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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 12.2.14

12/02/14 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* A huge deal in Iraq: "In a far-reaching deal that helps reunite Iraq in the face of a bitter war with Islamic extremists, the central government agreed on Tuesday to a long-term pact with the autonomous Kurdish region to share the country's oil wealth and military resources."
 
* Israeli elections on the way: "In a decisive move after days of intense political bickering, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel fired his centrist finance and justice ministers on Tuesday and called for the dissolution of Parliament and early elections."
 
* Missouri: "The Missouri National Guard will begin scaling back its operations in the St. Louis area, Gov. Jay Nixon said Tuesday, as the protests in the streets have quieted in the week since a grand jury decided not to indict a Ferguson police officer in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager."
 
* Deadly gun violence: "A man suspected in the shooting deaths of four people in West Virginia was found dead Monday night, police said. A manhunt had been underway in northern West Virginia near Morgantown after four people were fatally shot in three attacks Monday morning."
 
* Detroit: "Power crews were scrambling Tuesday afternoon to turn the lights back on in downtown Detroit after a widespread outage swept schools, government buildings and offices for several hours. Courts halted trials. Confused drivers jammed intersections without working traffic lights. And thousands of people filed out of darkened buildings as emergency crews responded to reports of people trapped in elevators."
 
* Unexpected: "Lebanon's military has detained a wife and child of the Islamic State leader, security officials said Tuesday, handing authorities possible bargaining chips for the release of hostages held by the militant group. The detentions -- which also included a spouse of another senior Islamic State commander -- could offer insights into the movements and activities of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his inner circle."
 
* Seems pretty straightforward: "House and Senate negotiators have reached agreement on a $585 billion defense policy bill that provides funds to expand the U.S. mission in Iraq to counter Islamic State militants and gives the military the authority to train moderate Syrian forces."
 
* Justice: "The Air Force is court-martialing a nuclear missile launch officer on drug charges stemming from a criminal investigation that led to the separate disclosure of an exam-cheating scandal that implicated nearly 100 nuclear officers."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks at an event in National Harbor, Md., March 7, 2014. (Photo by Drew Angerer/The New York Times/Redux)

Texas' Perry under pressure in Scott Panetti case

12/02/14 05:09PM

Over the last three decades, the state of Texas has executed 518 people -- a shockingly high number, even by international standards -- all while celebrating a "culture of life." Tomorrow, Scott Panetti is slated to become the 519th.
Scott Panetti is just about out of options. On Wednesday at 6 p.m. CST, the state of Texas will end his life, even though his lawyers say Panetti is severely mentally ill and an execution would violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. One of the only people who can stop the execution, at least temporarily, is Gov. Rick Perry (R).
 
But with time running out, Perry is so far staying silent, despite mounting pressure on him to intervene.
 
Panetti is on death row for the 1992 murder of his in-laws, whom he killed while his wife and daughter were watching.... On Monday afternoon, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously voted not to recommend that Panetti's death sentence be commuted to life in prison.
Michele Richinick reported this afternoon on an unexpected political twist: 21 conservatives, including notables such as former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R), "joined mental health and death penalty reformers in opposing the execution, and wrote a letter to Perry asking him to change Panetti's sentence to life in prison.... 'Mr. Panetti is one of the most seriously mentally ill prisoners on death row in the United States. Rather than serving as a measured response to murder, the execution of Mr. Panetti would only serve to undermine the public's faith in a fair and moral justice system,' they recently wrote."
 
It's an interesting argument. We're not talking about opponents of capital punishment; we're talking about people who are afraid that Texas killing a sick man will make it harder to sustain public support for broader system of executions.
US President Barack Obama speaks following the announcement of the decision in the case of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown, in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House on Nov. 24, 2014 in Washington

The wrong thesis applied to the wrong president

12/02/14 04:43PM

About a week before the midterm elections, Dana Milbank published a column blasting President Obama, endorsing the argument that the president is a "passive bystander." The columnist argued, "The real problem with Obama is not overreach but his tendency to be hands-off."
 
Soon after, the entire thesis looked wildly off the mark -- Obama, far from the hapless spectator described by Milbank, took charge on issues ranging from immigration to the climate crisis to net neutrality. The president wasn't just watching events pass him by, content to do nothing while circumstances unfolded around him, Obama did the exact opposite, taking the reins and showing real leadership.
 
Which makes it all the more curious to see Milbank re-commit to the same mistaken thesis again today.
[O]n this issue [violence in Ferguson] as on many others -- notably the fight against the Islamic State and the need to find a new defense secretary -- Obama has demonstrated a preference to mull rather than to act. Former Obama Pentagon chief Leon Panetta, in his memoir, wrote that Obama too often "relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader." [...]
 
Over time, such a cerebral process probably produces the best results. But crises don't wait for cogitation.
In this case, Milbank was disappointed that the president "had a meeting" at the White House to discuss developments in Ferguson. What the Beltway columnist would have preferred is to see the president go to the St. Louis area ... where Obama presumably could have had more meetings.
 
I'll confess to being mystified by the entire argument. Milbank sees the response to ISIS as an example of Obama preferring thought to action, but in reality, the president began launching airstrikes on ISIS targets in August -- long before Congress even considered authorizing force -- and soon after he unilaterally took the controversial step of expanding the mission into Syria. How is this an example of inaction? Isn't this actually evidence of the opposite?
 
At the Pentagon, Obama concluded his Defense Secretary was no longer the best person for the job, he asked for Chuck Hagel's resignation, and he's chosen a capable replacement. In what way does this point to passivity and indecision?
 
The point isn't that President Obama's leadership is perfect at all times, because it isn't. But it sometimes seems as if his critics' condemnations are wholly disconnected to the president's actual decisions.
U.S Congressional Delegation from Washington D.C. Senators John McCain, Joseph Lieberman,Lindsay Graham leave a press conference at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya  Friday, Aug. 14, 2009.

McCain envisions reunion of sorts for 'Three Amigos'

12/02/14 03:56PM

If the rumors out of the administration are accurate, it looks like former Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter will be President Obama's nominee to replace Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon. What's more, by all appearances, Carter will likely fare well during the Senate confirmation process.
 
But as Al Kamen noted, the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee is eager to talk up someone altogether different.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Monday that White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough had contacted him about his thoughts on who should be the next defense secretary.
 
"I said Lieberman," McCain told our colleague Steven Ginsberg as he got off the Amtrak Acela from Washington to New York. McCain laughed and said McDonough thanked him for his input, but that McCain did not think his close pal, the former senator from Connecticut, a Democrat turned Independent, would be considered for the job. (After all, he did endorse McCain over Obama in '08.)
Remember, last week, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) also urged the White House to nominate Lieberman.
 
The difference, of course, is that according to McCain, the Arizona Republican actually felt strongly enough about the suggestion to take it directly to the White House chief of staff. In other words, Cruz was just trolling to generate a few headlines for himself, needling for the entertainment value, but McCain seriously thinks it would be a good idea to reunite the "Three Amigos," with McCain and Lindsey Graham in the Senate, and Lieberman at the Pentagon.
 
It's not a good idea at all. Let's put aside the fact that Lieberman has never served a day in the military and has never worked at the Pentagon. Instead let's remember that Lieberman spent the Bush/Cheney era as a cheerleader for a catastrophically awful national security policy.
 
Officials in the West Wing not only wouldn't consider him for the cabinet, they probably wouldn't be altogether comfortable with Lieberman taking a tour of the Pentagon as a tourist.
Empty hospital emergency room. (Stock photo by  DreamPictures/Getty Images)

ACA is saving lives in more ways than one

12/02/14 12:45PM

When we talk about the Affordable Care Act as a life-or-death issue for many Americans, we tend to focus on the issue of access: families without coverage too often go without treatments, leading to easily avoidable, life-threatening ailments.
 
But "Obamacare" was a massive undertaking precisely because it did far more than just expand access to insurance. The reform law also took deliberate steps towards improving the health care system itself, and as Jason Millman reported, those measures appear to be saving thousands of lives, too.
Wide-ranging efforts to make hospital care safer have resulted in an estimated 50,000 fewer patients dying because of avoidable errors in the past three years, according to a new report presented by government and industry officials on Tuesday.
 
Hospitals reported 1.3 million fewer hospital-acquired infections in all between 2011-2013 compared to the rate of mistakes that hospitals made in 2010, according to the report from the Department of Health and Human Services. That represented a 17 percent drop in hospital errors from 2010, but about 12 percent of all hospitalizations as of 2013 still experienced an adverse event during the course of care.
What does this have to do with the Affordable Care Act? A senior official at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services told the Washington Post, "We made major investments in quality improvements. We made investments in the research and understanding of patient safety."
 
And the result of these efforts seems pretty obvious: lives saved and billions in savings.
Sarah Kliff's piece went further in explaining why the Obama administration is claiming victory:

Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.2.14

12/02/14 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:
 
* Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is apparently launching his formal re-election bid today, even as he also gears up for a presidential race. For what it's worth, this seems to be the senator's second formal announcement: Paul declared in May 2013 that he would seek a second Senate term.
 
* In Arizona: "The 133 ballots at the heart of a federal lawsuit in Arizona’s Second Congressional District will not be counted. Judge Cindy Jorgenson of United States District Court denied a request Thursday by Representative Ron Barber and three voters to halt the official election results certification until those ballots were counted."
 
* Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio announced this morning that he will not run for president in 2016. In a written statement, the former Bush/Cheney official said, “I don’t think I can run for president and be an effective senator at the same time.” Some of his colleagues may find that a little insulting.
 
* Last night was the final debate of 2014, with Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) facing off against Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) in Louisiana. The Democratic incumbent sought six debates, though Cassidy, who's favored to win, agreed to only one. Their runoff election is this Saturday.
 
* In related news, early voting in the Louisiana runoff appears to favor Cassidy.
 
* Interesting allegations in a Maine state Senate race: "The Maine Democratic Party is calling for an investigation into ballot count discrepancies on Long Island that tipped the scales in favor of the Republican candidate in the Senate District 25 race in Portland’s northern suburbs. The party’s claim involves 21 ballots from the island town that appeared on Nov. 18, when the Secretary of State’s Office conducted a recount in the race between Republican Cathy Manchester of Gray and Democrat Cathy Breen of Falmouth."
Ebola response coordinator Ron Klain listens while US President Barack Obama speaks in the Oval Office on Oct. 22, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty)

Obama hasn't forgotten about Ebola

12/02/14 11:42AM

San Stein noted this morning that the word "Ebola" was mentioned 92 times during the Oct. 24 White House press briefing, before dropping to single digits over the last couple of weeks. The drop-off was so striking, it calls for a chart.
But while much of the political discussion has moved on, Stein added that President Obama hasn't forgotten about the virus, and he'll travel today to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda to help "reacquaint America with Ebola."
According to the advisory for the event, a portion of the president's remarks will be devoted to praising work done by the medical research community in combating the deadly virus -- including slowing the growth rate of infections in West Africa, treating patients in the United States and conducting a Phase 1 clinical trial for a promising vaccine.
 
But the visit won't be an exclusively celebratory affair. The president, according to aides, is traveling to the NIH's bucolic Bethesda campus because the proverbial clock is ticking on a biomedical emergency that remains unresolved. With just days to go before Congress must fund the government, fears are mounting that the administration's request for billions of dollars to help combat Ebola will go underfunded or even unaddressed.
A senior administration official told the Huffington Post, "I think in some ways Ebola has receded from the front page of the papers, but now is not the time to let down our guard. That's one of the messages you would be hearing from the president. Now is the time to double-down on our efforts and make progress."
 
Right. Ebola was not a fad that fell out of fashion after Republicans no longer saw value in exploiting public anxiety for partisan gain. The threat is still real. The virus is still deadly. The ongoing effects are still devastating in parts of West Africa.
 
The need for Congress to invest in a meaningful response is no different today than when congressional candidates were using Ebola in campaign commercials six weeks ago.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (R) speaks with Speaker of the House John Beohner (R-OH) in Washington in 2012.

Censure and move on?

12/02/14 11:00AM

Those familiar with contemporary progressive politics are very likely aware of MoveOn.org, a liberal activist group. What some folks may not remember, however, is the origin of the organization's name.
 
In 1998, then-President Clinton was caught up in the Lewinsky scandal, which Republicans used as the basis for an impeachment crusade. Polls showed much of the American mainstream opposed impeachment and supported the president, but there was nevertheless a widely held impression that Clinton's misdeeds warranted some kind of formal rebuke.
 
A progressive email group began circulating a petition urging the Republican-led Congress to "censure President Clinton and move on." In other words, Congress could scuttle the impeachment nonsense, vote on a legislative reprimand, and the country could finally turn the page on the whole mess.
 
GOP lawmakers, we now know, ignored the suggestion and impeached the president, but the email group truncated its subject line and became MoveOn.org.
 
Sixteen years later, the idea of censuring a Democratic president is apparently making a comeback of sorts. Sahil Kapur reports this morning:
Impeachment has faded in Republican circles as an option to punish President Barack Obama over his sweeping executive actions to reshape immigration enforcement, ruled out even by hardliners like Rep. Steve King (R-IA) who are livid with the president and want to retaliate.
 
An alternative that has gained some traction among Republicans is to "censure" the president. The idea has been endorsed by King and Rep. Raul Labrador, both influential GOP voices on immigration issues. National Review writer John Fund has been pushing it for months.
The differences between 2014 and 1998 are fascinating to me. Under Clinton, when impeachment appeared likely, censure was pushed by the left as a moderate substitute. Under Obama, with impeachment appearing unlikely, censure is now embraced by the right, looking for a pound of flesh for their troubles.
 
Of course, the more important difference is that Clinton really was guilty of personal wrongdoing, while Obama's apparent crime is being the subject of irrational Republican hatred.
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush speaks during the Wall Street Journal CEO Council in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 1, 2014. (Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty)

Jeb Bush still stumbling on immigration

12/02/14 10:26AM

Last year, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) published a book on immigration reform, ostensibly one of the subjects he understands best. It didn't go well.
 
As readers may recall, Bush started 2013 endorsing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Six weeks later, he took the opposite position. A few days later, he went back to his original position again. The Florida Republican eventually said he was thrown off by his publishing deadline, before telling msnbc, "I'm not smart enough to figure out every aspect of a really complex law."
 
Yesterday, Jeb returned to the subject, this time complaining about President Obama.
Bush, the son of one president and brother of another, also reiterated his support for a pathway to legal status for immigrants in the U.S. illegally, but said Obama may have exceeded his constitutional authority by unilaterally lifting the threat of deportation from millions of such immigrants last month.
 
"The idea that, well, Reagan did it, my dad did it -- they did it on a much smaller scale and they did it with consent of Congress. There are a lot of differences," Bush said Monday night at the Wall Street Journal's CEO Council, an invitation-only event in Washington featuring some of the nation's most powerful CEOs.
Bush may have been speaking to his base, which was unlikely to challenge his assertions, but the former governor's argument doesn't stand up well to scrutiny. Indeed, he seems to be getting all of the key details wrong.
 
For one thing, when Reagan and H.W. Bush acted on immigration, they didn't do it with Congress' consent -- they took executive action first and waited for Congress to act later. In Reagan's case, he moved forward on his policy shortly after legislation failed.
 
As for Jeb Bush's concerns about "scale," whether he realizes it or not, Obama's policy is, as Rachel recently explained on the show, "roughly on the same scale" as his father's policy.
 
In other words, a year after Jeb Bush appeared to have no idea what he was talking about on immigration policy -- one of his signature issues -- the Florida Republican has been tripped up once again by an issue he cares so much about, he literally wrote a book about it.
Image: Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama

Putin's failures leave Russia reeling

12/02/14 09:50AM

It was poised to be the biggest arms deal ever between a NATO country and Russia. France had a deal worth more than 1 billion euros to deliver a warship to Russia, and given Europe's economy and the number of jobs involved, French President Francois Hollande really wanted the deal to go forward.
 
But it did not. President Obama urged Hollande to leave Vladimir Putin isolated and the French president agreed, announcing last week that the warship delivery was off "until further notice" in light of Russia's aggression towards Ukraine.
 
Late yesterday, Putin suffered yet another failure.
President Vladimir V. Putin said Monday that he would scrap Russia's South Stream gas pipeline, a grandiose project that was once intended to establish the country's dominance in southeastern Europe but instead fell victim to Russia's increasingly toxic relationship with the West.
The New York Times characterized this as a "rare diplomatic defeat" for Putin, though I'm not sure why. Indeed, diplomatic defeats appear to be the only thing the Russian president has accomplished lately.
 
As Kevin Drum noted, "Ukraine is more firmly allied to the West than ever. Finland is wondering if it might not be such a bad idea to join NATO after all. The Baltic states, along with just about every other Russian neighbor, are desperate to reinforce their borders -- and their NATO commitments. Russia has been dumped from the G7 and Putin himself was brutally snubbed by practically every other world leader at the G20 meeting in Brisbane. Economic sanctions are wreaking havoc with the Russian economy. China took advantage of all this to drive a harder bargain in negotiations over the long-planned Siberian gas pipeline. Even Angela Merkel has finally turned on Putin."
 
For months, Republicans in the United States ran around singing Putin's praises, convinced that it was the Russian autocrat gaining power and prestige on the international stage, while President Obama "failed to lead" and American influence waned.
 
It seems painfully obvious now that Republicans had it backwards.
Dr. Ben Carson, professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine

Ben Carson connects violence to 'women's lib movement'

12/02/14 08:35AM

Neurosurgeon-turned-conservative-activist Ben Carson continues to move forward with his presidential ambitions, though he realizes he faces long odds. Carson recently told the Des Moines Register, "The way I have kind of looked at it is it's the same thing with some of the so-called inoperable brain tumors. Everything's impossible until to you do it. And then it's possible."
 
How refreshing. So few candidates compare their campaigns to inoperable brain tumors.
 
But as it turns out, Carson is quite adept at making unusual connections. Right Wing Watch reported yesterday on the right-wing activist's latest appearance on America Family Radio, where Carson reflected on Michael Brown and the violence that claims the lives of too many young African Americans.
"Certainly in a lot of our inner cities, in particular the black inner cities, where 73 percent of the young people are born out of wedlock, the majority of them have no father figure in their life. Usually the father figure is where you learn how to respond to authority. So now you become a teenager, you're out there, you really have no idea how to respond to authority, you eventually run into the police or you run into somebody else in the neighborhood who also doesn't know how to respond but is badder than you are, and you get killed or you end up in the penal system," Carson said. [...]
 
When host Lauren Kitchen Stewards broke in to tie his remarks to young people's "sense of entitlement," Carson traced it all back to the women's liberation movement.
 
"I think a lot of it really got started in the '60s with the 'me generation.' 'What's in it for me?' I hate to say it, but a lot of it had to do with the women's lib movement. You know, 'I've been taking care of my family, I've been doing that, what about me?' You know, it really should be about us," he said.
Hmm. A white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teen, and according to Ben Carson, the problem is ... feminism?

Amanda Marcotte replied, "You know what this means. Give up your independence and suffer unhappy marriages, ladies, or else it's your fault if your son is gunned down in the streets by an overly aggressive police officer."
The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.

House GOP struggling as shutdown deadline looms

12/02/14 08:00AM

Current funding for the federal government runs out a week from Thursday, just nine days from now, and it's apparently up to House Republicans to avoid another government shutdown.
 
What could possibly go wrong?
 
The basic dynamic is pretty simple: the parties already agree on spending levels, but GOP lawmakers claim to be outraged by President Obama's executive actions on immigration. A variety of congressional Republicans want to leverage a spending bill to undo the White House policy -- a move that would guarantee that the government's lights would go out on Dec. 11.
 
GOP leaders desperately hope to avoid this, and they believe they may have a way out.
House Republicans are reviewing a plan by Representative Tom Price of Georgia, who is popular among more conservative members, that offers a hybrid solution: a combination of a broad-based spending bill that would keep the government funded through September 2015 and a stopgap spending measure to pay for operations of the Department of Homeland Security, the agency with primary responsibility for carrying out Mr. Obama's immigration action.
 
That plan, which is being called the "Cromnibus" for its combined elements of a continuing resolution for the short-term portion and omnibus for the broader-based spending, is likely to be considered when House Republicans gather Tuesday morning in a closed-door meeting.
The plan is not without flaws. For one thing, the party remains divided -- many GOP leaders and appropriators prefer a clean spending bill that leaves the immigration fight for another day. For another, this approach doesn't actually undermine the Obama administration, so much as it kicks the can down the road, creating conditions for a partial shutdown in 2015.
 
Perhaps most importantly, even if the Republican plan were executed perfectly, and they blocked funding for immigration enforcement in a showdown with the White House early next year, the GOP reward would be the opposite of what the right wants: the federal government would no longer have resources to enforce immigration laws.
 
Remember, most House Republicans consider this their best strategy.

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