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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 6.16.15

06/16/15 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* Counter-terrorism: "Al Qaeda confirmed Tuesday that its No. 2 official — a former aide to Osama Bin Laden who rose to lead the terror group's powerful Yemen affiliate — was killed in a U.S. airstrike. Rumors about Nasir al-Wuhayshi's death first circulated on social media and in the Yemeni press."
 
* The mission to date: "The Department of Defense has identified six American service members who have died supporting the operation to eliminate the Islamic State militant group. It confirmed the death of the following American recently: Daniel, Monterrious T., Pfc., Army; 19, of Griffin, Ga., Fourth Infantry Division."
 
* Water matters: "Twenty-one of the world's 37 largest aquifers – in locations from India and China to the United States and France -- have passed their sustainability tipping points, meaning more water is being removed than replaced from these vital underground reservoirs. Thirteen of 37 aquifers fell at rates that put them into the most troubled category.
 
* TAA vote postponed: "After successful Democratic efforts to block the president's trade package, Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) spoke by phone and consulted their respective top lieutenants as they tried to find a path to success, according to senior aides. Their first call was to abandon plans for a second vote Tuesday on a piece of legislation that must also pass for the entire package to advance to Obama's desk."
 
* It's been days since the last sports scandal: "The FBI and Justice Department are investigating members of the front office of the St. Louis Cardinals to determine whether the organization hacked the computer network of the Houston Astros in order to steal player personnel information."
 
* FDA: "The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday gave the food industry three years to eliminate artery-clogging, artificial trans fats from the food supply, a long-awaited step that capped years of effort by consumer advocates and is expected to save thousands of lives a year."
 
* Coffman really shouldn't have gone this far: "A VA spokeswoman chided U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman on Monday for statements the Aurora Republican made recently in which he imagined the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs running the terrorist group ISIS."
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) talks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol Jan. 13, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Senate votes against torture, but not unanimously

06/16/15 04:55PM

It's been six months since the Senate Intelligence Committee, at the time led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), released a detailed report on Bush-era "enhanced interrogation techniques." Among the many gut-wrenching findings was realization that torture program "was far more brutal than the CIA represented to policymakers and the American public."
 
Soon after, Feinstein proposed a series of recommendations "to prevent the future use of torture by the government," and part of the California Democrat's agenda came to the floor today. MSNBC's Eric Levitz reported:
The bitterly divided Senate came together Tuesday to ban the U.S. from ever returning to the use of Bush-era "enhanced interrogation techniques," now widely recognized as torture.
 
By a margin of 78 to 21, the upper house passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would restrict the interrogation practices of every federal agency to those explicitly sanctioned by the Army Field Manual; a handbook that provides no entries for waterboarding, "rectal feeding," or any of the other innovative brutalities employed by the CIA under the previous administration.
The policy, specifically requested by Feinstein in January, was co-authored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was tortured after his capture in Vietnam. "I know from personal experience that abuse of prisoners does not provide good, reliable intelligence," McCain said today. "I firmly believe that all people, even captured enemies, are protected by basic human rights."'
 
The Huffington Post called today's vote "a landmark showing."
 
That seems entirely fair, though it's important to emphasize that the outcome was hardly unanimous.
"Obamacare"  supporter Margot Smith (L) of California pleads her case with legislation opponents Judy Burel (2nd R) and Janis Haddon, both of Georgia, at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, March 28, 2012.

Public unaware of Supreme Court's healthcare iceberg

06/16/15 04:14PM

Those who pay close attention to current events no doubt realize that, before the end of the month, the Supreme Court will rule on a case called King v. Burwell. For millions of families, the decision will be critically important -- for some, it may even be a matter of life and death.
 
But the fact remains that much of the public doesn't pay close attention to current events. The Kaiser Family Foundation's new report suggests most Americans have no idea there's an iceberg ahead, and the high court may be aiming right for it.
Most of the public continues to say they have not heard much about the case. About 7 in 10 say they've heard only a little (28 percent) or nothing at all (44 percent) about the case. Fourteen percent say they've heard something about it and 13 percent say they've heard a lot about the case.
 
These shares are slightly higher than late last year when the Supreme Court announced they would take the case and earlier this year when the Court heard arguments, but still most say they haven't heard much about the case.
That's no small detail. Possibly as early as Thursday, several Republican justices may tell 6 million Americans, "Sorry, we've decided you'll no longer be able to afford health security." And many of those 6 million have no idea this possibility is looming.
 
We've been raising the prospect of systemic chaos for quite a while, and these national survey results reinforce the threat: if five partisan jurists take a brazenly stupid case seriously, states aren't prepared to address the ensuing mess; federal lawmakers have made no plans on how to proceed; and millions of consumers will be very surprised to learn their coverage is suddenly unaffordable because some Republicans on the Supreme Court say so.
 
As for the political implications, it's certainly possible the public, upon learning about all of this, will blame Republicans -- after all, it was Republicans who filed this ridiculous lawsuit; Republicans who championed the case; Republicans who filed briefs with the court pleading with the justices to rule against consumers; and Republican judges who might swing the sledgehammer at the American health care system.
 
But there's also that other possibility. The Washington Post's Greg Sargent considered the prospect of Republicans rolling out "the old Obamacare Fog Machine" for another run.
U.S. Republican presidential candidate formally announces his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during an event at Trump Tower in New York June 16, 2015. (Photo by Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Donald Trump, political performance artist

06/16/15 12:53PM

I should probably admit that I didn't actually think Donald Trump would run for president. He's come close several times, reveled in the attention, and then abruptly walked away before having to do any real work. It seemed entirely possible to me that he would schedule an event, announce he has $9 billion, and then drop the mic.
 
But I was mistaken. To the delight of late-night hosts everywhere, Donald Trump is an official Republican presidential candidate.
Donald Trump promised to "take the brand of the United States and make it great again," as he announced a 2016 bid for the presidency on Tuesday morning in New York City, making good on nearly 30 years of hinting at a possible White House run. [...]
 
Despite his statement that he is "officially running" for president, Trump has not filed formal paperwork with the Federal Election Commission. However, a spokesperson for his campaign said he will file "within the allowed period." That period lasts 120 days, which means Trump could conceivably participate in a GOP presidential debate without having registered to run.
Watching Trump's rambling announcement, delivered in Trump Tower in New York City, the event had surreal, performance-art quality. It was as if an odd television personality and reality-show host announced he expects to lead the free world -- which is what this turned out to be.
 
Clearly, this endeavor has all the markings of a vanity exercise to end all vanity exercises, though Trump has hired actual campaign staffers and has maintained a candidate-like travel schedule, which will include a big event tomorrow in New Hampshire.
 
This does not change the fact, however, that Trump will simply never be elected president.

Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 6.16.15

06/16/15 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:
 
* A new Suffolk University poll in New Hampshire shows Hillary Clinton leading Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) by just 10 points, 41% to 31%. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is at 3%, followed by Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee, who's at 1%.
 
* Speaking of polling, the latest Monmouth survey shows Ben Carson, of all people, leading the Republicans' presidential field with 11%, followed by Scott Walker at 10%, and Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, who are tied at 9% each. The same poll found 20% of Republicans remain undecided.
 
* With most of the competitive GOP presidential candidates now having kicked off their national bids, how much longer will we have to wait on Scott Walker to jump in? He's reportedly eyeing an official launch date of July 13 -- still four weeks away.
 
* As part of his desire to be a power player in his party, Mitt Romney is reportedly partnering with billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson "in the hopes of ensuring that the GOP primary produces a mainstream conservative without any of the mayhem that marked his own race."
 
* Hillary Clinton was in New Hampshire yesterday, touting her support for "early childhood education and calling for tax cuts to help middle-class parents pay for child care." The Democratic frontrunner said her goal is to ensure that "in the next 10 years every 4-year-old has access to high-quality preschool."
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signs autographs from the window of a food truck after he formally announced that he would join the race for president with a speech at Miami Dade College, June 15, 2015, in Miami. (Photo by Wilfredo Lee/AP)

Jeb Bush, a poor economic messenger

06/16/15 11:29AM

There was quite a bit to chew on in Jeb Bush's official kickoff speech yesterday. It was hard not to marvel, for example, at the son and brother of former presidents complaining about the D.C. "elites." I was also surprised his speechwriters included complaints about lobbyists in light of the former governor's extensive lobbying ties.
 
And don't even get me started on Bush telling his audience, "The presidency should not be passed on from one liberal to the next."
 
But perhaps the most curious rhetoric, at least on a substantive level, was this:
"So many challenges could be overcome if we just get this economy growing at full strength. There is not a reason in the world why we cannot grow at a rate of four percent a year. And that will be my goal as president -- four percent growth, and the 19 million new jobs that come with it."
I'm going to assume that the "19 million new jobs" target would cover two terms in the White House, since no one, not even Bill Clinton, has ever come close to such a total in four years.
 
There are two broad problems with Jeb's ambitious goal. The first is how unrealistic it is; the second is how little credibility he has on the issue.
Hillary Rodham Clinton delivers a speech at Texas Southern University in Houston, June 4, 2015. (Photo by Pat Sullivan/AP)

Movement on voting rights following Hillary Clinton pitch

06/16/15 10:50AM

It's been about two weeks since presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton presented an ambitious vision on voting rights, calling for a 20-day early voting window and a universal, automatic voter registration. The point wasn't to create immediate policy changes -- Clinton does not currently hold public office -- but rather to let the public know about the kind of agenda she'd pursue if elected.
 
But whether intended or not, Clinton has helped stir the pot a bit when it comes to voting rights. MSNBC's Zack Roth reported late last week:
In just the week since Clinton spoke, Ohio and Rhode Island have both moved forward with online voter registration bills, and Louisiana passed a bill to study automatic voter registration. If it weren't for the fact that most state legislatures have already adjourned for the session, the number of states moving forward with expansive legislation would likely be larger.
At the federal level, Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) last week unveiled the "Automatic Voter Registration Act," which would "require local motor vehicle departments to forward individuals' information to elections officials, who would then send the person a notification that they'll be registered to vote after 21-days. Anyone can opt out of the registration before that 21-day window is up, but they will be automatically registered unless they do so."
 
The bill was reportedly in the works before Clinton's speech, but the former Secretary of State's endorsement of the idea helped create interest in Cicilline's plan -- as of this morning, it's already picked up 46 co-sponsors.
 
Obviously, in a Republican-run Congress, efforts like these stand no chance of success, but there's movement on this issue for the first time in a while, thanks at least in part to Clinton putting the problem on the nation's front-burner.
 
There's even action in New Jersey, which Gov. Chris Christie (R) mysteriously believes is home to a cesspool of imaginary voter fraud.
Bobby Jindal speaks at the American Enterprise Institute on Oct. 6, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty)

Louisiana Republicans resort to 'money laundering'

06/16/15 10:11AM

When we last checked in with the great state of Louisiana, Republican state lawmakers were pleading with anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist to let them pass a budget. He said no. So, what ended up happening in the Bayou State?
 
The mess is a familiar one. Gov. Bobby Jindal's (R) tax breaks proved unaffordable, and confronted with one of the nation's most dramatic budget gaps, Louisiana lawmakers grudgingly turned to possible tax hikes to dig themselves out of a hole. The Republican governor, however, said net tax increases were out of the question (he's running for president, for Pete's sake).
 
Eventually, a solution came together -- called the "Student Assessment for a Valuable Education," or SAVE -- though Republicans themselves described the remedy "money laundering" and "embarrassing."
 
Slate's Jordan Weissmann, who called the plan "mind-bendingly stupid," flagged this report from The Advocate newspaper.
[SAVE] would assess a fee of about $1,500 per higher education student and raise about $350 million total, but only on paper. Students wouldn't have to pay anything because an offsetting tax credit for the $1,500. Nor would universities receive any new money.
 
However, the SAVE fund would create a tax credit for the $350 million that Jindal could use to offset $350 million of the new revenue that legislators are proposing to raise.
You might think that sounds ridiculous. In fact, you should think it sounds ridiculous, because it is.
 
Weissmann added, "Jindal created a fake fee for students, and a fake tax credit to balance it out, which ultimately leads to no money changing hands, but apparently satisfies whatever agreement Jindal struck with Norquist to preserve the illusion that he didn't raise taxes."
 
The Times-Picayune added that the whole point is to "create the illusion of a tax break."
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback delivers his State of the State speech to an annual joint session of the House and Senate at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan., Jan. 15, 2014. (Photo by Orlin Wagner/AP)

Kansas' regressive approach to redistributing wealth

06/16/15 09:27AM

There are two main problems with Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback's (R) far-right economic experiment. The first is that the plan didn't work -- it didn't create the promised jobs boom; it didn't create massive growth; and it didn't cause businesses to stampede into the state.
 
The second problem is the challenge of dealing with the consequences of failure. The Republican governor's plan, after causing a debt downgrade, left a significant hole in Kansas' state budget, which GOP policymakers have struggled badly to fill.
 
A few days ago, however, the Republican-run state government grudgingly approved a new budget, which actually included tax increases. Reluctant lawmakers said Brownback hadn't left them much of a choice -- Brownback effectively told the state legislature to raise sales taxes and cigarette taxes or he'd slash funding even more on education and disability services.
 
From a distance, it might seem as if this were a liberal solution to a conservative problem -- Kansas Republicans got themselves in a jam by cutting taxes too much, and to put things right, they decided to start raising taxes to fix the problem. But the details matter and that's not quite right.
 
The Kansas City Star's Dave Helling explained it's not just a matter of asking Kansans to pay more -- it's a question of which Kansans will pay more.
[N]o group, experts believe, gets hurt more than the state's low- and moderate-income workers, those earning between $30,000 and $50,000 a year. They now face higher taxes on essential purchases without most of the subsidies that protect poorer Kansans from government's bite.
 
Low-income workers, unlike those with significantly higher earnings, must watch their pennies carefully to pay for other essentials such as transportation and housing. Soon, more of those pennies -- which quickly grow to dollars -- will be on their way to Topeka.
Let's call this what it is: a redistribution of wealth, from the bottom up. Kansas is keeping its tax breaks for the wealthy, while approving tax increases -- by some measures, "the largest tax increase in state history" -- that will disproportionately affect those at the bottom.
MaddowBlog World Cup Corner Episode 4

MaddowBlog World Cup Corner Episode 4

06/16/15 09:13AM

Lucas Vazquez and Kasey O'Brien, TRMS World Cup Correspondents (and interns), break down the U.S. team's draw against Sweden, and look ahead to tonight's match against Nigeria. (Previously: http://on.msnbc.com/1KZldQC) watch

Ryan speaks at the SALT conference in Las Vegas

GOP's 'numbers guys' struggle with Obamacare details

06/16/15 08:58AM

House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) sat down with Fox News' Chris Wallace over the weekend, and the host confronted the congressman with some pertinent details about the Affordable Care Act.
"Under Obamacare, 16 million Americans have gained health coverage. Healthcare costs have risen at their slowest level in 50 years and up to 129 million Americans with pre-existing conditions are no longer in risk of losing coverage.
 
"And meanwhile, for all of the complaints, Congressman, we're five years into Obamacare, Republicans have still not come up with a coherent plan that will ensure that all of those millions of uninsured people get coverage."
Wallace's summary had the benefit of being true. Ryan responded by ignoring the good news and noting that some congressional Republicans offered alternative proposals, which is true -- though none was endorsed or embraced by GOP leaders, and none offered the kind of comprehensive solutions found in the Affordable Care Act.
 
The host asked, "Do you have a plan that would make sure that, for instance here, 16 million Americans who didn't have health insurance will get health insurance?" Ryan replied, "Yes, we will," but after five years of Republican promises, it was clear that such a plan does not currently exist.
 
The broader political context matters, of course. Paul Ryan, despite his routine difficulties with the basics of health care policy, is often seen as one of the sharper and more knowledgeable voices in his party. Indeed, few congressional Republicans seem to enjoy the kind of Beltway credibility Ryan has as an ostensible policy wonk.
 
If anyone else in GOP politics has that kind of reputation, it's former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), the former chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, and even a former Commerce Secretary nominee in the Obama administration. Maybe he can offer a more accurate Republican take on health care developments?
 
Well, he probably could, though last night on msnbc, Gregg was no better than Ryan.
Image: File photo of the AIG logo  outside of their corporate headquarters in New York

AIG sues over bailout and (sort of) wins

06/16/15 08:00AM

As the economy crashed in late 2008, the American International Group -- better known by its initials, AIG -- was the beneficiary of a rather high-profile government bailout. At the time, the United States government did not, however, simply write the insurance giant a big check; there were some meaningful strings attached.
 
Sure, AIG would be the beneficiary of a $185 billion rescue, but the company would have to pay back the money with interest, and the government would take roughly 80% of AIG's stock. The insurance giant didn't like the terms. It also didn't have much of a choice.
 
By some measures, one is tempted to say all's well that ends well -- AIG took the deal and repaid the money. For our trouble, Americans, who no longer own any controlling stake in the company, made more than $20 billion in interest and profits. The entire bailout package is in our rear-view mirror.
 
There was, however, a small hitch. AIG's former chief executive Maurice Greenberg was so unhappy with the terms of the deal that rescued his company that he sued the government, seeking tens of billions of dollars in damages. The circumstances seemed almost comically absurd -- the company we saved sued us because of the way in which we saved it?
 
Actually, yes, that's precisely what happened. And in an interesting twist, AIG actually won in court yesterday. The New York Times reported that the case that had generated "befuddlement and outright ridicule" turned out to be a success -- sort of.
On Monday, [Judge Thomas C. Wheeler of the United States Court of Federal Claims] handed down his decision -- a split judgment that in many ways agreed with both sides' main points of contention. Yes, he ruled, the Fed had indeed crossed the legal line by demanding a 79.9 percent equity stake in A.I.G. as a condition of the bailout in 2008. But at the same time, the government was also correct that A.I.G. shareholders had not been damaged; in fact, they had been saved from bankruptcy and certain doom. He declined to award any damages.
 
In his 75-page opinion, Judge Wheeler found that the Fed's action indeed "constituted an illegal exaction under the Fifth Amendment" and that it "did not have the legal right to become the owner of A.I.G."
The fact that AIG won exactly nothing but a moral victory is a key takeaway here. The judge agreed that the conditions of the bailout were excessive, but the ruling also found that neither AIG nor its shareholders actually suffered as a result of the deal -- so there was no need for the government to pay damages.
 
So is this ... good news?

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