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Thursday's Mini-Report, 1.15.15

01/15/15 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
* Belgium: "Two suspects were killed and a third badly injured Thursday in a counter-terrorism operation in the Belgian town of Verviers, about 75 miles east of Brussels, foiling an 'imminent attack' by Islamic extremists, officials said."
* Genuine horror in Nigeria: "Thousands of buildings were burned, damaged or destroyed in northern Nigerian towns in recent days when Boko Haram militants stormed through, using scorched-earth tactics against civilians, according to a new analysis of satellite images by human rights groups."
* A breakthrough change: "Decades of U.S. trade and travel restrictions on Cuba will come to an end on Friday, the government announced in the first tangible step towards restoring diplomatic ties between Washington and Havana."
* Climate crisis, Part 1: "Researchers have come up with a new and improved way of measuring the rise in the sea level, and the news is not good: The seas have risen dramatically faster over the last two decades than anyone had known. For hundreds of years, the seas were measured by more or less the equivalent of plopping a yard stick into the ocean and seeing if the ocean went up or down. But now, that method looks to be outdated."
* Climate crisis, Part 2: "At the rate things are going, the Earth in the coming decades could cease to be a 'safe operating space' for human beings. That is the conclusion of a new paper published Thursday in the journal Science by 18 researchers trying to gauge the breaking points in the natural world."
* Justice: "Better data should be collected about use of force by the police and about attacks on police officers, Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday. In a speech at the Justice Department honoring Martin Luther King Jr., Holder said that there is a need to address officer safety and mistrust of the police because of the use of force."
* Most Americans are siding with President Obama on immigration, as are many in law enforcement: "Two national police chiefs' associations and 27 individual police chiefs and sheriffs have signed on to a brief supporting the legality of President Barack Obama's executive action on immigration. Their brief, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Texas, opposes a federal suit filed last month by the Texas attorney general that seeks to block the executive action."
State Sen. Joni Ernst waves to supporters on June 3, 2014, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Charlie Neibergall/AP)

The 'perfect choice' to serve as the voice of the 2015 GOP

01/15/15 03:36PM

Delivering an official response to a president's State of the Union address is a difficult, thankless task, which often doesn't go especially well (see Jindal, Bobby and Rubio, Marco). A president generally enjoys an august platform, interrupted repeatedly with standing ovations, while the response usually features a politician standing alone, struggling to read from a teleprompter while speaking to a lone camera.
With all of this in mind, Republicans have made their choice in advance of President Obama's speech next week.
Newly elected Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst will deliver the Republican response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, Republicans announced Thursday. [...]
Ernst, who beat Democrat Bruce Braley decisively in November, told reporters she is "humbled and honored" to have the opportunity to deliver the address. The announcement was made at a Republican legislative retreat in Hersey, Pennsylvania.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the right-wing Iowan, just one week into her congressional career, the "perfect choice."
And at a certain level, it's easy to understand why. Ernst is a telegenic speaker who just won a competitive U.S. Senate race in an important battleground state. Given that congressional Republican leaders are dominated by white men, it stands to reason that the party would prioritize diversity for this national address.
But if Joni Ernst is now the "perfect choice" to speak on behalf of the Republican Party in 2015, it's worth appreciating just what this choice tells us about the state of GOP politics.
Barack Obama, Edna Pemberton

'Obamacare' reduces medical financial stress for U.S. families

01/15/15 12:30PM

The successes or failures of the Affordable Care Act seem to have no real bearing on the political debate surrounding the law. We know this to be true, of course, because if the efficacy of the law made a real-world difference, the debate would already be over.
The number of Americans struggling to pay medical bills fell last year for the first time in nearly a decade -- the latest sign that Obamacare is making health care more affordable.
Sixty-four million people, or approximately 35 percent of the U.S. population, said they had trouble paying bills or were stuck paying off medical debt in the past year, according to a new survey by the Commonwealth Fund released on Thursday. That was down from 75 million people, or 41 percent of the population, in 2012.
Since Commonwealth started conducting this research a decade ago, the percentage of Americans in financial distress due to medical bills was steadily increasing every year. Then the Affordable Care Act became law and conditions improved.
The lead author of the research, Sara Collins, the lead author, said in a press release, "These declines are remarkable and unprecedented in the survey's more than decade-long history. They indicate that the Affordable Care Act is beginning to help people afford the health care they need."
Making matters slightly worse for ACA opponents, the same research found "for the first time since 2003, there has been a decline in the number of people putting off health care because of the cost."
In other words, conservative critics of "Obamacare" screamed relentlessly about the prospect of health care "rationing" if the ACA became law. It turns out, they had it backwards.

Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.15.15

01/15/15 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:
* In California, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has already thrown her support to state Attorney General Kamala Harris (D) in the race to replace retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). In addition to an endorsement, Warren has begun raising money for the apparent Democratic frontrunner.
* Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is still a few months from announcing her presidential plans, but this week she hired President Obama's former pollster, Joel Benenson, for her team. (Yes, in case you were curious, every time I see Benenson's name, I do a quick double take because it's similar to mine, but we're not related.)
* At its winter meeting yesterday, the Republican National Committee's executive committee approved a resolution censuring David Agema, an RNC member from Michigan, who's drawn fire for his controversial, racially charged antics.
* Those hoping to see right-wing neurosurgeon Ben Carson run for president "have already donated $12 million to the cause." That's a figure that lends Carson at least some credibility as a candidate.

* Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) has not yet officially launched his 2016 bid, but his very wealthy benefactor, Foster Friess, "will host a private gathering in Scottsdale, Ariz., this weekend to rally support behind Santorum's potential 2016 bid."
* Multiple reports this week suggested congressional Republicans are not thrilled with the idea of another Mitt Romney presidential candidacy, but the former governor picked up a couple of endorsements yesterday from Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).
Razor wire-topped fence at the abandoned "Camp X-Ray" detention facility at the US Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on April 9, 2014. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty)

Obama pushes Guantanamo population even lower

01/15/15 11:34AM

Shortly before the holidays, President Obama was asked whether the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay will be closed by the end of 2015. He didn't answer directly, but he committed to doing "everything I can to close it."
The Obama administration's steady transfer of Guantanamo Bay prisoners continued Wednesday when five detainees were released from the facility and relocated.
Congress was notified of the transfer and the administration's Guantanamo Review Task Force unanimously approved the move, the Pentagon said. The Defense Department announced the transfer of five detainees -- one to Estonia and four to Oman. Akhmed Abdul Qadir was transferred to Oman; Al Khadr Abdallah Muhammad Al Yafi, Fadel Hussein Saleh Hentif, Abd Al-Rahman Abdullah Au Shabati and Mohammed Ahmed Salam were transferred to Estonia, according to the Pentagon.
From January to October of last year, just six detainees were transferred from the prison. There's been a flurry of activity since, and with these new transfers, Guantanamo's population will drop to 122 detainees, down from its peak of 680 prisoners in 2003.
The steady reduction is legal under the policy dictated by Congress -- lawmakers won't let the Obama administration try suspected terrorists in American courts or imprison the detainees on American soil, but there's nothing stopping U.S. officials from transferring prisoners to other countries once they've been cleared for release.
There is, however, a new Republican effort underway to tighten the law and restrict the White House's options.
Then, Republican U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign rally at SeaGate Convention Centre on Sept. 26, 2012 in Toledo, Ohio. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty)

A candidacy in search of a rationale

01/15/15 11:08AM

I continue to watch Mitt Romney move closer to a third presidential campaign with a degree of disbelief. Obviously, I can see the reports as clearly as anyone else, but I keep stumbling on the same questions. Is this really happening? Is Romney pulling some kind of prank? Will I really have to re-start the "Mitt's Mendacity" franchise?
But more important than my own incredulity, of course, is the rationales Team Mitt has shared recently to justify his burgeoning candidacy. Here's one of my favorites:
"They have not done a lot to flush out the details of his candidacy," said Tom Rath, a senior adviser to Romney in both his 2008 and 2012 campaigns, speaking of Bush. "His time as governor was quite a while ago."
Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney both left public office in 2002. If Bush's "time as governor was quite a while ago," and that's a bad thing, Romney has the exact same problem. The only difference between them on this score is that Bush was a fairly popular governor who won two terms and Romney was an unpopular governor who quit after one term, fearing a re-election defeat.
"You saw what they did to me with Bain [Capital]," [Romney] has said, referring to the devastating attacks that his Republican rivals and President Barack Obama's team launched against him for his time in private equity, according to three sources familiar with the line. "What do you think they'll do to [Jeb Bush] over Barclays?"
This is amazing, even for Romney. Jeb Bush has a controversial record in the private sector, which Romney believes will be devastating. As proof, Romney reportedly points to the brutal criticisms from Democrats of Romney's private sector background.
Of course, by this reasoning, doesn't it suggest Republicans need a candidate who is neither Bush nor Romney?
U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) speaks in Washington on Dec. 2, 2014.

Rand Paul looks to 'dissolve' the United Nations

01/15/15 10:35AM

As the 2016 presidential race starts to slowly take shape, one of the background questions has focused on Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). The question isn't whether he intends to run -- it seems pretty obvious that he will kick off a campaign -- but rather whether the Republican senator will temper some of his more eccentric instincts.
Paul, by any fair measure, is one of the most prominent conspiracy theorists in American politics. I've generally assumed, however, that he'll tone down his more colorful views in order to appear more like a mainstream candidate and less like a fringe ally of Glenn Beck and Alex Jones (which the senator is).
It was of interest, then, to see Paul express support yesterday for dissolving the United Nations.
Rand Paul is not a fan of the United Nations, and on a campaign-style swing through New Hampshire on Wednesday, the likely Republican presidential hopeful said that he would support dissolving the international governing body entirely.
Speaking to a room full of gun rights advocates at the Londonderry Fish & Game Club, Paul said that while the concept of having a multinational body to "discuss diplomacy" isn't necessarily a bad one, he objects to the current structure, in which the United States has to foot "a huge chunk" of the U.N.'s bill.
"I dislike paying for something that two-bit Third World countries with no freedom attack us and complain about the United States," Paul said, according to the Real Clear Politics report. "There's a lot of reasons why I don't like the U.N., and I think I'd be happy to dissolve it."
To be sure, this doesn't come as too big a surprise. The United Nations is a popular foil for conspiracy theorists, and Rand Paul in particular has made some truly bizarre allegations about the world body in recent years.
In 2013, for example, the GOP senator wrote a letter on behalf of a radical gun group in which Paul argued that the United Nations intends to "force" the United States to "CONFISCATE and DESTROY ALL 'unauthorized' civilian firearms," while creating "an INTERNATIONAL gun registry, setting the stage for full-scale gun CONFISCATION."
The capitalized words originally appeared in Paul's 2013 ridiculous letter; I didn't capitalize them for emphasis.
President Barack Obama uses a laptop computer to send a tweet during a "Twitter Town Hall" in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, July 6, 2011.

Obama readies push for faster U.S. internet access

01/15/15 09:53AM

In advance of next week's State of the Union address, no one can accuse President Obama of pushing a stale agenda lacking new ideas.
In a YouTube video released by the White House on Tuesday, President Obama speaks to the importance of fast broadband Internet service, and announces his intention to make it accessible to more Americans as a means by which to strengthen the U.S. economy. "One of the things that I'm going to make an early announcement about this week," Obama says in the video, "is the issue of getting faster broadband."
For many Americans, I imagine the idea that the White House, or even the federal government in general, can improve your Internet access may seem a little fanciful.
But it's not. There are meaningful steps the Obama administration can take in this area that could make a real difference.
Morning commuters walk on Wall Street in New York's financial district

Wall Street still has its champions on Capitol Hill

01/15/15 09:02AM

Congressional Republicans are many things. Subtle isn't one of them.
Late last year, when putting together a compromise spending package, GOP lawmakers prioritized a provision that undermined Wall Street safeguards included in the Dodd/Frank law. Last week, on the second day of the new Congress, Republicans again went after financial industry safeguards.
Earlier this week, when Congress reauthorized the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA), it included a measure that also chipped away at Dodd/Frank. All of which led to yesterday, which once again featured Republicans targeting rules for the finance industry. 
The House on Wednesday easily passed legislation to ease some of the banking regulations adopted after the financial crisis, with 29 Democrats shrugging off President Obama's veto threat to join united House Republicans. [...]
It would delay by two years a Dodd-Frank mandate that financial firms sell off bundled debt, known as collateralized loan obligations; exempt some private equity firms from registering with the Securities and Exchange Commission; loosen regulations on derivatives; and allow some small, publicly traded companies to omit historical financial data from their financial filings.
The final roll call is online here. Note, because congressional Republicans have an extraordinary sense of humor, the legislation is called the "Promoting Job Creation and Reducing Small Business Burdens Act."
No, seriously.

Jobless claims climb, reach four-month high

01/15/15 08:37AM

With the caveat that initial unemployment claims tend to get a little erratic shortly after the holidays, today's new data from the Labor Department isn't great.
The number of people who applied for U.S. unemployment benefits in the first full week of January shot up to the highest level in four months and topped the 300,000 mark for the first time since Thanksgiving. Initial jobless claims climbed 19,000 to 316,000 in the seven days ended Jan 9, the Labor Department said Thursday. That's only the second time claims have risen above 300,000 since September. Economists polled by MarketWatch had expected claims to total a seasonally adjusted 295,000. [...]
The average of new claims over the past month, meanwhile, rose by 6,750 to 298,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. The four-week average smoothens out seasonal volatility in the weekly report and is seen as a more accurate predictor of labor-market trends.
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, and when the number drops below 370,000, it suggests jobs are being created rather quickly. At this point, we’ve been below 300,000 in 16 of the last 18 weeks.
Demonstrators protest during an immigration reform rally in front of the U.S. Capitol on Capitol Hill in Washington in this October 13, 2009 file photo.

House GOP intensifies immigration standoff

01/15/15 08:01AM

In theory, the task before Congress is quite simple: fund the Department of Homeland Security. Everyone involved in the process -- Democrats and Republicans, lawmakers and the White House -- already agree on how much money is going to be allocated. Easy peasy, right?
Wrong. Thanks to a gambit House Republicans threw together in December, Republican lawmakers are using the DHS funding bill as the basis for an ugly showdown: either President Obama accepts GOP demands to effectively dismantle his entire approach to immigration policy or Congress will gut Homeland Security funding when it expires at the end of February.
Despite broad concerns that this plan is doomed to fail, the House majority just kept pushing yesterday.
In a final 236-191 vote, lawmakers agreed to keep the department running through September in legislation that includes a set of amendments designed to unravel and block funding to the president's executive measures.
Far-right elements of the party tacked the toxic amendments to dismantle not just the latest immigration actions brought by President Obama, but also a similar initiative from 2012. In sum, the amendments work to prevent millions of undocumented immigrants the right to apply for work permits and seek temporary relief from deportation.
Republicans at least claimed to be outraged by the White House's executive actions in December, but when crafting their approach to Homeland Security funding, GOP leaders effectively said, "Well, as long we're here, let's go ahead and push for mass deportations." Yesterday's package even sought to roll back Obama's 2012 actions protecting Dream Act kids.
This almost certainly isn't the path House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) wanted to follow, but as is often the case, his ostensible followers didn't give him much of a choice. The Republican leader was left to make obviously foolish arguments such as, "We are dealing with a president who has ignored the people, ignored the Constitution, and even his own past statements," and, "The president's overreach is an affront to the rule of law and the Constitution itself."
Nonsensical rhetoric notwithstanding, the real question is what happens now.