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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 1.28.15

01/28/15 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* Israel: "Two Israeli soldiers were killed and seven were wounded in a missile attack Wednesday as they drove in a disputed zone along the Lebanese border, Israel said, in the most serious flare-up in the area in years. Hezbollah claimed responsibility."
 
* This afternoon, the U.S. Supreme Court "granted a stay of execution for three Oklahoma death row inmates until the justices rule on a separate challenge involving the controversial sedative midazolam, NBC News' Pete Williams reported."
 
* Those hoping to see President Obama's A.G. nominee fail should probably start lowering expectations: "U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch sought to distance herself from outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder in the first day of her Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday, emphasizing that the Constitution would be her guide if she becomes the first African-American woman to serve as U.S. Attorney General."
 
* ISIS: "The Jordanian government agreed on Wednesday to release a convicted terrorist in exchange for the freeing of an air force pilot captured by Islamic State militants in Syria a month ago, according to a statement released on Jordanian state television just before a deadline set by the extremists."
 
* Tax-reform retreat: "President Obama, facing angry reprisals from parents and from lawmakers of both parties, will drop his proposal to effectively end the popular college savings accounts known as 529s, but will keep an expanded tuition tax credit at the center of his college access plan, White House officials said Tuesday."
 
* An excellent take from Paul Waldman on the lesson from the White House's reversal: "Don't mess with government giveaways to the well-off."
 
* The Fed sounds optimistic: "In its most upbeat economic assessment since the recession, the Federal Reserve cited 'solid' economic growth and 'strong' job growth in a statement issued Wednesday that suggested the Fed remains on course to raise its benchmark interest rate as soon as June."
Image: Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama

Against Putin, Obama gets the last laugh

01/28/15 04:46PM

In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama didn't name names, but he reminded some of his critics in the Republican Party that their praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin was sadly mistaken.
 
"Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, as we were reinforcing our presence with frontline states, Mr. Putin's aggression it was suggested was 'a masterful display' of 'strategy and strength.' That's what I heard from some folks," Obama said. "Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters. That's how America leads -- not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve."
 
Obama had reason to feel good -- and take a not-so-subtle dig at Putin's GOP fans. Not only is the American recovery gaining strength, but as Matt O'Brien explained yesterday, Russia's credit rating was downgraded this week to "junk" status.
[I]f Russia is rated junk, then its companies will be too -- which will increase the borrowing costs on their existing debt. It could also trigger earlier bond repayments, which, together with the higher interest rates, could, according to one official, cost them as much as $20 to $30 billion.
 
And that's $20 to $30 billion it really can't afford. Russia, as I've said before, doesn't have an economy so much as an oil-exporting business that subsidizes everything else. But it can't subsidize much when prices are only $50-a-barrel.
The confluence of economic events unfolding in Russia is amazing: cheap gas, banks in need of a bailout, crashing currency, high interest rates, and an inability to repay debts, all against the backdrop of additional sanctions.
 
There's no reason conditions are going to improve in Russia anytime soon and Putin doesn't know what to do next.
"Obamacare"  supporter Margot Smith (L) of California pleads her case with legislation opponents Judy Burel (2nd R) and Janis Haddon, both of Georgia, at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, March 28, 2012.

Anti-ACA case descends into gibberish

01/28/15 03:57PM

The rationale behind the King v. Burwell case at the Supreme Court -- the final Republican effort to destroy the Affordable Care Act -- has slowly unraveled in recent weeks, but just over the last couple of days, the entire anti-ACA argument has effectively become gibberish.
 
Consider some of the news from the last 24 hours:
 
* From Greg Sargent: "Several state officials who were directly involved at the highest levels in early deliberations over setting up state exchanges -- all of them Republicans or appointees of GOP governors -- have told me that at no point in the decision-making process during the key time-frame was the possible loss of subsidies even considered as a factor. None of these officials -- who were deeply involved in figuring out what the law meant for their states -- read the statute as the challengers do."
 
* From Sahil Kapur: "With Obamacare under the legal gun yet again, the government is using the words of the dissenting justices [from 2012] to suggest they themselves interpreted the statute then as the White House does now when it comes to the core question in the new case."
 
* From Simon Maloy: "[F]or the first half of 2011, [Republican Sen.] John Barrasso (like the rest of Congress) clearly operated with the understanding that health insurance subsidies would be paid out through all the state exchanges, regardless of who set them up....But now that he and the rest of the GOP spy another chance to have the Supreme Court dismantle the law, he's arguing that it's 'very clear' that those same subsidies were never meant to exist in the first place."
 
* From former Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.): "'I always believed that tax credits should be available in all 50 states regardless of who built the exchange, and the final law also reflects that belief as well,' Nelson wrote in a letter to Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) who sought Nelson's view."
 
Sen. Orrin Hatch's (R) previous positions prove the case is ridiculous. Gov. Scott Walker's (R) previous positions prove the case is ridiculous. The Senate Republicans' work on the 1099 provision proves the case is ridiculous. Rep. Paul Ryan's (R) previous positions prove the case is ridiculous. The Congressional Budget Office's own research proves the case is ridiculous.
 
All of this is just from the last week, leading to a painfully obvious question: at some point, can we please act like grown-ups and acknowledge reality?
Night falls over the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 20, 2015. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Republicans keep their ACA repeal crusade going

01/28/15 12:45PM

Last week, Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), one of Congress' less-conservative members, shared his frustrations about his party's direction.
 
"Week one, we had a Speaker election that did not go as well as a lot of us would have liked," Dent told reporters. "Week two, we got into a big fight over deporting children, something that a lot of us didn't want to have a discussion about. Week three, we are now talking about rape and incest and reportable rapes and incest for minors.... I just can't wait for week four."
 
If Dent is waiting for the Republican majority to get serious about its governing responsibilities, I'm afraid the Pennsylvania congressman will just have to be patient -- "week four" will feature more nonsense.
The House will vote next week on a bill to undermine the 2010 healthcare overhaul in what will be close to the 60th time over the last four years.
 
Next week's vote will be the first in this Congress to repeal ObamaCare in full, leadership aides said. The House has already voted three times to modify the healthcare law this month, including to establish a full-time workweek as 40 hours instead of 30. The vote will allow new House GOP freshmen who campaigned on repealing ObamaCare to put their pledges to a vote.
When I was a kid, I used to pass by a McDonald's on the way home from school, and it had one of those big signs out front that read, "Over __ Billion Served." Periodically, as I recall, someone would actually change the number to show that the chain has cleared another threshold, but after a while, they were replaced with less specific signs. "Billions and Billions Served," the new signs read.
 
I always figured the chain still kept track, but at a certain point, there just wasn't any point to specifying exactly how many customers had come through the doors around the globe. It was a lot; it was what McDonald's was good at; and that was enough.
 
I thought of this yesterday when learning about the House GOP's plan for next week. Just how many times have Republicans voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act? Sure, we could check, and someone is no doubt keeping track, but like McDonald's, we can probably just assume the number is very large and move on. Some folks sell hamburgers, some folks vote repeatedly to take away families' access to medical care. The exact tally becomes less important over time.

Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.28.15

01/28/15 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:
 
* Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) took another step closer to the 2016 presidential race yesterday, launching a testing-the-waters committee called "Our American Revival." At this point, five Republicans have formally entered the exploratory phase: Walker, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, and oddly enough, Lindsey Graham.
 
* The Koch brothers hosted a donor forum over the weekend, and an informal straw poll at the gathering showed most attendees preferred Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in the presidential race. Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) did not fare as well.
 
* Speaking of Rubio, the far-right Floridian argued yesterday that Congress should permanently extend expansive NSA surveillance powers. I guess he's not worried about the GOP's libertarian wing. [Update: Frank Luntz, who conducted the "poll," is now downplaying the results. “It was a random question," Luntz said. "It was only to a few people."]

* Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch has apparently made it quite clear that he does not want Mitt Romney to run yet another Republican presidential campaign.
 
* There's only one state in the nation where unemployment has increased significantly lately: Louisiana. It's the kind of detail that might cause trouble for Gov. Bobby Jindal's (R) presidential campaign.
 
* Former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), who's also moving towards the presidential race, said he was shocked to discover women using profanity in the workplace during his tenure at Fox News. He referred to the practice as "trashy."
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Dec. 2, 2014. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)

GOP grows indifferent to Homeland Security funding

01/28/15 11:21AM

Most recent showdowns on Capitol Hill follow a similar trajectory.
 
In 2011, for example, both parties agreed that national default must be avoided, until some Republicans declared, "Maybe default wouldn't be so bad." In 2012, both parties hoped to avoid damaging sequestration cuts, until some Republicans declared, "Maybe the sequester wouldn't be so bad." In 2014, both parties said they wanted to avoid a government shutdown, until some Republicans declared, "Maybe a shutdown wouldn't be so bad."
 
Top Republicans are increasingly unworried about missing the Department of Homeland Security's funding deadline.
 
The Feb. 27 deadline was supposed to mark the next stage in Congress' fight on President Barack Obama's immigration policies, but now, leading Republicans say the fallout would be limited if Congress fails to act. In private conversations and in meetings around the Capitol and on the House floor, top House GOP figures say most of DHS's 280,000 employees will stay on the job even without a new funding bill because they are considered essential employees -- though their paychecks would stop coming in the meantime.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) told Politico that Congress shouldn't ignore the looming deadline, but if lawmakers blow past it, it's "not the end of the world."
 
If you haven't been following this, lawmakers are dealing with another manufactured crisis: Democrats want to fund the Department of Homeland Security at agreed upon spending levels, and Republicans also want to fund the Department of Homeland Security at agreed upon spending levels -- but only if they can destroy President Obama's immigration policy, eliminate protections for undocumented immigrants, and make millions of immigrants eligible for deportation.
 
There's not a lot of middle ground between these two points -- there's obviously no way Democrats will agree to the Republicans' terms -- and if Congress doesn't figure something out, current DHS funding will be exhausted by the end of February.
 
Apparently, the increasingly common response from Republicans is, "So what?"
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif shakes hands with US Secretary of State John Kerry, Nov. 24, 2013.

White House gets some breathing room for diplomacy

01/28/15 10:48AM

Opponents of international nuclear talks with Iran had a plan, and on the surface, it stood a decent chance at success. Congress would, under the strategy, approve new sanctions on Tehran, forcing Iranian officials from the negotiating table, and sabotaging the diplomacy.
 
The Republican-run House would approve the sanctions easily, as would the Republican-led Senate, and to help seal the deal, House Speaker John Boehner (R) ignored American protocol and invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to deliver remarks to Congress -- two weeks before his own re-election bid -- in order to bolster support for the entire scheme.
 
For a while, it looked like there was only one question to answer: would Congress be able to override President Obama's inevitable veto? All of this was poised to come to a head within the next week or two.
 
At least, that was the plan. Yesterday, conditions changed.
Ten Senate Democrats who have advocated putting more sanctions on Iran gave the White House a two-month reprieve on Tuesday, saying they would wait until after the late-March deadline for completing the outlines of a deal to restrain Tehran's nuclear program before voting for a bill that President Obama has said would undermine any chance of reaching an agreement.
 
The concession came in a letter to Mr. Obama from Senator Robert Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, who has been increasingly at odds with the White House for his strong advocacy of a bill intended to squeeze Iran's oil revenues even harder if the nuclear negotiations do not result in an agreement. But Mr. Menendez's letter made clear that he and the other Democrats would join Senate Republicans if a meaningful accord was not reached by March 24.
The problem all along with the pro-sabotage contingent is that there's a simple question it could not answer: what's the rush? Those pushing for increased sanctions have argued for months that if the international diplomacy fails, Congress should be ready to punish Iran.
 
But why not actually wait for the talks to collapse? Why force them to collapse artificially while negotiations are ongoing?
 
What the White House wanted was more time. It also hopes to create conditions in which Iran, not the U.S., will be blamed if diplomacy ends up failing. For now, President Obama and his team have what they're looking for.
A Kurdish man holds up a weapon as he tours with others the streets of Ras al-Ain in celebration, after it was reported that Kurdish forces took control of the Syrian town of Kobani, Jani 26, 2015.

Taking control of Kobani from ISIS

01/28/15 10:04AM

The U.S. military offensive against Islamic State militants has been ongoing for five months, and the routinization of the conflict has largely pushed developments from the front page. We have some general sense that strikes against ISIS continue, but tangible results are elusive, and Congress hasn't bothered to even authorize the mission.
 
That said, this week brought a striking development in an important part of Syria.
Kurdish militias regained full control of the northern Syrian town of Kobani on Monday, driving Islamic State militants out with the help of American-led airstrikes, Kurdish activists on the scene said.
 
The bitter three-month battle for the border town took on outsize symbolic significance as it unfolded within sight of the Turkish border. It became the most visible arena in the American-led coalition's fight against the Islamic State, which has seized large areas of Syria and Iraq, and the militant group's retreat dented the aura of invincibility it has sought to cultivate.
There's a credible debate to be had about just how strategically significant this victory is in the broader context. The editorial board of the Washington Post emphasized today, for example, that there have been roughly 1,000 airstrikes on ISIS targets, and three-quarters of them focused on Kobani.
 
In other words, it's a tough tactic to duplicate. That said, a specific recipe was tested in Kobani -- U.S. airstrikes coupled with "determined" local allies on the ground -- and it matters that it was successful in forcing an ISIS retreat.

Kevin Drum's take on this was interesting:

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