that's an additional 15,000 jobs.
 
Overall, this is a good-but-not-great report, though the jobs landscape is nevertheless steadily improving. All told, over the last 12 months, the U.S. economy has added over 2.57 million jobs overall and 2.48 million in the private sector. What's more, July was the 53rd consecutive month in which we've seen private-sector job growth – the longest on record.
 
At this point, with the year about half over, 2014 is currently on track to be the best year for U.S. job creation since 1999.
The dome of the US Capitol is seen in Washington, D.C., September 20, 2008.

Picking up the pieces after the GOP's border fiasco

08/01/14 08:00AM

The Senate hoped to complete a few key tasks last night before the start of Congress' five-week break: pass the bipartisan VA bill, approve funding for the Highway Trust Fund, and vote on an emergency measure to address the humanitarian crisis at the U.S./Mexico border.
 
Two out of three ain't bad?
 
With relative ease, the upper chamber did, in fact, pass the measures related to the VA and the Highway Trust Fund. But when it came time to vote on the Senate's version of the border bill, the Republican minority blocked it -- Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) wanted an amendment prohibiting executive orders from President Obama; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said no, so the GOP refused to allow the legislation to advance.
 
As for the House, what happens now in the wake of yesterday's fiasco? Their recess has apparently been delayed.
House Republicans are expected to pick up the effort again Friday morning, just as lawmakers prepare to leave Capitol Hill for a five-week recess without passing any funding relief for the southwestern border. Emergency funds are set to run out by the end of August after a flood of unaccompanied minors – some 57,000 have been apprehended at the border since October – strained immigration resources and facilities beyond capacity.
House GOP members will reportedly meet in about an hour on Capitol Hill to "discuss new policy proposals to accompany a $659 million appropriations bill they abruptly yanked from consideration Thursday."
 
In other words, Republican leaders are still looking for ways to push the bill even further to the right in order to placate rank-and-file GOP lawmakers. If the enticements fall short, members are reportedly prepared to work through the weekend.
 
At this point, you may be wondering about the point of these efforts. If so, you're not alone.

Cantor's quitting and other headlines

08/01/14 07:34AM

House Republicans scramble (again) to find enough votes to pass the border bill. (The Hill)

We finally have an Ambassador to Russia, although one Republican Senator didn't make it easy. (AP)

Rep. Eric Cantor announces he won't serve out his term. (Richmond Times-Dispatch)

A.G. Eric Holder calls for more transparency about lethal injection drugs. (MSNBC)

Gaza ceasefire unravels quickly. (NBC News)

Justice Ginsburg defends the Supreme Court's decision to void abortion clinic buffer zones. (AP)

Justice Ginsburg wears a more severe-looking lace collar when she reads her dissents. (Yahoo News)

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CIA admits to hacking Senate computers

CIA admits to hacking Senate computers

07/31/14 10:18PM

Steve Kornacki is joined by New York Times nation security correspondent Mark Mazzetti to discuss the implications of the CIA’s admission that the agency spied on Senate computers, despite previously denying such allegations. watch

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