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Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., heads to the Senate subway following a vote in the Capitol on Jan. 8, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty)

GOP's Cotton leads effort to derail criminal justice reform

01/26/16 10:40AM

In his State of the Union address two weeks ago, President Obama acknowledged that "expectations for what we will achieve this year are low," but he hopes the White House and the Republican Congress "can work together this year on some bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform." The comment generated some applause in the chamber.
 
But not everyone clapped.
 
Real, meaningful progress on criminal justice reform offers promise -- it's one of the few issues supported by the president, GOP leaders, and even the Koch brothers -- and in October, a bipartisan group of senators unveiled a compromise package. As of this morning, the "Criminal Justice Reform and Corrections Act," has already picked up 28 co-sponsors, 15 Democrats and 13 Republicans.
 
That kind of balance is uncommon on major issues -- it helped the agreement clear the Senate Judiciary Committee easily -- which is why it's all the more important that some far-right senators are positioned to kill the legislation. Politico reported yesterday:
Sen. Tom Cotton, the hawkish upstart who's already made waves on the Iran nuclear deal and government surveillance programs, is now leading a new rebellion against a bipartisan effort to overhaul the criminal justice system -- hoping to torpedo one of the few pieces of major legislation that could pass Congress in President Barack Obama's final year. [...]
 
"It would be very dangerous and unwise to proceed with the Senate Judiciary bill, which would lead to the release of thousands of violent felons," Cotton said later in an interview with POLITICO. "I think it's no surprise that Republicans are divided on this question ... [but] I don't think any Republicans want legislation that is going to let out violent felons, which this bill would do."
Cotton is joined in this campaign by Sens. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and David Perdue (R-Ga.). Politico's piece added that there are "pockets" of opposition within the GOP that will resist "anything that might erode its tough-on-crime reputation."
 
In other words, a worthwhile, bipartisan agreement, backed by the Koch brothers, may be scrapped because some far-right senators are worried about the Republican Party's branding.
Ted Cruz

Cruz, NRA take a keen interest in Australian gun control

01/26/16 10:03AM

At an event in October, Hillary Clinton talked a bit about preventing gun violence, and referenced a notable international example.
 
"The Australian government, as part of trying to clamp down on the availability of automatic weapons, offered a good price for buying hundreds of thousands of guns, and then they basically clamped down going forward in terms of having, you know, more of a background-check approach, more of a permitting approach," Clinton said at the time.
 
It's led some on the right to make Australia the basis for a new pitch to conservative voters. The Hill reported last week:
The National Rifle Association is tying President Obama and Hillary Clinton to Australia's gun buy-back program, arguing the two Democrats want to confiscate American guns.
 
The video, released by the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action, includes clips of Obama and Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner, offering positive comments about the Australian gun "confiscation" program.
As part of the launch of the video, the far-right group warned the public, "Don't let what happened in Australia happen here."
 
What the p.r. offensive fails to explain, however, is what exactly "happened in Australia" that Americans should be so eager to avoid.

Around the same time as the push from the NRA's lobbying arm, Ted Cruz talked with conservative host Hugh Hewitt, who asked the Republican White House hopeful about President Obama referencing Australia during a recent town-hall forum.
 
"Listen, it's not complicated why he brings up Australia all the time, because the President believes in confiscation.... The president wants to confiscate handguns," Cruz argued, adding, "And as you know, Hugh, after Australia did that, the rate of sexual assaults, the rate of rapes, went up significantly, because women were unable to defend themselves."
 
Is that true? Did the number of sexual assaults in Australia increase "significantly" while gun violence decreased?
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders greets supporters after speaking at a town hall in Independence, Iowa, Jan. 24, 2016. (Photo by Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters)

Anti-Sanders attack ad isn't quite what it seems to be

01/26/16 09:20AM

Republicans have made no secret of the fact that they'd prefer to run against Bernie Sanders in the general election. Whether or not their assumptions are correct is a separate question, but GOP officials, convinced that the senator would be easy to defeat, have gone out of their way to help Sanders in the Democratic race.
 
It's what made this New York Times report stand out as noteworthy.
A "super PAC" founded by the former TD Ameritrade executive Joe Ricketts is spending more than $600,000 on a television ad in Iowa lashing Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont as "too liberal" in the final days of his close race against Hillary Clinton in the state's caucuses. [...]
 
The spot is expected to be backed by $600,000 in spending on television ads, and there will be additional expenditures on radio and digital advertising.
At first blush, the move may seem encouraging to Sanders supporters. After all, if Republicans have gone from defending Sanders to attacking him, maybe it means GOP insiders are getting scared of the Vermont independent?
 
It's a nice idea, but that's not what's going on here. In fact, far from an attack ad, this commercial, backed by a prominent Republican mega-donor, is the latest evidence of the GOP trying to help Sanders, not hurt him.
Republican presidential candidates argue during the Fox Business Network Republican presidential candidates debate in North Charleston, S.C., Jan 14, 2016. (Photo by Randall Hill/Reuters)

Latest polls raise eyebrows throughout the political world

01/26/16 08:40AM

With six days remaining before the Iowa caucuses, and just two weeks until the New Hampshire primary, pollsters are releasing all kinds of new data to consider in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Let's take a minute to unwrap what we're seeing this morning.
 
Let's start with Iowa, where a new Quinnipiac poll shows four candidates above 5%.
 
1. Donald Trump: 31% (unchanged from early January)
2. Ted Cruz: 29% (unchanged)
3. Marco Rubio: 13% (down from 15%)
4. Ben Carson: 7% (unchanged)
 
Note, several recent polls show Trump with a much larger advantage in Iowa, but if the Quinnipiac survey is correct, it suggests the race for the top spot is still very competitive.
 
In New Hampshire, meanwhile, the latest Franklin Pierce/RKM/Boston Herald poll offered these results last night:
 
1. Donald Trump 33% (up from 26% in December)
2. Ted Cruz 14% (up from 12%)
3. John Kasich 12% (up from 8%)
4. Jeb Bush 9% (down from 10%)
5. Marco Rubio 8% (down from 12%)
6. Chris Christie 7% (down from 11%)
 
This is obviously just one poll, but if Kasich is advancing as the top mainstream GOP candidate in the Granite State, it will further complicate the Republican race in unexpected ways. Trump's 33% support, meanwhile, is the strongest showing for any GOP candidate in this cycle from this pollster.
A sign is pictured at the entrance to a Planned Parenthood building in N.Y. on Aug. 31, 2015. (Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

In Planned Parenthood case, the accusers become the accused

01/26/16 08:00AM

When "undercover" videos targeting Planned Parenthood first surfaced, many Republican officials and far-right activists believed the controversy would lead to criminal indictments. As of yesterday, they were half-right: one investigation into the matter did lead to criminal charges, but as it turns out, the conservative accusers have become the accused.
A Houston grand jury on Monday indicted two anti-abortion activists in connection with undercover videos shot in Texas that purported to show fetal organ sales inside a Planned Parenthood clinic.
 
The grand jury meanwhile declined to indict anyone from Planned Parenthood, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson said in a statement.
David Daleiden, founder of a group that calls itself the Center for Medical Progress, was responsible for the videos, and yesterday was charged with a felony count of tampering with government documents, as well as a misdemeanor charge related to buying human organs.
 
And while tampering with government documents may seem like an odd crime under these circumstances, note that Daleiden and his accused colleague, Sandra Merritt, allegedly created fake materials, including bogus driver's licenses, as part of their scheme.
 
The district attorney in this matter added yesterday that Planned Parenthood has been cleared of any wrongdoing -- which is more than can be said of the activists who targeted the health organization.

Monday's Mini-Report, 1.25.16

01/25/16 05:35PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* Supreme Court: "More than a thousand inmates in the nation's prisons who were sentenced as juveniles to life without the possibility of parole can now challenge those punishments, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday."
 
* Syria: "The United Nations special envoy for Syria said Monday that he intended to start peace talks between the government and the opposition in Geneva on Friday, but acknowledged that every aspect of the process was shrouded with uncertainty."
 
* Canadian school shooting: "Four people are dead and others are injured after a shooting in Saskatchewan, Canada, that included gunfire at a high school, police and a witness said. A suspect is in custody, police said."
 
* Ohio: "Volunteers are distributing bottled water this weekend to residents in a northeast Ohio village after tests found elevated lead levels, according to local media reports."
 
* John Kerry visits Laos: "The secretary of state meets the country's leaders today, and unexploded bombs are expected to be part of the agenda. Laos is one of the most bombed countries in history, and it was targeted by the U.S. in the Vietnam War, in which Mr. Kerry served before joining the antiwar movement."
 
* Remember, we're supposed to think Putin is a strategic genius, outwitting President Obama: "Russia's economy has recorded its steepest decline in gross domestic product since 2009 as the slumping oil price and international sanctions take their toll."
Pro-choice activists hold a vigil outside the U.S. Supreme Court on January 23, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty)

North Dakota's abortion ban fails in the courts

01/25/16 05:03PM

Following up on a story we've been keeping an eye on, North Dakota lawmakers passed a "fetal heartbeat" bill in 2013, which banned abortions after just six weeks of pregnancy. Even for ambitious, red-state Republicans, it was an audacious move.
 
The measure, which would have required some women to terminate unwanted pregnancies before they even knew they were pregnant, was never actually implemented, since a district court judge said the law was unlikely to prevail in the courts and granted an interim injunction.
 
And that assessment has proven to be accurate. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the state law in July, and NBC News' Pete Williams reported today that the state's last-ditch effort also failed.
The U.S. Supreme Court Monday rejected an appeal from North Dakota to revive its proposed restriction on abortions, which would be the strictest in the nation.
 
By declining to take up the case, the justices left standing lower court rulings that found the restriction unconstitutional and blocked the law's enforcement.
Note, the high court did not issue a ruling in this case; it simply decided not to hear the case. North Dakota has now run out of options.
 
As we discussed last summer, when Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R) created the law nearly three years ago, he acknowledged that legal fights were inevitable, but he saw the measure as "a legitimate attempt by a state legislature to discover the boundaries of Roe v. Wade."
President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 12, 2016. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)

The differences between Obama and Sanders matter

01/25/16 04:34PM

Paul Krugman noted the other day that there's a "mini-dispute among Democrats" over who has the best claim to President Obama's mantle: Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. The New York Times columnist made the persuasive case that the answer is obvious: "Mr. Sanders is the heir to candidate Obama, but Mrs. Clinton is the heir to President Obama."
 
The framing is compelling for reasons that are probably obvious. As a candidate, Obama was the upstart outsider taking on a powerful rival -- named Hillary Clinton -- who was widely expected to prevail. As president, Obama has learned to temper some of his grander ambitions, confront the cold realities of governing in prose, and make incremental-but-historic gains through attrition and by navigating past bureaucratic choke points.
 
But the closer one looks at the Obama-Sanders parallels, the more they start to disappear.
 
Comparing the core messages, for example, reinforces the differences. In 2008, Obama's pitch was rooted in hopeful optimism, while in 2016, Sanders' message is based on a foundation of outrage. In 2008, red-state Democrats welcomed an Obama nomination -- many in the party saw him as having far broader appeal in conservative areas than Clinton -- while in 2016, red-state Democrats appear panicked by the very idea of a Sanders nomination.
 
At its root, however, this is an idealism-vs-pragmatism debate, with Sanders claiming the former to Clinton's latter. New York's Jon Chait argues that this kind of framing misunderstands what Candidate Obama was offering eight years ago.
The young Barack Obama was already famous for his soaring rhetoric, but from today's perspective, what is striking about his promises is less their idealism than their careful modulation. 
What Obama did eight years ago, Chait added, was make his technocratic pragmatism "lyrical" -- a feat Clinton won't even try to pull off -- promising incremental changes in inspirational ways.
 
That's not Sanders' pitch at all. In many respects, it's the opposite. Whatever your opinion of the Vermonter, there's nothing about his platform that's incremental. The independent senator doesn't talk about common ground and bipartisan cooperation; he envisions a political "revolution" that changes the very nature of the political process.

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