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Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 9, 2014.

Coburn withholds approval of new VA bill

07/29/14 10:56PM

Most of the Republicans on the bipartisan conference committee were sufficiently satisfied with a bill overhauling the Veterans Affairs health care system to sign off on its final wording. But three Republican senators withheld their approval: John McCain, Marco Rubio, and Tom Coburn.

Senator McCain's office did not provide an explanation as to why he did not sign this bill. He is an original sponsor of the Senate version, so there is no reason to think that he is against it.

Senator Rubio's office replied to a TRMS query that the senator had to be out of town on a family matter. But he has every intention of signing it and he will vote for the bill.

Senator Coburn, a co-author of this week's Veterans Choice Act, had previously voiced his objections to what he characterized as the extravagance of a new V.A. facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma as "building a Taj Mahal when they should be building a medical clinic."

TRMS reached out to Coburn on his objections to the current bill and received the following statement:

Instead of using the last six weeks to identify and compromise on ways to pay for giving our veterans freedom to choose and receive health care in the private sector, the conference committee has instead left the bill to future generations and decided to avoid paying for Congress’ decisions -- business as usual in Congress.

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Congressional failures put US at disadvantage

Congressional failures put US at disadvantage

07/29/14 10:51PM

Rachel Maddow reports on how new tensions with Russia and immigration challenges are made more difficult by the failings of Congress to confirm ambassadors and pass legislation as it prepares for an extended August vacation. watch

Russian transgressions met with new sanctions

Russian transgressions met with new sanctions

07/29/14 10:50PM

Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, talks with Rachel Maddow about the relative severity and potential effectiveness of the latest round of sanctions imposed on Russia by the European Union with U.S. participation. watch

Anti-abortion extremists violate church

Anti-abortion extremists violate church sanctity

07/29/14 10:49PM

Rachel Maddow reports on the shocking disruption of church services by out-of-town anti-abortion extremists in New Orleans, and shares pieces of an interview with Rev. Deanna Vandiver of the First Unitarian Universalist Church discussing the violation. watch

Tuesday's Mini-Report, 7.29.14

07/29/14 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* Sanctions: "While rejecting comparisons to the Cold War, President Obama on Tuesday announced new sanctions against Russia for supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine. The sanctions, building off measures announced two weeks ago, will target Russia's energy, arms, and finance sectors of the economy."
 
* Related news: "The United States has concluded that Russia violated a landmark arms control treaty by testing a prohibited ground-launched cruise missile, according to senior American officials, a finding that was conveyed by President Obama to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in a letter on Monday."
 
* Gaza: "Israel's aerial assaults on targets in Gaza broadened on Tuesday, with barrages that destroyed Hamas's media offices, the home of a top leader and what Palestinians said was a devastating hit on the only electricity plant, plunging the enclave of 1.7 million into deeper deprivation with no power, running water or sewage treatment."
 
* Mississippi's last abortion clinic "won a major victory at the conservative 5th Circuit of Appeals, which said a law intended to make the state 'abortion-free' and close the clinic was unconstitutional. 'Pre-viability, a woman has the constitutional right to end her pregnancy by abortion,' wrote E. Grady Jolly, a Reagan appointee, for the panel."
 
* Senate Dems have an idea: "Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday that if the House passes a $659 million border bill with policy changes, he could use it as a vehicle for comprehensive immigration reform."
 
* House GOP leaders aren't fond of the idea: "Speaker John A. Boehner vowed the House would not allow the Senate to add any 'comprehensive immigration reform bill or anything like it, including the DREAM Act' to the House's $659 million border bill Tuesday."
 
* Cabinet: "The Senate voted unanimously on Tuesday to confirm Robert A. McDonald, the 61-year-old former chief executive of Procter & Gamble, to take the helm of the sprawling and embattled Department of Veterans Affairs after a scandal over the manipulation of patient wait-time data led to the ouster two months ago of Eric Shinseki."
 
* NSA: "After plenty of setbacks in Congress, advocates of surveillance reform are giving it another shot."
 
* Oh my: "Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Kelly (R) had choice worlds for the Environmental Protection Agency's new rule on power plant emissions Monday, moving beyond the usual 'war on coal' language and likening the proposed regulations to an act of terrorism."
Rep. Curt Clawson, R-Fla., carries a Bible for as ceremonial swearing-in with Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, June 25, 2014.

Clawson regrets 'air ball'

07/29/14 05:01PM

It was one of the most cringe-worthy moments of any congressional hearing in recent memory. Freshman Rep. Curt Clawson (R-Fla.), during a House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, spoke to two senior officials from the U.S. State Department and Commerce Department, respectively, but the Republican congressman told them, "I'm familiar with your country; I love your country," assuming they were from India.
 
They're not. The officials, Nisha Biswal and Arun Kumar, may have Indian surnames, but they're Americans who were giving congressional testimony on behalf of the Obama administration.
 
Making matters slightly worse, after Biswal clarified matters, Clawson didn't apologize, instead telling the officials, "OK, let's see some progress."
 
The dust has obviously settled and Clawson eventually did the only thing he could do.
Clawson won a special election last month to replace Trey Radel, who resigned following a cocaine bust. The political novice, who was a businessman and college basketball player before running for office, apologized in a statement sent to our Gannett colleague, Ledyard King.
 
"I made a mistake in speaking before being fully briefed and I apologize. I'm a quick study, but in this case I shot an air ball," Clawson said.
This might have been a more straightforward apology without the "being fully briefed" comment -- the congressman really shouldn't blame his staff for this one -- but the apology otherwise gets the job done.
 
As for Biswal, she took the high road.
President Barack Obama laughs with former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, April 25, 2013.

Parties, presidents, and economic power

07/29/14 04:20PM

Derek Thompson highlighted an interesting economic trend that Republicans very likely find discouraging: "[I]n the 70 years, the U.S. economy has been better, across many metrics, when a Democrat has been the president." In particular, Thompson noted a "fantastically interesting" paper (pdf) from Princeton professors Alan Blinder and Mark Watson, who reported that from 1947 to 2013, in literally every category, Democratic presidents outperformed Republican presidents.
 
Which leads to the obvious question: Why? For Dems, a bit of good fortune may be involved.
Why is the US economy so unapologetically partisan? Do the laws of supply and demand have a liberal bias? Are Democrats better at governing for growth? Do these graphs prove something fundamental about the superiority of Keynesianism?
 
Maybe none of the above. Blinder and Watson propose that the answer has less to do with policies -- taxing, spending, redistributing -- and more to do with dumb luck. "The Democratic edge stems mainly from more benign oil shocks, superior [productivity growth], a more favorable international environment, and perhaps more optimistic consumer expectations about the near-term future," they wrote.
I should mention that the observation itself isn't entirely new. Michael Kinsley covered this fairly closely six years ago, and he pushed back, albeit gently, against the "dumb luck" explanation.
 
"Some people believe that the president has little or no effect on the economy. If so, that would be a serious flaw in this exercise," Kinsley wrote in 2008. "But it would also be a serious flaw in the exercise called democracy, since people tell pollsters that the economy is the most important issue for them in deciding whom to vote for. No doubt any particular bad year in any of these statistics can be explained by some extrinsic special event -- a war, for example. But surely patterns that emerge over half a century account for these."
A U.S. Border Patrol agent prepares to take an unaccompanied Salvadorian minor, 13, to a processing center after he crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico into the United States on July 24, 2014 in Mission, Texas.

The House GOP's underwhelming response to a crisis

07/29/14 01:00PM

Three weeks ago, President Obama presented a pretty credible solution to the humanitarian crisis at the U.S./Mexico border. The White House requested $3.7 billion in emergency funding that would build detention centers, add immigration judges, and beef up border security, all while expediting deportations to discourage an additional influx.
 
A week later, asked if his chamber would approve Obama's plan, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters, "I would certainly hope so," though he cautioned against optimism.
 
My Grand Unified Theory of Boehner has long held that the Speaker's political instincts are fairly sound, but he invariably has to take a less reasonable course because his radicalized caucus will tolerate nothing else. In the case of the border crisis, Boehner wanted to approve Obama's proposed solution, but House Republicans ruled out the possibility, and with two days remaining before Congress takes a five-week break, they finally came up with a counter-offer.
Republicans hope to pass $659 million in supplemental spending for the border crisis before leaving for the August recess, Speaker John A. Boehner said after a GOP conference meeting Tuesday.
 
The Ohio Republican said the House will "attempt to move this bill" on Thursday and that he anticipated the measure would have "sufficient support," but that there was still "a little more work to do to" to shore up the votes.
This is not a bill anyone should take pride in. After complaining literally for months about this crisis, the fact that this proposal is the best the House GOP could come up with is pretty powerful evidence to bolster the post-policy thesis.
 
To address the crisis, the White House wants to spend nearly $4 billion, while Senate Democrats are writing a related package that would spend nearly $3 billion. House Republicans, meanwhile, want to spend $659 million -- about a fifth of the original total eyed by the Obama administration -- two-thirds of which would go to border security.
 
Apparently, no one told the GOP lawmakers that the current crisis doesn't really have anything to do with border security. That, or lawmakers were told, but they didn't care.

Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 7.29.14

07/29/14 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:
 
* In Kentucky's closely watched U.S. Senate race, the new Bluegrass Poll shows Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) narrowly leading Alison Lundergan Grimes (D), 47% to 45%. The poll measures support from likely voters. The previous Bluegrass Poll had Lundergan Grimes with a narrow lead, but it polled registered voters.
 
* Michelle Nunn's (D) Senate campaign in Georgia sprung a leak yesterday, when "a detailed memo outlining" her game plan appeared in National Review, a conservative political magazine. As Benjy Sarlin added, "Most of the sections in the 144-page document are unremarkable, if annoying, for a campaign to see aired outside its offices."
 
* In Michigan, a new statewide poll shows Rep. Gary Peters (D) leading Terri Lynn Land (R) in their U.S. Senate race, 43% to 38%. The five-point advantage is up from Peters' three-point lead in the same poll last month.
 
* In Kansas' surprisingly competitive gubernatorial race, incumbent Gov. Sam Brownback (R) has outraised his challenger, Paul Davis (D), but the governor relied on a $500,000 loan from his lieutenant governor to get the advantage.
 
* In West Virginia's U.S. Senate race four years ago, Democrat Joe Manchin ran an ad shooting a gun at a cap-and-trade bill. In West Virginia's U.S. Senate race this year, Democrat Natalie Tennant is running an ad in which she turns the lights off at the White House.
 
* In New Hampshire, former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) still hopes to turn around his struggling comeback bid, and launched a new anti-immigrant television ad this week. In the spot, Brown, running in a new state, condemns "the pro-amnesty policies of President Obama and Senator Shaheen," falsely blaming these policies for the recent humanitarian crisis.
The US flag flutters in front of the US consulate in Hong Kong on June 10, 2013.

Wanted: U.S. Ambassadors

07/29/14 11:37AM

According to the United Nations, there are 193 nations in the world. Of that total, the United States maintains embassies in 169 countries around the globe. But on the show the other day, Rachel highlighted a striking statistic: in a fourth of those embassies, the ambassador's office is empty, because the Senate hasn't confirmed anyone.
 
There are practical consequences of this. Unaccompanied children from Guatemala, for example, are reaching the U.S./Mexico border, and officials are working on possible solutions. But there's a limit on the amount of diplomatic work that can be done in the Central American country, since the U.S. has no ambassador to Guatemala. We don't have an ambassador to Russia, which also happens be a pretty consequential country right now.
 
There are a variety of factors contributing to the problem, but there's reason to believe our embassies may soon receive some new ambassadors after all.
There's a chance at least some of the ambassadors caught in a legislative holding pattern might be confirmed before the August recess.
 
While the process of filling the diplomatic corps has been slow in the aftermath of the "nuclear option" standoff last fall, Sen. Ted Cruz said Monday that he had withdrawn his more recent objection.
 
The Texas Republican had placed a hold on State Department nominees.... Cruz had placed the hold because of last week's brief Federal Aviation Administration ban on flights by U.S. carriers to Tel Aviv, Israel.
Cruz's conspiracy theory was pretty outlandish, even for him, but as part of his tantrum, the far-right senator announced a blanket hold on all State Department nominees, regardless of merit. The Texas Republican lifted that hold yesterday.
 
But before any ambassadors-in-waiting start packing their bags, the Washington Post reported that regardless of Cruz's antics, "the pace of ambassador confirmations is unlikely to quicken. Republicans still demand a cloture vote that eats up debate time and slows the process, which is akin to placing a hold on them."
The dome of the Capitol is reflected in a puddle in Washington, Feb. 17, 2012.

Cutting taxes for the wealthy? Again?

07/29/14 10:53AM

In his unnervingly dishonest op-ed for USA Today this week, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) assured voters his party isn't just obsessed with going after President Obama. "At the same time," he argued, "we remain focused on the American people's top priority: jobs and the economy."
 
What possible rationale could there be to justify such a claim? It's actually pretty simple: House Republicans continue to pass tax cuts. Ergo, Boehner thinks he's telling the truth when he claims the GOP is focused on "jobs and the economy," all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
 
It didn't get much attention, but late last week, House Republicans quietly approved yet another tax break, this time advancing a tax policy that benefits the wealthy while hurting the poor. Danny Vinik had a good piece on this:
Here's how the [Child Tax Credit] currently works: Couples receive a maximum credit of $1,000 per-child, meaning they can lower their tax bill by that amount. For instance, a couple with two kids and an income of $50,000 would owe $8,356 in federal income taxes. With the CTC, they would reduce their tax bill by $2,000, to $6,356. However, not everyone is eligible for the credit. Those with income below $3,000 cannot collect it. And for couples, the credit begins phasing out at $110,000 and is entirely phased out at $150,000. For singles, those numbers are $75,000 and $115,000, respectively.
 
Thus, the current design of the CTC creates a marriage penalty. For instance, imagine a couple where each person makes $60,000. Separately, they would both be eligible to collect the full credit. But combined, their income ($120,000) would exceed the current phase-out threshold for couples filing jointly. Therefore, the couple could maximize their after-tax income by living together, but not marrying.
Now, there's very little to suggest this disincentive actually has a real-world impact, but House Republicans nevertheless advanced a policy they've wanted for years: they made it so that a couple can collect the same tax break, even if they file jointly. The same bill raised the phase-out ceiling to $150,000 and indexed it to inflation. The price tag: $115 billion over the next decade.
 
What's wrong with that? If you're a deficit hawk, quite a bit, but there's a more glaring concern here: the House GOP measure was structured to punish the poor while benefiting the rich.

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