Rachel Maddow reports on the latest step in the U.S. rapprochement with Cuba, and details the story behind President Obama's trip to Boise, Idaho, to visit with the family of Christian pastor Saeed Abedini who is being held prisoner in Iran. watch
* Ferguson: "The Justice Department has begun work on a legal memo recommending no civil rights charges against a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., who killed an unarmed black teenager in August, law enforcement officials said."
* When 50,000 gallons of oil leaks into a river, it's a very big deal: "More than 5,000 people in the rural Montana city of Glendive have been told not to use municipal water because elevated levels of cancer-causing benzene were found downstream from a weekend crude oil spill into the Yellowstone River."
* Historic talks: "The highest-ranking U.S. diplomat to travel to Cuba in nearly 40 years boarded a commercial flight Wednesday morning from Miami -- ahead of negotiations to re-establish diplomatic ties between the two countries."
* FHA at the high court: "At a Supreme Court hearing Wednesday, Scalia joined all four liberal justices in sounding deeply skeptical of a bid by the state of Texas to dramatically narrow the scope of the 1968 Fair Housing Act (FHA), which prohibits racial and other forms of discrimination in housing."
* And speaking of the court: "President Barack Obama issued a strong statement Wednesday in opposition to the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizen's United decision, a ruling he believes 'has caused real harm to our democracy.'" The ruling was issued five years ago today.
* This guy: "A Virginia lawmaker who was elected to the House of Delegates while serving a jail term now faces felony charges for allegedly entering a forged document into court and lying under oath, according to an indictment unsealed Wednesday in Henrico County."
States regularly make official designations that demonstrate their unique qualities. Just about every state in the union has an official state bird, state motto, state song, state flower, etc. Once in a while, these innocuous designations cause political trouble -- the South Carolina effort to create an official state fossil, for example, drew opposition from a creationist lawmaker.
A similar problem arose this week in Idaho where a local teenager asked lawmakers to name an official state amphibian. As the Spokesman-Reviewreported this week, it didn't go well (via Taegan Goddard).
Idaho lawmakers worried that special recognition of the Idaho giant salamander could lead to federal protections have rejected a grade school student's request that it be named the state amphibian.
The House State Affairs Committee voted 10-6 on Monday against 14-year-old Ilah Hickman's plan. It was her fifth attempt in as many years to persuade lawmakers that students made a good choice for state amphibian.
This might sound a little nutty -- because it is -- but according to the lawmakers who rejected the idea, if Idaho makes the Idaho giant salamander the state's official amphibian, then federal officials might make the salamander an endangered species. And at that point, the state might have to endure all kinds of new regulations from Washington.
About a month ago, just two days after Christmas, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) traveled to Jerusalem for a joint appearance with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, where the American lawmaker struck an interesting note.
"I'm here to tell you, Mr. Prime Minister, that the Congress will follow your lead," Graham said.
Ordinarily, America's elected lawmakers follow the American president's lead on matters of international affairs, making the senator's comment just a little jarring.
House Speaker John Boehner is inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress on February 11. The invitation comes as the Hill braces for a clash with the White House over sanctions on Iran.
Boehner told reporters that he did not consult the White House before extending the invitation, adding "I do not believe I am poking anyone in the eye."
Well, whether the Speaker believes it or not, this was quite a provocative move, which is arguably without precedent.
By delivering remarks to the U.S. Congress, Netanyahu will get a political boost at an opportune time -- the prime minister will speak on Feb. 11, with Israeli elections to follow just five weeks later. The move may give the appearance of interfering in a foreign democratic election.
More importantly, Netanyahu will not be stopping by Capitol Hill for a friendly chat. Congressional Republicans, and a few Democrats, hope to sabotage international nuclear talks with Iran by imposing new sanctions on Tehran, destroying the once-in-a-generation diplomatic opportunity. These American critics of the talks see the conservative Israeli leader as an ally towards their goal, so his Washington visit is likely to be part of the broader lobbying effort.
It hasn't exactly been subtle. Congressional Republicans, thrilled to be in the majority in both chamber, have tried to get this Congress off to the most far-right start possible. It's included aggressive pushes on gutting health care, weakening Wall Street safeguards, and making Social Security susceptible to important cuts.
But just two weeks into the session, Republicans also haven't forgotten about the culture war.
House Republican leadership is planning to move forward with a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks, despite opposition from female lawmakers who fear the legislation is too harsh and could turn off young voters.
The bill, sponsored by Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), would exempt rape victims from the abortion restrictions, but only if they report the attack to police -- a clause multiple GOP staffers said could further discourage victims of sexual assault from seeking medical help.
As the Politico report noted, Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.), a former nurse and an opponent of abortion rights, urged GOP leaders to alter the legislation -- a point she emphasized to her GOP colleagues at the party's retreat last week. Party leaders nevertheless refused, prompting Ellmers and Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) to withdraw their support from the bill.
The result is a rare sight: a controversial culture war bill that's not only dividing Republicans against Democrats, but also Republicans against Republicans.
The vote on the bill is expected tomorrow, timed by GOP leaders specifically to coincide with the annual March for Life, held on the anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision.
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 advance of his presidential campaign, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's (R) home-state support continues to drop. A new Quinnipiac poll shows the Republican governor with a 46% approval rating, while 50% disapprove. The pollster's report noted this is Christie's "worst overall score in almost four years."
* Vice President Biden's name is often left out of conversations about the 2016 presidential race, but he told NBC's Matt Lauer this morning he believes he "could do a good job" as a candidate and there's "a chance" he'll throw his hat into the ring.
* This week, Mitt Romney said climate change is a "real and a major problem." For those keeping track, that means the former governor has flip-flop-flip-flopped on the issue, repeatedly changing his mind about the crisis.
* Mike Huckabee's new presidential campaign hasn't begun just yet, but he's already confronting a controversy: his political action committee, ostensibly created to contribute campaign money to like-minded candidates, directed "a significant portion" of its funds to Huckabee's "family members or the coffers of direct-mail fundraising firms."
* In Pennsylvania, Public Policy Polling shows Sen. Pat Toomey (R) with a modest lead over former Rep. Joe Sestak (D), 40% to 36%, in a hypothetical rematch of their 2010 race.
In his first two years in office, President Obama didn't have to worry too much about vetoing legislation -- his party had sizable majorities in Congress, and Democrats were eager to send him bills he was likely to sign. In the four years that followed, in the wake of Republican gains, Congress' productivity fell off a cliff, passing fewer bills than at any point in modern American history -- and as a consequence, Obama still didn't have reason to dust off the veto pen.
Indeed, after six years in office, Obama's total number of vetoes is just two. That's the lowest of any two-term president since Abraham Lincoln.
But the paltry total probably won't last much longer. In his State of the Union address last night, Obama mentioned six times his willingness to veto various measures under congressional consideration. Just hours before the speech, the White House put some of these threats in writing.
Though he's spending the day preparing to deliver his 2015 State of the Union address, Mr. Obama hasn't gone entirely off the grid. He issued two veto threats Tuesday, warning Republicans he would block two bills pertaining to abortion and natural gas pipeline permitting.
The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act would ban abortions after 20 weeks unless they were necessary to save the life of the mother or if the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest.... The second bill, the Natural Gas Pipeline Permitting Reform Act, would require the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve or deny applications for natural gas pipeline projects within 12 months.
Some of these bills are almost certain to reach the president's desk, so Obama's veto pen will come out of the box for the first time in over four years. But before it does, let's pause to note that there's nothing especially wrong with veto threats on a conceptual level.
The substance of a presidential address always matters more than the theatrics. That said, I imagine most observers would agree one specific moment from President Obama's speech last night was one of the more memorable of any recent State of the Union address.
Towards the end of his remarks, Obama took an almost contemplative turn, telling the audience, "I have no more campaigns to run." Some Republicans responded with derisive applause, prompting the president to depart from his prepared remarks.
"I know, because I won both of them," Obama said with a sly smile.
For a few moments, I felt like I was watching a "Key & Peele" sketch and the president briefly became Luther, his "anger translator."
Not surprisingly, the moment garnered quite a bit of attention.
Facebook's policy team provided msnbc with data on the most talked-about topics and moments during the Obama's oratory. The most viral moment of the State of the Union address, according to Facebook? That moment when President Obama said "I have no more campaigns to run," was interrupted by partisan cheers, and shot back: "I know, because I won both of them."
TPM's Sahil Kapur was on Capitol Hill last night, and apparently, congressional Republicans didn't appreciate the president's not-so-subtle jab.
For the third consecutive year, the Republican Party's official response to the State of the Union was actually split in two: one in English and one in Spanish.
In theory, this was supposed to be simple. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) would deliver a carefully crafted GOP response to President Obama's speech, while Rep Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) would deliver the identical speech in Spanish. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, it's a funny story.
The potential pitfall was the disagreement between Ernst and Curbelo about immigration reform. The right-wing Iowan is a fierce opponent of immigration reform -- under the circumstances, it was ironic her speech was being delivered in two languages since she's an English-only supporter -- while the Florida Republican has actually criticized his party for blocking bipartisan solutions.
The disagreement created uncertainty: how would Republicans deal with one of the nation's most pressing issues when their two official speakers are on opposite sides? As it turned out, they'd deal with it in the most cynical way possible. Politico was one of many outlets to notice:
Republicans sent mixed signals on immigration in their two official rebuttals to President Obama Tuesday night: Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst's rebuttal made no mention of the topic, but the Spanish-language version of the rebuttal, delivered by Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo, said Republicans wanted to work with Obama to fix the immigration system.
"We should also work through the appropriate channels to create permanent solutions for our immigration system, to secure our borders, modernize legal immigration, and strengthen our economy," said Curbelo in Spanish. "In the past, the president has expressed support for ideas like these. Now we ask him to cooperate with us to get it done."
If Republican officials had said the two lawmakers intended to give different speeches, this might be less of an issue, but they actually said the opposite.
In a way, it may not have been entirely fair of Republicans to ask Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) to deliver the party's response to the State of the Union. It's a very tough gig for anyone, but it's especially challenging for a right-wing rookie whose entire congressional career has spanned a few weeks.
Ernst fans hoping for a breakthrough moment for the radical senator will have to wait for some other opportunity. The Republican's delivery was stilted and her substance was much worse.
"Americans have been hurting, but when we demanded solutions, too often Washington responded with the same stale mindset that led to failed policies like Obamacare. It's a mindset that gave us political talking points, not serious solutions."
Ironically, while she was awkwardly reading these words, Ernst was delivering political talking points, not serious solutions. For anyone who cares at all about policy details or reality, Affordable Care Act obviously hasn't "failed," and if it's borne of a "stale mindset," that may be because the blueprint for the law was drafted by Ernst's Republican allies.
Her speech went on to refer to the "Keystone jobs bill" -- total number of permanent jobs created: 35 -- while saying Washington can get working again "with a little cooperation from the president."
Said the senator who called Obama a "dictator" whom she'd like to impeach.
Of course, Ernst wasn't the only Republican to deliver a SOTU response last night. On the contrary, she was one of five.
About a year ago, one of the more common criticisms from President Obama's detractors was that he'd become "disengaged." A frustrated president, the argument went, had grown listless and cynical. Fox News actually fielded a national poll asking respondents if they thought Obama still wanted to be president.
After last night's State of the Union address, it's a safe bet we won't hear those criticisms again for quite a while.
Love him or hate him, President Obama has rediscovered his audacity. Last night, Americans saw a bold president celebrating his accomplishments, chiding his rivals, and presenting an ambitious agenda built on a foundation of "middle-class economics" (a phrase he referenced six times in his remarks).
In some progressive circles, it's not uncommon to hear the left long for the Obama they loved in 2004, when he burst onto the national stage at the Democratic convention in Boston. The president signaled that he's still very much that guy by repeating the very language he used at the time:
"[J]ust over a decade ago, I gave a speech in Boston where I said there wasn't a liberal America, or a conservative America; a black America or a white America -- but a United States of America.... I know how tempting such cynicism may be. But I still think the cynics are wrong.
"I still believe that we are one people. I still believe that together, we can do great things, even when the odds are long. I believe this because over and over in my six years in office, I have seen America at its best.... I know the good, and optimistic, and big-hearted generosity of the American people who, every day, live the idea that we are our brother's keeper, and our sister's keeper. And I know they expect those of us who serve here to set a better example."
I half expected Obama to start a "Fired up, ready to go" call-and-response with Democrats in the chamber. (It was not the only flashback: towards the end of the SOTU, Obama said, "Fifteen years into this new century, we have picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and begun again the work of remaking America." It was phrasing direct from his first inaugural address in 2009.)
As you likely know by now, special MSNBC coverage of President Obama's State of the Union address tonight begins at 8 p.m. ET. Helmed by Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews, coverage will run through midnight with Chris Hayes, Reverend Al Sharpton, Kasie Hunt, Steve Kornacki and MSNBC contributors Steve Schmidt, Robert Gibbs, Michael Steele, Eugene Robinson, and Victoria DeFrancesco Soto. We also look forward to hearing from Andrea Mitchell, Ed Schultz, Luke Russert, and José Díaz-Balart, and that's not to mention the many guest legislators who will be joining in as well.
If your desire to watch tonight's coverage represents a minority share of the interest in how the TV is deployed in your particular household, FEAR NOT! You can watch it streaming online on your computer and most mobile devices. Go to Now.msnbc.com and connect with your cable provider login. If you have cable, you have a login, whether you realize it or not. If you haven't sorted through the business of doing that yet, this is a good time to get it done - you won't regret it.
And as long as you're planning ahead, keep a browser tab open to Pulse.msnbc.com. Throughout tonight's address you'll see prompts for your reaction. The place to register that reaction will be through that Pulse page.
* ISIS: "ISIS militants released a video purporting to show two Japanese hostages on Tuesday and demanded a $200-million ransom. Global security firm and NBC News counterterrorism consultant Flashpoint Intelligence said the video appeared to be authentic. It features two handcuffed captives in orange garb similar to the jumpsuits worn by Guantanamo Bay detainees kneeling next to a masked jihadi who brandishes a knife."
* Crisis conditions in Yemen: "The presidential residence and palace in Yemen were shelled on Tuesday by Houthi rebel militiamen, the information minister reported, in an escalation of the fighting that has gripped the capital for the past few days and raised fears of a coup in one of the Middle East's weakest countries."
* Related news: "The U.N. Security Council denounced rebels' seizure of Yemen's presidential palace on Tuesday and called on the world to rally behind President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, a strong U.S. ally."
* Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) declared a state of emergency "for two counties on the Yellowstone River, after a pipeline over the river burst on Saturday morning, contaminating the drinking water. Bridger Pipeline LLC, which operates the 12-inch Poplar pipeline, estimates that 300 to 1,200 barrels (2,600 to 50,400 gallons) of light Bakken crude dumped into the Yellowstone [River] before the pipeline was shut off."
* NYC: "A man has been charged in Manhattan with trying to buy three to five lethal doses of the highly toxic poison ricin, seemingly for the purpose of reselling it, according to a criminal complaint unsealed on Tuesday in Federal District Court."
* I'm sure they were just in the neighborhood: "An armed Russian spy ship, the Victor Leonov CCB-175, sailed into Havana harbor this morning, just hours before the Obama Administration and the Havana government will sit down for bilateral talks. The Russian warship is openly docked at a cruise ship terminal in the port of Havana, in plain sight for all to see."