* Syria: "The U.S. will send about 400 troops to train the moderate Syrian opposition, defense officials confirmed Thursday night. The training is expected to begin in early spring, and the trainers will work out of sites in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, said Cmdr. Elissa Smith, a Defense Department spokeswoman."
* Nigeria: "Boko Haram, the Nigerian Islamist terror group, has rounded up hundreds of women and children and imprisoned them in a school following what appears to be its deadliest attack, survivors and a local official said."
* More on this on Monday: "Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Friday barred local and state police from using federal law to seize cash, cars and other property without evidence that a crime occurred. Holder's action represents the most sweeping check on police power to confiscate personal property since the seizures began three decades ago as part of the war on drugs."
* Special relationship: "President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron together pledged to form a united front against the growing threat from homegrown Islamic militants by sharing intelligence, backing each other in military operations and working on ways to counter extremist messages that have radicalized young Muslims."
* France: "Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday capped off a morning full of high-level meetings and wreath-laying to commemorate France's struggle against terrorism by welcoming James Taylor at Paris's ornate City Hall. After strumming a few bars of 'La Marseillaise,' the national anthem of France, Mr. Taylor lowered his head and played 'You've Got a Friend,' singing the final words in French."
* The latest veto threat: "President Obama said Friday that he would veto bipartisan legislation calling for new sanctions on Iran, and he urged Congress to 'hold off' on any vote while negotiations continue on Tehran's nuclear program for the next several months."
* Executions: "Oklahoma and Florida executed two prisoners Thursday night after the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly gave the go-ahead, despite concerns about the mixture of lethal drugs used for the injections."
The race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination was many things, but it wasn't dull. A seemingly endless series of debates created an unfortunate dynamic in which GOP candidates pandered to extremists in a brazen -- at times even cringe-worthy -- way, while at the same time, creating televised soundbites that ended up being repeated well after the primaries were over.
As we discussed in May, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus was committed to getting the circus under control -- which is to say, limiting the total number of debates in which his party's candidates would embarrass themselves.
Today, as Kasie Hunt reported, Priebus got his wish.
The Republican National Committee on Friday announced plans for nine presidential primary debates this summer and fall, with an additional three possible late in the primary season.
It's a dramatic drop from the 22 debates that were held during the 2012 presidential primary season and represents an attempt to protect GOP candidates from potentially damaging remarks on the debate stage.
Priebus said in March that his goal was to keep the total below 10, and that's very likely to happen. The RNC today endorsed nine debates between August and February, with three more events that would be held if the race for the nomination is still unclear by the spring of 2016.
Also as expected, Republicans appeared eager to reward Fox: of the nine agreed upon debates, two will be held on Fox News, including the first in August, with a third scheduled for Fox Business in November. A fourth Fox debate will be held in March if necessary, while a separate, RNC-endorsed "Conservative Media Debate" is also still pending.
Republican officials set aside exactly zero debates for msnbc. NBC News will host one debate, an event in Florida next February, but it will be co-hosted by Telemundo. ABC and CBS each got one, while CNN will host two (with a possible third pending).
A few months ago, many expected the U.S. Supreme Court to take up one of the pending marriage-equality cases, but the justices declined. Three appellate courts -- the 4th, 7th, and 10th Circuits -- had already cleared the way for same-sex marriages in much of the country, and soon after the high court took a pass, the 9th Circuit reached the same conclusion.
But when the 6th Circuit went the other way, suddenly the pressure on the Supreme Court was far greater. Today, left with few options, the justices announced that marriage equality will have its day in court. Emma Margolin reported:
The day countless LGBT advocates have been waiting for is finally in sight -- the Supreme Court is going to take up a marriage equality case this term.
The nation's highest court on Friday granted all four pending requests, known as petitions for writ of certiorari, to hear challenges to same-sex marriage bans in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee. The case is likely to bring a landmark decision for the gay rights movement that establishes nationwide whether same-sex couples have a constitutional right to wed.
In case it's not obvious, let's make this very plain: this is the case that could finally bring equal marriage rights to every state in the nation.
Tom Goldstein, a lawyer who's argued several times before the Supreme Court, told NBC News, "It's impossible to overstate the historic significance of a decision on such a fundamental piece of our social fabric."
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was asked yesterday whether he believes the evidence pointing to human activities driving climate change. He wasn't eager to answer.
"Well, clearly, we have had changes in our climate," the Republican leader said. "I will let the scientists debate the sources and their opinion of that change. But I think the real question is that every proposal we see out of the administration with regard to climate change means killing American jobs. The American people are still asking a question, where are the jobs?"
As a policy matter, it's regrettable how confused the House Speaker is. The scientific debate is over, but Boehner doesn't seem to realize that. Addressing the climate crisis does not mean killing jobs, but Boehner doesn't seem to realize that, either. Job creation soared last year, and apparently Boehner missed it.
The results are in: 2014 was the hottest year on record.
The National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) released a new report Friday that declared 2014 as the Earth's warmest year yet. The globally averaged temperature for land and ocean surfaces was the highest among all years since record keeping began in 1880. The average temperature surpassed the previous records in 2005 and 2010 by 0.07 degrees Fahrenheit.
Around the same time as Boehner's climate denialism, researchers relying on new methods uncovered evidence that sea levels have risen "dramatically faster over the last two decades than anyone had known."
Despite all of this, the Republican response seems to be that the United States could do something about this, but combating the crisis might undermine economic growth.
One wonders if they realize what climate catastrophes will do to the economy as the crisis intensifies.
When I heard yesterday that the Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, wanted to inject some "sanity" into the debate over the Guantanamo debate, it briefly seemed like a welcome change of pace.
Alas, the Texas Republican's approach to "sanity" is not what I'd hoped it would be.
"Once again the President is releasing terrorists into the world with little regard to the likelihood that they will re-enter the fight, or for the risk to our forces already in harm's way," Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said in a statement.
While the administration "may claim that safeguards are in place or that the track record of re-engagement is negligible; but those of us who read intelligence reports regularly have reason to be skeptical," according to Thornberry, who previously chaired the panel's emerging threats subcommittee and served on the House Intelligence Committee.
"Action is needed to return sanity to this process," he said.
Thornberry's hope is that Congress will approve even more restrictions on President Obama's ability to transfer prisoners, which in turn would leave the controversial detention facility open indefinitely.
To be sure, we could "return sanity" to the policy debate about the prison, but the congressman's approach won't get us there any faster.
It came as a bit of a surprise a couple of months ago when Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) expressed an interest in adopting Medicaid expansion through the Affordable Care Act. Wyoming is one of the most conservative states in the nation; Mead is hardly a moderate; and resistance to "Obamacare" is the norm in this ruby-red state.
But Mead wasn't kidding. In fact, as Dylan Scott reports, the GOP governor has moved beyond just expressing an interest -- he's practically demanding his state move forward on Medicaid expansion.
"We have fought the fight against the (Affordable Care Act)," he said at the statehouse, according to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. "We've done our best to find a fit for Wyoming. We are out of timeouts, and we need to address Medicaid expansion this session."
Mead, as the conservative governor of a thoroughly Republican state, is emblematic of the conservative thawing on Medicaid expansion. He began negotiating with the Obama administration in July, and his office released an expansion plan in November. Under the plan, enrollees would have to make small co-payments and those above the poverty line would have monthly premiums.
In an unexpected move for any Republican governor, Mead has even told lawmakers that the Affordable Care Act provision is necessary to create jobs in Wyoming.
At the same time, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) is another red-state governor who's advancing Medicaid expansion in his state, and North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) is reportedly in negotiations with administration officials about a conservative version of the policy in his state, too.
About a month ago, when congressional Republicans were considering a government-shutdown scheme, Rush Limbaugh said GOP lawmakers were worried without cause.
"The Democrats have been shellacked in two recent elections, and the Republicans are running around like a fool saying the American people are not going to like them if they shut down the government is absurd," Limbaugh said. "Barack Obama's approval is in the 30s."
Last week, Christopher Caldwell, in an unfortunate piece on President Obama's legacy, said the president's support has reached "Nixonian lows."
It's time for these assumptions about the president's political standing to be reevaluated.
A CBS News poll released this week showed Obama's approval rating at 46%, up seven points since the last CBS poll in October. The latest Pew survey pointed to similar results: Obama's approval is up five points to 47%. The broader context looks good for the White House:
President Obama took a drubbing in the November elections and is the subject of constant attacks by the new Republican majority in Congress, which has taken issue with his recent executive action on immigration. But Americans appear to be gaining confidence in the president as he enters his seventh year on the job. [...]
The jump coincided with a drop of four percentage points, to 40 percent, among those saying they approved of congressional Republicans' "policies and plans for the future."
This comes on the heels of similar positive Obama polling from CNN and Gallup. All told, Obama's support is similar to where Reagan's was at this point in his second term.
At a certain level, the practical effects of the president's improved standing are quite limited. Even if they continue to improve -- a big "if" -- Obama will never be on the ballot again and the midterms are already over. What's more, the president's approval rating could soar to 90% and congressional Republicans still wouldn't consider working with him.
But the polls are important for reasons that go beyond just Obama.
It's a straightforward problem: the Highway Trust Fund, which plays a central role in financing U.S. infrastructure projects, is short on money. The fund is financed through a federal gas tax, which hasn't been raised in over 20 years, pushing American investment in infrastructure to its lowest point in nearly 70 years.
Fortunately, there's a straightforward solution: raise the federal gas tax. Better yet, it's a bipartisan solution -- Democrats support an increase, as do plenty of notable Republicans, including Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), and even Charles Krauthammer.
Now, there's disagreement about how much to raise the gas tax, and what other policies should be included in the change, but the general point is the same: raising the tax would bolster the Highway Trust Fund, boost investments, and help both the economy and our infrastructure, which even Republicans concede is currently "on life support."
And yet, it's apparently a non-starter in the Republican-led House.
A gas tax increase ain't happening. No way, no how. That was the message from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) to reporters on Thursday at the congressional Republican retreat in this small Pennsylvania town.
"No," he said. "I don't see us passing -- we won't pass a gas tax increase."
This comes just a few days after House Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) said, in no uncertain terms, "The Speaker doesn't support a gas tax hike. Period."
Last week, just hours after the initial terrorist violence in Paris, Rush Limbaugh told his audience that the Obama administration's response to Benghazi may have contributed to the killings. "These actions have consequences, ladies and gentlemen," he said last week.
If failed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney decides to run again, he needs to focus more on issues like the administration's response to the Benghazi attack, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) said Thursday.
"He's going to have to convince them that he's going to run a different kind of campaign this time," Giuliani said on "Fox and Friends." The former mayor said Romney needs to show that "he's not going to back away from topics like Benghazi."
As I recall, the failed presidential candidate tried to make the American deaths in Benghazi a campaign issue in 2012, and his efforts really didn't go well.
But that's not even the most absurd attempt to squeeze Benghazi connections into unrelated stories. This is:
Americans learned this week of a young man in Ohio who "wanted to set up an ISIS cell" in the United States, and had aspirations of attacking the U.S. Capitol. That certainly sounds scary, but fortunately, there was never any real danger -- the accused would-be terrorist, Christopher Lee Cornell, was unknowingly communicating with undercover law-enforcement officials the entire time.
Nevertheless, when officials are able to prevent violence, that's obviously a good thing, and it hardly came as a surprise when political leaders praised law enforcement for the arrest. Benjy Sarlin noted, however, that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) made a curious claim about the story yesterday.
House Speaker John Boehner said that a man arrested in a plot to bomb the U.S. Capitol was caught using a program allowed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a law that has come under fire from civil liberties advocates who say it gives the government too much power to spy on Americans' communications.
"With regard to the threat to the Capitol, coming frankly not far from where I live, the first thing that strikes me is we would have never known about this had it not been for the FISA program and our ability to collect information on people who pose an imminent threat," Boehner told reporters at the GOP retreat in Hershey.
I'll concede that Boehner, given his powerful post, has very likely received a classified briefing about these developments, including information that I have no access to.
That said, there's reason for some skepticism here.
The White House's "We The People" petition feature has long been a favorite of mine. For those unfamiliar with the initiative, regular ol' Americans can submit questions and/or ideas online; the public can vote on its favorites; and if enough people endorse the petition, the Obama administration will offer an official response. It occasionally leads to actual policy changes.
It's not easy for a petition to succeed -- the minimum threshold is 100,000 endorsements -- but even when an entry doesn't make it all the way, it's interesting to see which petitions generate interest, if for no other reason because it offers a peek into what's on some Americans' minds.
This week, for example, a petition was submitted with this headline: "Remove Ted Cruz from position for NASA oversight of the Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness." The rest of the text reads:
Ted Cruz is not qualified to hold position to oversee NASA or any other Science based Committee. He is scientifically illiterate, and constantly shows bias against scientific proof and facts against his own personally held religion and beliefs.
This is not conducive for the strengthening of scientific research or discoveries. If he stays in this position he will most assuredly aid in cutting funding for programs for which will help the United States and the world in furthering technology for the benefit of mankind.
We the people demand a person worthy of the position and who will work towards optimizing NASA for scientific discoveries be placed in this position in Ted Cruz's stead.
This was submitted on Monday, Aug. 12. As I type, it's up to nearly 30,000 signatures.
The problem is not with the sentiment; I'm not thrilled with Cruz's new role, either. Rather, this caught my eye because it's a good example of well-intentioned people getting confused about civics and institutional constraints.
It's like the "Green Lantern Theory" applied to the public, instead of Beltway pundits.
Right-wing neurosurgeon Ben Carson continues to move forward with his plans to seek the Republicans' presidential nomination, despite his record of truly bizarre rhetoric, and yesterday delivered remarks at the Republican National Committee's winter meeting.
Where Kasie Hunt heard Carson deliver even more truly bizarre remarks.
Neurosurgeon Ben Carson on Thursday said Americans can learn from the Islamic State's willingness to die for their cause, comparing ISIS to the Americans who waged the Revolutionary War against the British. [...]
"A bunch of rag-tag militiamen defeated the most powerful and professional military force on the planet. Why? Because they believed in what they were doing. They were willing to die for what they believed in," Carson told a luncheon audience of national committee members. "Fast forward to today. What do we have? You've got ISIS. They've got the wrong philosophy, but they're willing to die for it while we are busily giving away every belief and every value for the sake of political correctness. We have to change that."
National Journal's report added that Carson's underlying message to Republican officials is that he's "not 'crazy." In fact, the former Fox News personality added that he's bothered by the "craziness narrative" that's frequently tied to coverage of his remarks.
As a rule, when presidential candidates have to invest effort in convincing people they're not "crazy," those candidates have a serious problem.
Just over the last week, President Obama unveiled two major new policy priorities, which will be pillars of his State of the Union address: free community college tuition and an expansive broadband initiative. The rollouts were a reminder that the president hasn't just shaken off the midterm results; he actually seems to have become more ambitious in recent months.
Any other big ideas before Tuesday's national address? How about paid family leave? From msnbc's Irin Carmon's report:
The Obama administration is taking its longstanding push for paid sick days and parental leave to the next level. The White House [announced] Thursday the president's renewed support for legislation for up to seven paid sick days and call for new funds for states to develop their own programs.
The U.S. lags behind every other developed country in the world when it comes to time off for family or medical reasons, including maternity leave.
That's not an exaggeration. Literally every major economy on the planet guarantees at least some paid leave for workers -- except the United States.
And with that in mind, Obama is throwing his support behind the "Healthy Families Act," which would prove up to seven paid sick days a year for all American workers -- a benefit more than 40 million Americans currently lack -- and create "a $2 billion incentive fund to help states pay for family leave programs."
To be sure, Democrats have pushed this legislation before, and given Republican control of Congress, it's extremely unlikely to advance anytime soon. But the president's renewed support is intended to increase the pressure -- the onus should be on GOP policymakers to explain why paid leave is a luxury American workers don't deserve -- even while taking other steps in this area: