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Thursday's Mini-Report, 4.21.16

04/21/16 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* I generally avoid celebrity-related news, but this is a story I actually care quite a bit about: "Prince, one of America's most influential and enigmatic rock musicians, has died, his publicist told NBC News.... The 57-year-old Grammy-winning artist's death also came a week after his tour plane made an emergency landing in Illinois, where he was hospitalized with what was described as the flu."
 
* Hiring hackers costs money: "FBI Director James Comey suggested Thursday that the bureau paid more than $1 million to access an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino attackers, the first time the agency has offered a possible price tag in the high-profile case."
 
* VW: "Volkswagen agreed on Thursday to fix or buy back nearly 500,000 diesel cars in the United States that are equipped with illegal emissions software."
 
* Speaking of the auto industry: "Anyone suffering deja vu while watching Mitsubishi Motors' top executives admit the company cheated on fuel economy tests should not be surprised. Not because of the similarity to Volkswagen's emissions test-rigging admission of last September, but because this was not a first for Mitsubishi Motors."
 
* Senate Democrats today blocked "a Republican effort to prevent further spending on an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule designed to establish federal regulatory control over small waterways. The measure, from Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), failed to meet the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a Democratic filibuster; the vote was 56-42."
 
* I'll look forward to hearing more about the industry's responses: "The Senate's No. 2 Democrat is asking for details on what major U.S. airlines are doing to prevent anti-Muslim discrimination. Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.) sent a letter this week to Nicholas Calio, the president and CEO of Airlines for America, a trade organization that represents major U.S. airlines."
 
* It's easy to feel good about the job market: "New applications for unemployment benefits sank to the lowest level in 42 years, pointing to continued improvement in the labor market. Initial claims fell by 6,000 to 247,000 in the seven days ended April 16, the Labor Department said. This is the lowest level since the week of Nov. 24, 1973."
North Carolina

British officials warn travelers about anti-LGBT laws in the US

04/21/16 04:16PM

It's not unusual for governments around the world to occasionally issue travel advisories to their citizens, letting them know important information before they take a trip abroad. So, for example, if a country is dealing with an outbreak of an infectious disease, the U.S. government would urge American travelers to be aware of these concerns before visiting. The same goes for countries where personal security might be a concern.
 
With this in mind, it's discouraging when one of our closest allies feels the need to warn some of its citizens about possibly facing discrimination while visiting the United States. The Washington Post reported yesterday:
The British Foreign Office has released an advisory warning travelers to be aware of controversial new laws in North Carolina and Mississippi before visiting the United States.
 
The travel advisory update -- directed to members of the country's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community -- was posted on the Foreign Office's website Tuesday.
The travel advisory, which is available online here, reminds British travelers, "The US is an extremely diverse society and attitudes towards LGBT people differ hugely across the country. LGBT travelers may be affected by legislation passed recently in the states of North Carolina and Mississippi. Before travelling please read our general travel advice for the LGBT community."
 
And if you check the general travel advice for the LGBT community, it reminds British travelers that some hotels, "especially in rural areas, won't accept bookings from same sex couples -- check before you go."
 
I imagine North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) never saw any of this coming.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) participates in a conversation about American foreign strategy and statesmanship at the Hudson Institute on March 18, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Tom Cotton needlessly blocks key counter-terrorism nominee

04/21/16 12:47PM

It's now been a full year since President Obama nominated Adam Szubin to be an under secretary for terrorism and financial crimes for the Treasury Department. The title is obviously a mouthful, but a job that involves "tracking terrorists to prevent them from raising money on the black market and elsewhere."
 
Szubin is extremely well qualified; he's worked on blocking terrorist financing in previous administrations; and he enjoys broad, bipartisan support in the Senate.
 
And yet, he can't get confirmed.
 
For months, Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) blocked Szubin because Shelby faced a primary fight in Alabama and he was too afraid to do much of anything in the way of actual work.
 
Finally, last month, the committee agreed to advance Szubin's nomination with bipartisan backing, raising hopes that this nonsense would finally end. Alas, it continues. The Houston Chronicle reported yesterday:
A Republican senator on Wednesday blocked an effort to confirm President Barack Obama's nominee for a key Treasury post responsible for leading the battle against terrorism and financial crimes.
 
The president nominated Adam Szubin a year ago, but his nomination has languished, caught up in Senate politics. Szubin, who has served under both Obama and predecessor George W. Bush, has worked in the anti-terror job in an acting capacity.
 
Democrats tried to secure a vote on Wednesday, but Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., objected, citing the possibility that the Obama administration would ease financial restrictions that prohibit U.S. dollars from being used in transactions with Iran.
Evidently, the right-wing Arkansan believes the White House may, at some point in the future, ease those restrictions, so Cotton decided to block a nominee who works on preventing terrorist financing, as if this somehow made sense.

Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 4.21.16

04/21/16 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.
 
* Among the changes the revamped Donald Trump campaign is prepared to make? The Republican frontrunner will reportedly start "using teleprompters and a speechwriter."
 
* In Connecticut, which hosts its presidential primaries next week, the latest Quinnipiac poll shows Hillary Clinton leading Bernie Sanders, 51% to 42%.
 
* The same poll shows Trump ahead among Connecticut Republicans with 48%, followed by John Kasich at 28% and Ted Cruz at 19%.
 
* In Pennsylvania, which also hosts presidential primaries on Tuesday, the latest Monmouth University poll shows Clinton leading Sanders, 52% to 39%, while a new Franklin & Marshall College poll shows Clinton ahead by an even larger margin, 58% to 31%.
 
* The Franklin & Marshall poll found Trump ahead among Pennsylvania Republicans with 40%, followed by Ted Cruz at 26% and John Kasich at 24%.
 
* In two new fundraising letters -- one sent yesterday, one sent today -- the Sanders campaign told donors that the senator still has "a path" to the Democratic nomination, so supporters should continue to send money.
Deadline Approaches To Signup For Health Insurance Under Affordable Care Act. (Joe Raedle/Getty)

ACA critics shouldn't cheer the UnitedHealth news too much

04/21/16 11:20AM

There's a dedicated team of officials and activists who are always on the lookout for bad news about the Affordable Care Act. This week, they seemed to find some.
 
UnitedHealth Group, the nation's largest private insurer, announced Tuesday that next year, it would scale back its participation in ACA exchange marketplaces. Starting in 2017, UnitedHealth will be "down to a handful of states."
 
"A ha!" anti-healthcare forces declared. "We knew it! The market is failing! Obamacare is a disaster! We were right all along!"
 
They should probably take a deep breath, because while the UnitedHealth announcement certainly isn't good news, it's not evidence of a crisis, either.
 
The Washington Post article on this highlighted a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation that found the impact on consumers is likely to be relatively modest: "Even if United exited all states, most marketplace enrollees would still have the ability to choose between three or more insurers. An average health plan used as a benchmark would be about 1 percent more expensive if United had not participated in 2016."
 
But what about what this says about the larger system? TPM's Tierney Sneed reported yesterday that this week's announcement is "not the sky-is-falling, death-spiral fever dream that conservatives are making it out to be."
For one, while UnitedHealth is indeed the nation's largest insurer, it is a relatively small player on the individual exchanges.... Furthermore, UnitedHealth decided to sit out the first year the marketplaces were in operation, meaning it has had one fewer year than its competitors to game out pricing according to its risk pools. [...]
 
In general, UnitedHealth was offering plans in many states more expensive than other companies, the Kaiser report noted, and what has become clear in the first few years of ACA implementation is that consumers are willing to shop around for the cheapest deal.
 
UnitedHealth pricing issues could be partly attributed to the fact that the insurer is more geared to broad-network plans, and the cheaper, narrow-network offerings have been more successful on the individual marketplaces.
These relevant details suggest the latest "Obamacare crisis" really isn't much of a crisis.
House Speaker Paul Ryan leaves after making a statement to the media on Capitol Hill in Washington ruling himself out as a potential 2016 presidential candidate April 12, 2016. (Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Paul Ryan's halo starts to lose its luster

04/21/16 10:50AM

As a rule, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) only receives one kind of press: glowing. The political establishment long ago decided the far-right congressman is the Republican Party's Golden Boy, a status that propelled Ryan to his party's 2012 vice presidential nomination (a historical rarity for a young House member), a Speaker's gavel he said he didn't want, and even 2016 presidential scuttlebutt long after he removed himself from consideration.
 
Given all of this, it was striking to see Politico run a piece this week noting an inconvenient truth that undercuts the broader narrative: nearly six months into his powerful new post, Paul Ryan isn't actually accomplishing much of anything.
Almost six months into the job, Ryan and his top lieutenants face questions about whether the Wisconsin Republican's tenure atop the House is any more effective than that of his predecessor, former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Ryan has flattered the House Freedom Caucus and pursued promises to empower rank-and-file Republicans with reforms to how the House operates -- yet it's yielded little in the way of actual results.
 
Democrats are openly mocking their GOP counterparts, and Republicans grumble -- in private so far -- that nothing is getting done under Ryan. Like Boehner, Ryan is finding out that becoming speaker is easier than being speaker, at least in the still badly divided House GOP Conference.
All of this has the added benefit of being true. Ryan wanted to pass a budget, but his efforts failed. He said he supports tackling voting rights, but his members rejected it. The Wisconsin Republican expressed an interest in moving forward on a variety of legislative measures -- tax reform, criminal-justice reform, responding to the opioid epidemic, an FAA overhaul, addressing Puerto Rico's fiscal problems, etc. -- all of which are either dead or in deep trouble.
 
The Politico piece tried to take note of some of Ryan's "wins" since becoming Speaker, and the article highlighted "a bill calling for Obamacare's repeal" -- which is a bill that (a) tried to take health care benefits away from millions of families; and (b) never stood any chance of becoming law.
 
If this is what counts as a Ryan "victory," it's no wonder people are starting to talk about his ineffectiveness.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event in Buffalo, New York, April 18, 2016. (Photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Trump's most popular position isn't close to being true

04/21/16 10:06AM

Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump appeared on NBC's "Today" this morning, participating in a town-hall-style event in front of a sizable group of voters. The candidate and the hosts covered quite a bit of ground, but there was one exchange in particular between Trump and Savannah Guthrie that struck me as especially important.
GUTHRIE: Do you believe in raising taxes on the wealthy?
 
TRUMP: I do. I do -- including myself. I do.
The audience, it's worth noting, applauded the answer. The one policy most Republicans would never consider under any circumstances happens to be quite popular -- a detail Trump seems to understand far better than his party does.
 
This morning was not, by the way, the first time Trump has stated this position. On the contrary, the New York Republican has been boasting since last summer about his willingness to break with GOP orthodoxy. Last August, he told Bloomberg Politics that multi-millionaires are currently "paying very little tax and I think it's outrageous.... I know people in hedge funds that pay almost nothing and it's ridiculous, OK?"
 
Asked if he's prepared to raise his own taxes, Trump said at the time, "That's right. That's right. I'm OK with it. You've seen my statements, I do very well, I don't mind paying some taxes."
 
Given how popular the underlying idea is, this populist rhetoric is exactly the kind of thing that helped fuel Trump's rise to the top of the Republican presidential race. It's why, when Trump reiterated his position this morning, the audience started clapping before he even finished his answer.
 
There's just one nagging problem: what Trump said isn't even close to being true.

Republican blockade failing to persuade American mainstream

04/21/16 09:29AM

The Washington Post observed this week that Democrats "are winning the Supreme Court fight over Merrick Garland. Big time." Dems aren't exactly succeeding in convincing Republicans to end their unprecedented Supreme Court blockade, but the party has apparently fared pretty well in the court of popular opinion.
 
The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll started asking an important question soon after Justice Antonin Scalia passed away in February:
"Recently, a Supreme Court Justice passed away leaving a vacancy on the court. President Obama has nominated a new person to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Would you prefer the U.S. Senate vote this year on the replacement nominated by President Obama or leave the position vacant and wait to vote next year on the replacement nominated by the new president or do you not have an opinion one way or the other?"
When the question went to the public just a few days after Scalia's death, Americans were closely divided: 43% said they'd like to see the Senate vote this year on the Supreme Court's vacancy, while 42% said they'd prefer to see the vacancy filled next year by a new president.
 
A month later, in March, the numbers shifted a bit in the Democrats' favor. This month, in a poll that was in the field last week, they shifted even more. Now, a 52% majority of Americans want a vote this year, while 30% want to leave the seat vacant until next year.
 
What was a one-point advantage for the White House's position in February is a 22-point advantage now. A closer look suggests even Republican voters are starting to shift away from their own party's position.
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks with media and supporters during his visit to the Vatican, April 15, 2016. (Photo by Stefano Rellandini/Reuters)

Team Sanders' delegate strategy under the microscope

04/21/16 08:57AM

Bernie Sanders has said many times that he'd much prefer to talk about his core issues than about the electoral process, but given the state of the race for the Democratic nomination, the importance of the process is hard to overlook.
 
In the wake of Hillary Clinton's easy primary victory in New York, the arithmetic doesn't appear to be working out for the Vermont senator. Facing a shrinking calendar, Sanders faces a deficit among pledged delegates -- the delegates earned through primaries and caucuses -- that will be extremely difficult to close by the time voting wraps up on June 14.
 
The question, however, is what happens then? Is Team Sanders prepared to ask Democratic superdelegates -- party officials and insiders -- to override the will of the voters? It now appears that depends on whom you ask.
 
For Jeff Weaver, Sanders' campaign manager, the answer is yes. Weaver told MSNBC's Steve Kornacki on the air on Tuesday night that Team Sanders is moving forward with a plan in which the Democratic race is "determined by the superdelegates." Asked whether the Sanders campaign would urge superdelegates to give the senator the nomination, even if Sanders comes in second place in the fight for pledged delegates and popular votes, Weaver added, "At this point yes, absolutely."
 
Mark Longabaugh, a top aide to the senator, told the Huffington Post largely the same thing yesterday. Even if Clinton wins a majority of pledged delegates, Longabaugh said, the Sanders campaign intends to keep going, taking the fight to superdelegates who can overrule voters.
 
But consider the comments we heard last night from Tad Devine, a top Sanders strategist, who talked with Rachel about the campaign's strategy.
MADDOW: Is there a point of friction between the case that Senator Sanders has made for people power, basically, for this not being decided by the establishment, for the Democratic party insiders not doing this and it being the will of the voters and shouldn't be something that gets decided in back rooms, it gets decided in public. Is there a point of friction between that strategy that you're describing state by state, also the superdelegate strategy that you guys have talked about for the convention, and the way he's talked about how he wants to win?
 
DEVINE: I don't think there is. I mean, these are the rules. Unlike the Republicans --Trump in particular -- you know we're not going around saying you know everything's rigged and running against the rules. The rules are as they are. We may not like the way the rules are set up in some places but we've agreed to play by them. So, you know we'll work hard under the rules of caucus states, we'll work hard in other places. The superdelegates are there. We're gonna work hard to earn their support. I think we'll be able to do that if we succeed. Listen, the key test is succeeding with voters. In 2008 I wrote a piece that they published in the New York Times right after Super Tuesday. And I argued that superdelegates should wait, should look, and listen to what the voters do and follow the will of the voters. And I can tell you I got a lot of pushback from the Clinton campaign at the time, you know, when I published that piece. But I believe that today, that our superdelegates, that our party leaders should let the voters speak first. And I think if they do that all the way through the end of voting that will strengthen our party, and certainly strengthen our hand if we succeed with voters between now and June.
The question is whether or not Sanders' top aides are all on the same page.
Women hold up signs during a women's pro-choice rally on Capitol Hill, July 11, 2013 in Washington, DC.

GOP's anti-Planned Parenthood panel descends into 'farce'

04/21/16 08:00AM

As ridiculous as the House Republicans' Benghazi committee has become, at least the GOP's investigation is scrutinizing a real event. Sure, by Republicans' own admission, the entire exercise is a partisan political stunt. And sure, the events in Benghazi in 2012 have already been investigated by seven other congressional committees. But at its root, four Americans died in a terrorist attack that actually happened.
 
The existence of the House Republicans' anti-Planned Parenthood committee is arguably tougher to defend.
 
The Washington Post's Dana Milbank highlighted the latest antics of the panel's far-right chair, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who "isn't one to worry about appearances."
The Tennessee Republican didn't make any pretense this week of being impartial with the committee she chairs, the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, commonly known as the Planned Parenthood committee.
 
On the eve of her panel's Wednesday's hearing, Blackburn went over to Georgetown University to participate in a protest against Planned Parenthood, the very entity she is supposed to be investigating.... Then Blackburn showed up at her committee hearing the next morning and proclaimed, "My hope is that both parties can work together."
Of course, when Blackburn talks about the parties "working together," what she's referring to is a hope that Democrats will simply go along with a culture-war crusade as if the GOP's latest select committee were a legitimate exercise, probing a genuine controversy.
 
It is not. As we've discussed before, the "controversy" surrounding Planned Parenthood and fetal-tissue research effectively came to an end months ago. Despite the far-right uproar surrounding "undercover" videos targeting the health organization, a Texas grand jury cleared Planned Parenthood of any wrongdoing, and instead indicted the conservatives responsible for the "sting" operation against the group.
 
This followed word from 12 states, which had launched official investigations into Planned Parenthood's work, and each of which reached the same conclusion: the organization did not illegally sell fetal tissue.
 
These facts prompted the editorial board of the Washington Post to argue that it's time for the GOP to "give up its crusade" against Planned Parenthood. As yesterday's hearing reminded us, congressional Republicans have instead decided to ramp up the witch hunt.

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Launched in 2008, “The Rachel Maddow Show” follows the machinations of policy making in America, from local political activism to international diplomacy. Rachel Maddow looks past the distractions of political theater and stunts and focuses on the legislative proposals and policies that shape American life - as well as the people making and influencing those policies and their ultimate outcome, intended or otherwise.

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