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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker talks to the media after he casts his ballot on election day at Jefferson Elementary School on Nov. 4, 2014 in Milwaukee, Wis. (Darren Hauck/Getty)

Walker tries to rationalize Medicaid opposition

11/17/14 09:15AM

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), fresh off his six-point victory in this year's re-election campaign, appeared on msnbc the other day and offered a curious defense of his decision to reject Medicaid expansion.
Tara Culp-Ressler had a good report on the interview.
During an appearance on MSNBC's Morning Joe on Friday, Walker was asked whether his position stemmed from an "ideological criticism," and if he believes the handful of Republican governors implementing this provision of the health law are not "genuine conservatives."
The governor didn't explicitly answer that question, pointing out that every state has different needs. But he did offer a broader criticism of the public health program.
"Beyond that, I just ask the basic question: Why is more people on Medicaid a good thing?" he said. "I'd rather find a way, particularly for able-bodied adults without children, I'd like to find a way to get them into the workforce. I think ideologically, that's a better approach, not just as a conservative, but as an American. Have more people live the American dream if they're not dependent on the American government."
I can appreciate why governors like Walker find themselves in a tough position on this. On the one hand, Medicaid expansion is a no-brainer, which helps low-income families access medical care, improves state finances, and bolsters public hospitals. It's exactly why so many GOP governors, even in red states, have embraced the policy.
On the other hand, Republicans hold President Obama in contempt, and they're supposed to reject every aspect of "Obamacare."
But even under these circumstances, Walker's argument is just ridiculous.
A Capitol police officer walks through the Capitol Rotunda, empty of visitors after being closed to tours, during the government shutdown on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., October 1, 2013.

GOP leaders fear new round of shutdown politics

11/17/14 08:35AM

Politico reported over the weekend that Republican leaders, feeling exalted after a successful midterm cycle, are "facing a daunting reality: They are right where they left off."
Republican leaders wanted a quick and clean, drama-free lame duck session to kick off their new majority, but they find themselves heading toward a showdown over how to fund the government.
For much of 2014, GOP officials hoped voters would not see the Republican Party as the home of shutdown politics and impeachment threats, and yet, it's apparently mulling both, all because President Obama is poised to govern on immigration policy.
Let's tackle these one at a time. First, of course, is funding the government and preventing a shutdown after Dec. 11. A growing number of far-right lawmakers want to add language to a spending bill that would prevent the White House from taking executive actions on immigration, forcing a confrontation: either the president signs the bill that ties his hands or Republicans turn off the government's lights again.
In the House, GOP leaders want a clean, long-term spending bill that would prevent any shutdowns for at least a year, but top Republicans "begun to conclude that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to rally their caucus" behind the idea. Once again, rank-and-file conservatives just don't seem to care what House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his team want.
In the Senate, incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) office is reportedly so "worried" about a possible standoff that "by Friday evening they were circulating a memo showing how damaging last year's shutdown was to the Republican Party -- an effort designed to counter conservatives who point to this month's triumphant election as proof that the shutdown did little damage."
If McConnell's office didn't see a shutdown as a real possibility, it wouldn't have bothered circulating a memo warning against it.
Indeed, Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) was asked yesterday on Fox News about the possibility of a shutdown, and the Republican conceded "we're having those discussions." What's more, just like the last GOP shutdown, Heritage Action is egging the pro-shutdown brigade on.
Barack Obama, Edna Pemberton

What a difference a year makes for the ACA

11/17/14 08:00AM

About a year ago at this time, the biggest political story in the nation was about, of all things, a website. The Affordable Care Act's was supposed to be accessible to consumers, but to the delight of the law's conservative opponents, the site struggled badly for its first two months.
Republicans were gleeful. The media was transfixed. Pundits speculated that the website's troubles represented "Obama's Katrina" and threatened the future of progressive governance in America.
Of course, we now know that the problems were temporary; the website was fixed; and "Obamacare" enrollments exceeded all projections, succeeding in ways GOP lawmakers and their allies found horribly disappointing.
And as the new open-enrollment period gets underway, Republicans are being confronted with even more discouraging news: the system is working pretty well so far.
On the first day of enrollment for 2015 Obamacare plans, the federal insurance website was working well enough that 100,000 people submitted applications, U.S. health secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell reported.
It was a dramatic turnabout from 2013, when collapsed on its first day of business, costing Burwell's predecessor her job. More than 500,000 visitors logged on to the site yesterday, Burwell said today on NBC's "Meet the Press."
The federal enrollment system opened at about 1:30 a.m. New York time [Saturday], and U.S. health officials reported no technical problems in the first 24 hours.
In fairness, there were sporadic reports of delays for some consumers, and one state found that consumers were receiving false information on premiums, but overall, they were more the exception than the rule. Those hoping for a new round of failure were left wanting -- the open-enrollment period progressing according to plan and is off to a fairly smooth start.
It's unrealistic to think this year's good news will generate the kind of attention last year's missteps received -- "Government program works exactly as intended, consumers happy and satisfied" isn't a front-page headline newspapers are eager to run -- but the White House can take some solace in the fact that this isn't a fire that will need extinguishing.
With this in mind, why does Fox News continue to insist the Affordable Care Act is "failing the public"?

Keystone Senate vote and other headlines

11/17/14 07:54AM

This week in Congress: Keystone and immigration. (The Hill)

Obscure Nebraska panel may hold sway over Keystone XL pipeline. (AP)

Sen.-elect Cotton hints at specific GOP spending-bill tactic to counter Obama executive action. (Fox News)

Hagel says U.S. speeding up training of Iraqi forces. (AP)

ISIS victim Abdul-Rahman Kassig died serving Mideast's vulnerable. (NBC News)

Nuclear deal with Iran runs into obstacles. (New York Times)

U.S. to screen travelers from Mali for Ebola. (AP)

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Week in Geek: You've got a starry show to catch

11/16/14 10:14AM

Just in case you haven't gotten your fill of comets yet, I've got another one for you: Comet 55P Tempel-Tuttle, the source of the Leonids meteor shower which peaks in this Monday, November 17 (but with the best viewing in the wee hours of Tuesday morning).

Meteor showers are often associated with a comet or asteroid that has a left a trail of dust and ice particle strewn out along its orbit. When Earth passes through this trail, the particles enter our atmosphere, heat up and vaporize in a brilliant light show. The denser the trail of particles -- and the faster they're moving -- the more meteors you're likely to see. Comets shed more particles when passing through the inner solar system, where they heat up more, so the more recently the parent comet of a given meteor shower has passed by, the better the show.

Comet 55P Tempel-Tuttle completes its orbit of the Sun once every 33 years. Consequently, the

 Leonids peak on the same interval. The next peak of the Leonids is not expected until 2030, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't still get out there this week to catch a glimpse. The predicted peak rate for the Leonids this year is roughly 15 meteors per hour, still well above the average number of meteors you could expect to see on any random night. On a historical note, the Leonids are known to produce meteor storms (over 1000 meteors per hour) from time to time with hourly rates upward of 100,000 in 1883 and 1966. NASA has a great collection of some eyewitness accounts from the latter.

The Leonids name actually refers to the "radiant point" of the meteor shower -- where they appear to be coming from in the sky. In this case, it's the constellation Leo. You don't need to have a clear view of Leo to see the shower. It's almost better to look in the opposite direction since you'll be more likely to see the full trails of the meteors as they streak across the sky. Looking directly at Leo means you'll see the start of a lot of meteors, but not get the full effect. (At over 150,000 miles per hour, the Leonids are some of the fastest meteors ever recorded.)

So come Monday night, bundle up, make some hot chocolate, and get yourself to a dark spot!

Here's some geek you don't have to stay up all night to enjoy:

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This Week in God, 11.15.14

11/15/14 09:10AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a story out of Maryland, where the state's largest school district has approved a pretty significant, religiously inspired change to its school calendar. The Washington Post reported this week:
Christmas and Easter have been stricken from next year's school calendar in Montgomery County. So have Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.
Montgomery's Board of Education voted 7 to 1 Tuesday to eliminate references to all religious holidays on the published calendar for 2015-2016, a decision that followed a request from Muslim community leaders to give equal billing to the Muslim holy day of Eid al-Adha.
Note, the county hasn't eliminated religious holidays, and students will still be off for major holidays like Christmas. The schools will still be closed when all other state agencies are closed.
But to avoid references to Muslim holidays, the calendar won't specifically reference any religious holidays associated with those days off.
Libby Nelson noted, "The school board's decision seems to have made everyone mad: Muslim leaders are furious that the board would get rid of religious holidays before acknowledging Muslim ones, while conservative media outlets are accusing the board of 'banning' Jewish and Christian religious holidays in order to appease Muslims."
In fact, Fox News' Bill O'Reilly told his audience this week that this story is -- you guessed it -- the "first salvo this season in the ongoing war on Christmas." He added, "They just wiped out all our traditions because [of] these people."
Aren't the holidays fun?
For more on this story, our friends at msnbc's "Politics Nation" did a great segment earlier this week.
Also from the God Machine this week:
Propaganda, anti-US backlash boost ISIS ranks

Propaganda, anti-US backlash aid ISIS recruitment

11/14/14 09:37PM

NBC's Keir Simmons talks with Richard Engel about how the powerful ISIS propaganda machine, combined with negative feelings about U.S. policy in Syria, draw Westerners to the ISIS cause and increase the risk of attacks in the West by ISIS sympathizers. watch

ISIS fighters spawned from US Iraq invasion

ISIS fighters spawned from US Iraq invasion

11/14/14 09:17PM

Richard Engel, NBC News chief foreign correspondent, traces the roots of ISIS to the insurgents who fought against the U.S. in Iraq, and talks with Lieutenant General Michael Barbero about how readily the Iraqi Army fell apart in the face of ISIS. watch

Friday's Mini-Report, 11.14.14

11/14/14 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
* On to the Senate: "The Republican-led House approved the Keystone XL pipeline for the ninth time on Friday, with the Senate poised to vote on the measure next week in an effort to boost Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu's re-election chances."
* Would President Obama veto? It sure looks like it.
* Important: 'Swedish officials said Friday that a mysterious vessel detected in the waters off Stockholm last month was a foreign submarine that had violated its territorial waters. Although many in Sweden and elsewhere suspected that the submarine was Russian, the Swedish authorities said they were unable to determine the nationality of the intruder. Russia has denied conducting any recent operations in Swedish waters."
* Related news: "Vladimir Putin is underlining his presence at a major summit of world leaders in Australia by stationing warships in waters off the country's northeastern coast, prompting the Australian prime minister to angrily accuse Russia of trying to reclaim the 'lost glories' of the Soviet Union."
* 300 million miles away: "Less than two days after its historic landing, Rosetta's probe may be reaching its final hours, and the scientific team is racing to collect as much data as possible before Philae's batteries run out. It's do or die, and at this point there's very little to lose in terms of its lifespan."
* Open enrollment under the Affordable Care Act begins tomorrow. The website works.
* Policymakers would be wise to take note: "The nation's nuclear forces lack resources, support and effective leadership, a legacy of neglect that could impact America's security, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday."
* Don't panic: "A surgeon working in Sierra Leone has been diagnosed with Ebola and will be flown Saturday to the United States for treatment, officials from Sierra Leone and the United States said."
* Secret Service: "Layer after layer of security measures that were supposed to block an intruder from getting into the White House all failed in stunning succession on the evening of Sept. 19, according to an internal review of a fence jumper's breach."
* Cabinet: "Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch said Thursday he believes U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch will get approved by the Senate to replace outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder, but that the confirmation process should wait until after the new Senate has taken office in January. 'Looking at it, I have to say, she looks like she will be a good person,' said Hatch on the Steve Malzberg Show."
* In 1983, American health regulators stopped allowing gay men to donate blood. More than three decades later, this ridiculous policy is still in place, though it's finally poised to change.
Bernie Sanders (I-VT) awaits the start of a hearing by the Senate VeteransÕ Affairs Committee September 9, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Right pans Bernie Sanders' 'Democracy Day' idea

11/14/14 04:39PM

About a week ago, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) unveiled legislation to make Election Day a national holiday. It's not a bad idea -- plenty of folks might want to vote on the first Tuesday in November, but face scheduling restrictions. Early voting is available in many states, but not all.
Many have suggested moving Election Day to a weekend, but if that's not going to happen, it's not unreasonable to think voter participation would improve if there were a declared "Democracy Day," as Sanders suggests.
"In America, we should be celebrating our democracy and doing everything possible to make it easier for people to participate in the political process," Sanders said in a statement. "Election Day should be a national holiday so that everyone has the time and opportunity to vote. While this would not be a cure-all, it would indicate a national commitment to create a more vibrant democracy."
So what's wrong with this? Off the top of my head, I can't think of anything, though National Review appears to have some concerns.
If Bernie Sanders has his way, "Democracy Day" will be the crowning holiday of America's dystopian future. Imagine: Everyone in slab-gray uni-gender tunics and biodegradable Crocs, all lined up in perfect uniformity to cast a legally mandated vote for the single party that remains. Democracy! Pharrell's "Happy" will play over loudspeakers in the background. On loop.
Um, no. Making Election Day a holiday does not lead to a dystopian nightmare resembling 1984 Apple commercials.
Low turnout might well indicate a small group of very interested people, and that might be a better indication of the country's desires than truckloads of people completing a ballot because they felt obligated -- or, worse, faced a penalty if they did not.
I'm not sure if this is intended as satire, but National Review seems to be arguing that if a significant number of Americans want to participate in their democracy, and feel a civic duty as a citizen, but they can't vote because of time constraints, that's OK -- because people with more leisure time are better motivated?