There's been some commentary of late that this Congress, now under Republican control in both chambers, is slightly less ridiculous than the last two. And if we lower the bar for basic competence, and then lower it a little more, there may be something to the thesis: lawmakers have managed to avoid imposing a shutdown or a debt crisis in the nation over the last 12 months.
Behold, the grandeur of the world's greatest democracy?
Of course, avoiding self-imposed crises isn't much of a standard for success. This Congress has managed not to punish the country on purpose, but it hasn't done much in the way of constructive legislating, and it's failed even more spectacularly in areas such as confirmation votes.
Maybe lawmakers will get 2016 off to a more sensible start? Maybe not.
For the first time, Republicans on Wednesday are expected to send a bill to President Obama's desk that would repeal most of his signature healthcare law.
While the bill faces a certain veto, the vote in the House brings Republicans closer than ever before to dismantling the healthcare legislation that they say has failed the country.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said this morning, "With this bill, we will force President Obama to show the American people where he stands."
And in a way, I suppose that's true. Americans everywhere will finally learn, once and for all, that President Obama supports Obamacare. What would we do without Kevin McCarthy adding such helpful clarity to the debate?
Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.
* Hillary Clinton picked up an endorsement yesterday from NARAL, which eight years ago threw its support to Barack Obama.
* The Field Poll, considered the gold standard in California polling, shows Ted Cruz taking the lead among Golden State Republicans. The senator leads the GOP field with 25%, followed by Donald Trump at 23%. Marco Rubio is third with 13%. Carly Fiorina, who ran a failed Senate campaign in California, is tied for seventh place with just 3%.
* Marco Rubio continues to make strides in picking up establishment, inside-the-Beltway endorsements, today receiving support from House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).
* Mike Huckabee's longtime communications director, Alice Stewart, quit his campaign last month, but she's landed on her feet: Stewart has joined Ted Cruz's team.
* Chris Christie, annoyed by new attacks ads from Rubio's super PAC, said yesterday, "I just don't think Marco Rubio's going to be able to slime his way to the White House. He wants to put out a whole bunch of negative ads? Go ahead. I hope that he will acknowledge at some point that I couldn't care less."
* Speaking of Christie, the New Jersey governor hasn't made much of an effort in Iowa, but that's starting to change.
* South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) has agreed to deliver her party's response to President Obama's final State of the Union address. As Bobby Jindal can attest, a gig fraught with risks.
It's long been difficult to find a legitimate purpose for the Republicans' Benghazi Committee, but as of October, the panel was simply indefensible. A farcical 11-hour hearing with Hillary Clinton, coupled with a series of internal controversies, made clear that the committee needed to pull the plug.
But it didn't. In fact, McClatchy reported this morning on the partisan exercise passing an ignominious milestone.
As of Wednesday, the House Select Committee on Benghazi has been in existence for 609 days, surpassing the length of time the 9/11 Commission took to investigate the terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001.
"Instead of following the bipartisan model set by the 9/11 Commission, which brought our entire nation together after we were attacked by terrorists, Republicans created a highly partisan Select Committee with an unlimited budget to attack their political opponents," said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee's top Democrat. "Republicans continue to drag out this political charade closer to the 2016 presidential election, and the American taxpayers continue to pay the price."
Remember, even congressional Republicans have admitted the committee is a partisan exercise, making it that much more difficult to justify its prolonged existence.
For the record, the 9/11 Commission, a bipartisan panel created to investigate the worst terrorist attack ever on American soil, conducted its work over 1 year, 7 months, and 25 days -- which works out to 604 days, five fewer than this current charade.
On some of his signature issues, Donald Trump's position seems to represent the right-wing cliff. When some of his Republican rivals try to find room to the frontrunner's right, strange things happen.
A couple of months ago, for example, when Trump raised the prospect of the U.S. government closing down mosques, Marco Rubio went a little further, suggesting officials may have to start closing cafes and diners, too, "not just mosques." The New Republic's Brian Beutler noted at the time that the Florida senator may have received less attention, but he actually adopted "a policy far more draconian than even Trump's."
Similarly, on immigration, it seems hard to imagine a more conservative posture than Trump's deport-them-all position. But yesterday, Ted Cruz found room to his rival's right on this issue, too.
A man in Iowa asked the Texas senator, "Both you and Donald Trump are really strong on immigration, but he supports deporting all the illegal immigrants. Are you willing to say the same?" Slate's Jim Newell highlighted Cruz's response.
"Absolutely, yes," Cruz says. "We should enforce the law." Here, he seems to leave a little space open for the "self-deportation" that dominates his immigration plan rather than the more forceful mass deportation that Trump supports. Not that immigration activists regard either as particularly humane.
But then, on his own volition, Cruz leapfrogs to Trump's right: "And in fact, look, there's a difference. He's advocated allowing folks to come back in and become citizens. I oppose that." He then name-checks Congress's two most cherished anti-immigration conservatives, Rep. Steve King and Sen. Jeff Sessions, as collaborators on his immigration plan.
In the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, two unlikely senators -- Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia -- partnered on a good bill to expand background checks. Despite overwhelming public support, lawmakers, nearly all of whom were Republicans, killed the legislation.
It was a disheartening reminder that policymaking on guns has become practically impossible. No matter how modest the proposal, no matter how popular the idea, no matter how crushing the consequences, GOP lawmakers are even less likely to consider gun-safety reforms than they are to approve tax hikes on millionaires.
President Obama obviously recognizes this political reality, which is why he's focused his efforts on executive actions. Oddly enough, the same senators who should understand as well as anyone why this approach is necessary are the same senators complaining about the president's approach.
Sen. Pat Toomey, who faces a tough reelection race in blue-leaning Pennsylvania, said that while he still needs more information about the president's regulatory moves, "the most appropriate way for handling firearm issues is when Congress and the President work together."
"The President has abused these actions in the past and exceeded the boundaries of the law. This should not be allowed under our constitutional framework," he added in a statement.
For the record, Toomey offered no examples of the president abusing his powers in this area, no examples of the White House exceeding the boundaries of the law, and no evidence of inconsistencies between the administration's policy and the Constitution.
Around the same time, Manchin added, "Instead of taking unilateral executive action, the President should work with Congress and the American people, just as I've always done, to pass the proposals he announced today.... [L]egislation and consensus is the correct approach."
As much as I respect the work Toomey and Manchin have done on this issue, it's hard not to wonder what in the world they're thinking.
South Korea reported a seismic event resembling an earthquake overnight, which North Korea quickly took credit for, claiming it had successfully conducted a hydrogen bomb test. As NBC News reported, if the boast is true, it would "mark a huge jump in Kim Jong Un's quest to improve its still-limited nuclear arsenal."
But the boast may not be true and some skepticism is in order. NBC report added, "South Korean officials and some experts questioned whether the explosion was indeed a full-fledged test of a hydrogen device." The New York Timesadded that experts cautioned that North Korea may have "exaggerated its claims, as it did with its three previous nuclear tests, in 2006, 2009 and 2013."
Responsible officials should probably hold off on drawing sweeping conclusions until there's more information, though Marco Rubio has no use for caution. The senator issued a statement overnight, quickly blaming the purported test on the United States.
"I have been warning throughout this campaign that North Korea is run by a lunatic who has been expanding his nuclear arsenal while President Obama has stood idly by. If this test is confirmed, it will be just the latest example of the failed Obama-Clinton foreign policy. Our enemies around the world are taking advantage of Obama's weakness."
This is a great example of why Rubio shouldn't pretend to be a grown-up on foreign policy. For one thing, North Korea is an isolated, rogue nuclear dictatorship, with whom we have no leverage.
For another, why would a presidential candidate -- or more specifically, an American presidential candidate -- instinctively respond to world events by effectively asking, "How can I blame this on the United States?"
In his remarks yesterday on addressing gun violence, President Obama tried his best to lower the rhetorical temperature. "I'm not on the ballot again; I'm not looking to score some points," he said. "I think we can disagree without impugning other people's motives or without being disagreeable. We don't need to be talking past one another."
It was right around that time that Ted Cruz's presidential campaign posted an "OBAMA WANTS YOUR GUNS" message online, alongside a fake image of the president in a military helmet, which appeared to be designed to resemble a Nazi propaganda poster from World War II.
So much for disagreeing without impugning other people's motives.
Obviously, Cruz wasn't alone. Even before the president spoke, Republican presidential candidates were apoplectic about Obama making modest, incremental changes to current law, which even the NRA concedes would have little practical effect.
Away from the campaign trail, congressional Republicans began making threats about blocking the White House's policy.
Leading Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee and from the party's conservative wing vowed to use the appropriations process to block Obama's executive actions and deny the president the necessary funding to implement some of his proposals.
"What the president has done is unconstitutional and any action Congress can take, we should, including appropriations," said Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) a member of the House's Freedom Caucus.
In August 2013, long before he was a leading Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump sat down for an interview with ABC's Jonathan Karl for a chat about Trump's racially charged conspiracy theory about President Obama's birthplace.
But the interest wasn't limited to the president. Karl asked, "Ted Cruz, born in Canada, is he eligible to be president of the United States?" Trump responded, "Well, if he was born in Canada, perhaps not. But I'm not sure where he was born."
The ABC reporter tried to clarify, explaining that Cruz really was born in Canada, but the senator is legally a natural-born American citizen. "Look, that will be ironed out," Trump said. "I don't know the circumstances. I heard somebody told me he was born in Canada."
That "somebody" was the journalist sitting a few feet away, who told him the facts a few seconds earlier. The entire conversation was bewildering.
Trump's focus generally shifted away from birther garbage in the months that followed, but in an interview with the Washington Post late yesterday, the GOP frontrunner did his best to put Cruz's birthplace back in the spotlight.
"Republicans are going to have to ask themselves the question: 'Do we want a candidate who could be tied up in court for two years?' That'd be a big problem," Trump said when asked about the topic. "It'd be a very precarious one for Republicans because he'd be running and the courts may take a long time to make a decision. You don't want to be running and have that kind of thing over your head."
Trump added: "I'd hate to see something like that get in his way. But a lot of people are talking about it and I know that even some states are looking at it very strongly, the fact that he was born in Canada and he has had a double passport."
Michael Beschloss, NBC News presidential historian, talks with Rachel Maddow about the parallels between the George Wallace campaign in 1968 and Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, in particular their aggressive posturing against protesters and the media. watch
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