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Iran nuclear deal hailed as groundbreaking

Iran nuclear deal hailed as groundbreaking

04/02/15 08:59PM

Joe Cirincione, a member of Secretary Kerry's International Security Advisory Board, talks with Rachel Maddow about the details in the newly announced framework for a deal to dismantle Iran's nuclear program, and what makes the agreement historic. watch

Thursday's Mini-Report, 4.2.15

04/02/15 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* The death toll in Kenya has climbed throughout the day: "At least 147 people were killed after an elite al Qaeda-linked terror unit stormed a college campus in Kenya and targeted Christians on Thursday, Kenyan and U.S. officials said." Somalia's al Shabab terror group claimed responsibility.
 
* Indiana: "A proposed fix to Indiana's controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was met with mixed reactions on Thursday, exactly one week after the state's Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed the bill into law and unleashed an avalanche of national scorn."
 
* As conditions in Yemen deteriorate, al Qaeda "broke out 300 people from the central prison in al-Mukallah, looted the building and killed two prison guards." That's a very serious development.
 
* Iraq: "Although the government's declaration that Tikrit was completely liberated may be somewhat premature -- with Islamic State militants still holed up and fighting in neighborhoods to the north -- the advances are considerable."
 
* Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) will replace Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), at least for now, as the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
 
* Michigan: "With the national furor swirling around Indiana's recent decision, Gov. Rick Snyder said Thursday that he will veto a Religious Freedom Restoration Act bill if it makes it to his desk" (thanks to my colleague Laura Conaway for the heads-up).
 
* New York bomb plot: "Two women living in Queens have been charged with planning to build a bomb that they wanted to detonate in the United States."
Loretta E. Lynch

Loretta Lynch secures majority support in Senate

04/02/15 04:49PM

As the week got underway, Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch, who was nominated 145 days ago, seemed to have enough votes to be confirmed, but there was some lingering uncertainty. As of Monday, most head-counts put Lynch at 50 votes -- 46 Democrats and four Republicans -- which would put Vice President Biden in a position to break the tie.
 
But such a narrow margin left no room for error. When Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), facing federal corruption allegations, said he might abstain from voting on Lynch altogether, it raised eyebrows -- if he followed through on this, the A.G. nominee would fail.
 
But today Lynch's path to confirmation appears clearer. For one thing, Menendez is now on board, his criminal indictment notwithstanding.
Aides to Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who was indicted Wednesday on federal corruption charges here, said the senator plans to support Lynch's confirmation when it comes to the Senate floor in the coming weeks.
For another, this afternoon Lynch picked up one additional Republican supporter.
Senator Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois, announced Thursday that he would vote to confirm Loretta E. Lynch as the next attorney general, meaning she almost certainly has the votes needed for confirmation.
Kirk, who's facing a difficult re-election bid in a blue state next year, joins Sens. Susan Collins, Lindsey Graham, Orrin Hatch, and Jeff Flake as the only GOP members publicly committed to backing Lynch's nomination.
 
Kirk's announcement also brings Lynch's total number of supporters to 51, eliminating the need for tie-breaking vote from Biden.
 
If Lynch's nomination ever reaches the floor, that is.
President Barack Obama arrives to deliver remarks on the ongoing negotiations with Iran over their nuclear program on April 2, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty)

Obama defies the odds, announces provisional Iran deal

04/02/15 03:53PM

It's easy to forget that since 1979, the United States and Iran barely spoke, at all, in any capacity. Before 2013, the two nations' heads of state hadn't directly communicated with one another at all. Indeed, just a decade ago, U.S. foreign policy dictated that Iran was part of an "axis of evil."
 
But today is a new, very different day. President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, leading U.S. allies, and international negotiating partners were able to overcome decades of history, animosity, and distrust to announce a provisional nuclear agreement.
President Obama on Thursday announced a "historic understanding" with Iran that he said would prevent that country from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Moments before the president spoke from the White House, top diplomatic officials in Lausanne, Switzerland, announced the framework for a final agreement on the future of the Iranian nuclear program.
 
"It is a good deal," Obama said, adding, "If this framework leads to a final comprehensive deal, it will make our country, our allies and our world safer."
The agreement is not yet complete. What the negotiators agreed to is a framework -- a blueprint of sorts -- that will serve as the basis for additional talks in which participants will hammer out details. The P5+1 process, led by negotiators from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China, Russia, and Iran, will continue for an additional three months.
 
But don't mistake this for a routine or unimportant development. On the contrary, today's announcement is a historic diplomatic breakthrough, which could have fallen apart any number of times, and which faced long odds from the start.
 
And yet, here we are.
Republican presidential candidate U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks during a campaign stop at the V.F.W. Hall in Merrimack, N.H. on March 27, 2015. (Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters)

The political perils of taking attendance

04/02/15 12:51PM

In the closing days of the 2014 campaign cycle, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) traveled to North Carolina in the hopes of defeating then-Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.). The Republican specifically went after the Democrat for having missed some Senate Armed Services Committee hearings. 
 
"Here we are with Americans being beheaded, and Sen. Hagan doesn't even show up for the briefing," McCain griped.
 
The same week, the Arizona Republican traveled to New Hampshire to complain about Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's (D-N.H.) imperfect attendance at Senate Armed Services Committee meetings. "I don't see her at very many of the hearings," McCain said, citing this as proof that the Democrat is not a "serious member" of the panel
 
In retrospect, this might not have been the ideal line of attack for the GOP.
Ted Cruz thunders about what he calls a "fundamentally unserious" U.S. defense policy, but when he had a chance to weigh in during Senate Armed Services Committee hearings, he rarely showed up.
 
Cruz, who announced last week he's running for president, has the committee's worst attendance record -- by far.
Politico found that Cruz, after just two years on Capitol Hill, has become quite cavalier about showing up for official committee gatherings, skipping 13 of the panel's 16 hearings this year. The Senate committee has 26 members, and Cruz is literally the only who's absent more than half the time.
 
Asked for an explanation, Cruz's office told Politico the senator, because of his lack of seniority, is "often last in line to speak, and any questions he may have for witnesses have already been asked."
 
That's true, but the point of the hearings is to help members learn things. Whether or not Cruz has to wait his turn to press witnesses, he might benefit from listening to the Q&A anyway.

Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 4.2.15

04/02/15 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:
 
* The new Washington Post/ABC poll suggests Jeb Bush is well known nationally, but not well liked. Only 33% of the public has a favorable impression of the former Florida governor, while a 53% majority view him unfavorably. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has a narrow net positive rating, 49% to 46%.
 
* The same poll found Clinton leading each of possible GOP rivals in a hypothetical presidential match-up. The former Secretary of State leads Bush by 14 points (54% to 40%), Ted Cruz by 19 points (58% to 37%), and Marco Rubio by 17 points (55% to 38%).
 
* In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker's (R) former deputy chief of staff started a six-month prison sentence yesterday, stemming from a Walker fundraising scandal.
 
* Hillary Clinton continues to use Twitter to weigh in on the major issues of the day, tweeting her opposition yesterday morning to Arkansas' proposed right-to-discriminate bill.
 
* Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already announced his support for Sen. Rand Paul's unannounced campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, but when the junior senator from Kentucky formally launches his candidacy in Louisville next week, the senior senator from Kentucky will not be there.
 
* In Louisiana, where Gov. Bobby Jindal's (R) second term is starting to wind down, the governor has dispatched some of his top aides to Iowa in advance of a likely presidential campaign.
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)

Cotton compares US to Iran, sees discrimination as unimportant

04/02/15 11:16AM

With his home state of Arkansas embroiled in a controversy over a right-to-discriminate bill, Sen. Tom Cotton (R) was asked yesterday about how his state should proceed. "In Arkansas, we believe in religious freedom," the far-right senator replied.
 
CNN's Wolf Blitzer reminded the Republican, "Everybody believes in religious freedom. The question is the discrimination, potential discrimination against gay Americans." Believe it or not, this was Cotton's response (via Judd Legum):
"I also think it's important that we have a sense of perspective about our priorities. In Iran they hang you for the crime of being gay. They're currently imprisoning an American preacher for spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ in Iran. We should focus on the most important priorities our country faces right now.
 
"And I would say that a nuclear armed Iran, given the threat that it poses to the region and to our interests in the region and American citizens, is the most important thing that we'd be focused on."
He didn't appear to be kidding.
 
It's an incredible perspective for anyone to share, but for a U.S. senator to make this argument on national television is striking, even by 2015 standards. Arkansas' legislature approved a proposal that would empower business owners to legally discriminate against members of the public. For Tom Cotton to endorse such a proposal would be par for the course.
 
But note that his argument goes much further: the far-right senator effectively argued that gays shouldn't complain too much about discrimination, since Arkansas is at least better than Iran. That's his point of comparison -- Cotton doesn't compare Arkansas to America's highest ideals; he compares his home state to a Middle Eastern theocracy.
 
Sorry, gay Americans, you may face discrimination in your own country, but Arkansas isn't talking about arresting or executing you, so apparently Tom Cotton doesn't want to hear your complaints.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie looks down while speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor in Md., Feb. 26, 2015. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

How to fail a litmus test

04/02/15 10:35AM

Presidential candidates tend to know a litmus-test issue when they see it. As much of the nation debates the propriety of Indiana's soon-to-be-changed discrimination measure, Republican presidential candidates have been pressed for their reactions and positions.
 
And for the most part, White House hopefuls have been willing -- and in some cases, have been eager -- to share their views. Jeb Bush has even had time to share two, contradictory positions, telling a conservative radio host on Monday that he supports the Indiana statute and sees no need for changes, and then saying largely the opposite at a Silicon Valley fundraiser yesterday, where he endorsed changes to the law to prevent discrimination.
 
Most of the GOP 2016 field has been content to take just one position, with Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, and Scott Walker endorsing the Indiana policy with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
 
But that's not quite the entire field. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), for example, who's had some troubles with civil rights and discrimination before, has been unavailable for comment. A Paul spokesperson told reporters, "The senator is out of pocket with family this week and has not weighed in at this time." He is, by all appearances, taking a breather before formally launching his presidential bid next week.
 
And what about the governor of New Jersey?
Gov. Chris Christie is keeping mum on Indiana's new religious-freedom law, the subject of alternating debate about religious freedom and overreaching government. [...]
 
Where does Christie stand? So far, he isn't saying publicly. Christie didn't jump into the debate at his town hall in Kenilworth Tuesday and remained silent Wednesday. His office did not respond to a request for comment.
Many news outlets have tried to get an answer from Christie or his staff on this. On this, Team Christie is apparently quite shy [Update:. the governor has finally commented. See below.]
 
As regular readers may recall, this happens quite a bit.
The stage is seen inside Air Force One Pavilion before the start of the Ronald Reagan Centennial GOP Presidential Primary Candidates Debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Sept. 7, 2011 in Simi Valley, Calif. (Photo by David McNew/Getty)

A new GOP top tier takes shape?

04/02/15 10:02AM

Over the last few months, the early polling in the Republican presidential race has been relatively consistent. Jeb Bush and Scott Walker have made the top tier of the GOP field, with Mike Huckabee -- and in some polls, right-wing neurosurgeon Ben Carson -- not far behind. The rest of the crowded field has generally struggled to reach double digit support among likely Republican primary voters.
 
But just over the last 24 hours, the political world has received a timely reminder about the volatility of the early standings. Consider, for example, the new national survey from Public Policy Polling, which suggests the Republicans' top tier has a new member.
 
1. Scott Walker 20%
2. Jeb Bush 17%
3. Ted Cruz 16%

Note, Cruz saw his support more than triple since the previous PPP survey in late February. (In this poll, Carson and Rand Paul were at 10% each, creating a second tier, and no one else reached double digits.)
 
There's also this new Washington Post/ABC News poll of Republican voters:
 
1. Jeb Bush 20%
2. Ted Cruz 13%
3. Scott Walker 12%
 
No other GOP candidate in the poll reached double digits. After the top tier, Rand Paul was fourth with 9%, followed by Huckabee at 8%, and Ben Carson and Marco Rubio tied for the sixth place with 7% each.
 
So, is it time to welcome Ted Cruz to the top tier of the Republican presidential race and start treating him accordingly? Not exactly.
An employee at a money changer counts $100 bills.

Republicans push for new tax break for multi-millionaires

04/02/15 09:16AM

House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) recently made a complaint that sounded a bit like class warfare. "The Obamanomics that we're practicing now have exacerbated inequality," the far-right congressman said, adding that only "the wealthy are doing really well."
 
Though the message doesn't really match the messenger, this kind of chatter has become surprisingly common. Back in January, Mitt Romney, Mr. 47 Percent himself, told RNC members how concerned he is that "the rich have gotten richer" and "income inequality has gotten worse." Before that, it was Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) who complained, "Right now, the top 1 percent in this country, the millionaires and billionaires the president demagogues so much, earn a higher share of our national income than any time since 1928."
 
The rhetoric has long seemed quite ridiculous given the policy prescription pushed by the likes of Ryan, Romney, and Cruz. But as Matt O'Brien noted, the concerns over economic inequality are especially farcical given the GOP's push to scrap the estate tax on the wealthiest of the wealthy.
Indeed, the Paul Ryan-led House Ways and Means Committee just symbolically voted to end the estate tax entirely. In other words, to stand in solidarity with the heirs of the top 0.2 percent.
 
That's how many households pay the estate tax now: 2 out of 1,000. Why so low? Well, the first $5.43 million that an individual or $10.86 million that a couple leaves behind isn't taxed when they pass away. The estate tax, with its 40 percent top rate, only kicks in for anything more than that. And even then, creative accountants and big deductions can shield a lot of the rest from Uncle Sam.
By "symbolically voted," O'Brien was referring to a provision in the House Republican budget plan, which passed last week with a provision to eliminate the estate tax entirely, but is non-binding on Congress as members begin the appropriations process.
 
What's more, it's not just the House.

Jobless claims show sharp improvement, reach 3-month low

04/02/15 08:40AM

It's been a while since we saw a great report from the Labor Department on initial unemployment claims. This one qualifies.
The number of people who applied for unemployment benefits in late March fell to the second lowest amount since the recession ended and touched levels last seen 15 years ago, making initial claims one of the few economic indicators to show underlying strength in a U.S. economy whose growth appears to have slackened in the first quarter.
 
Initial jobless claims fell by 20,000 to a seasonally adjusted 268,000 in the seven days stretching from March 22 to March 28, the government said Thursday. Economists polled by MarketWatch had expected claims to total 285,000. The average of new claims over the past month, meanwhile, declined by 14,750 to 285,500.
To reiterate the point I make every Thursday morning, it’s worth remembering that week-to-week results can vary widely, and it’s best not to read too much significance into any one report.
 
In terms of metrics, when jobless claims fall below the 400,000 threshold, it’s considered evidence of an improving jobs landscape. At this point, we’ve been below 300,000 in 23 of the last 29 weeks.
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 10, 2014. (Photo by Larry Downing/Reuters)

Menendez indictment shakes up Capitol Hill

04/02/15 08:00AM

Just hours after being indicted on federal corruption charges, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) hosted a press conference to defend himself. The New Jersey Democrat took no questions from assembled reporters, but he struck a defiant note: "I am not going anywhere."
 
What's less clear is whether the senator will have much of a choice. The editorial page of New Jersey's largest paper, the Star-Ledger, has already urged Menendez to resign.
The state needs a respected senator who is focused on his job, not a tarnished defendant who spends his days fending off credible charges of corruption and raising money for his legal defense. [...]
 
[Menendez] has done good service to this state over the past 40 years. But that is now tarnished forever. His decision to stay and fight only compounds the damage.
Part of the senator's challenge is the fragility of his defense. Menendez is accused of receiving lavish gifts from Florida optometrist Salomon Melgen, a wealthy donor and longtime ally, in exchange for political favors. Most of the details are not in dispute: the senator received nearly $1 million in gifts from Melgen, and Menendez took a wide variety of steps to use his office to help Melgen personally and professionally.
 
But, the senator claims, the two are unrelated -- because Menendez and Melgen have been friends for many years, the gifts and favors should be seen as unrelated. In other words, the defense is that the arrangements were largely coincidental.
 
The Justice Department's investigators didn't find this persuasive. The senator hopes to have better luck in the courts.
 
But in the meantime, the very rare indictment of a sitting senator quickly reverberated on Capitol Hill.

Terror attack in Kenya and other headlines

04/02/15 07:35AM

Gunmen attack a university in Kenya. (AP)

New Jersey is #1 in the country in criminals per politician. (Washington Post)

Wounded Scalise opens up about race. (The Hill)

UN: 25,000 foreign fighters now linked to ISIS and al Qaeda. (NBC News)

Iran talks resume after all-night session. (AP)

John Kerry is apparently a very big deal in Switzerland. (BuzzFeed)

Japan's defense minister denies aliens (as in from space) had entered nation. (AFP)

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