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Friday's Mini-Report, 8.22.14

08/22/14 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* Ukraine: "The Russian military has moved artillery units manned by Russian personnel inside Ukrainian territory in recent days and was using them to fire at Ukrainian forces, NATO officials said on Friday."
 
* Related news: "More than 200 trucks from a long-stalled Russian convoy said to be carrying humanitarian aid crossed the border into eastern Ukraine on Friday without Red Cross escorts, drawing angry accusations from Ukraine that Moscow had broken its word and mounted what a senior Ukrainian security official called a 'direct invasion.'"
 
* Word choice matters: "The White House said Friday that the beheading of American journalist James Foley by ISIS militants constituted a terrorist attack against the United States. 'When you see somebody killed in such a horrific way, that represents a terrorist attack -- that represents a terrorist attack against our country and against an American citizen,' said Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser."
 
* Gaza: "One day after three top Hamas commanders were killed in an Israeli airstrike, at least 18 Palestinians were killed Friday by firing squads in Gaza City, sentenced to death by a 'revolutionary resistance court' for collaborating with Israel during a time of war."
 
* Ferguson: "Thousands of dollars have been raised for the officer who fatally shot unarmed teen Michael Brown. A crowdfunding website was created on Monday to raise funds for Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, who killed 18-year-old Brown on Aug. 9.... Nearly 6,000 people had raised more than $234,000 by mid-afternoon on Friday, through a GoFundMe site."
 
* Protests: "Contrary to concerns about violence or vandalism, protesters held peaceful events in Washington Thursday night in response to events in Ferguson, Mo. What had been billed as a 'Day of Rage' in front of the White House drew about two dozen people, including D.C. and St. Louis natives, and a cadre of local press."
 
* Pushing back against the GAO: "The White House on Friday rejected findings by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) that President Obama broke the law when he swapped Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban leaders from Guantanamo Bay."
 
* On a related note, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) seemed delighted by the GAO report. But if Boehner considered the Bergdahl swap illegal, why didn't he include this in his anti-Obama lawsuit?
 
* 30 feet is ridiculously close: "A Chinese fighter jet this week flew within 30 feet of a Navy surveillance and reconnaissance plane in international airspace just off the Chinese coast, the Pentagon said Friday. The encounter, known as an intercept, was 'very very close, very dangerous,' said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary."
 
Combating poverty: "A true measure of a president's priorities lies hidden in plain sight in his budget proposals. Under that standard, Mr. Obama has been more committed to communities like Ferguson than any Democratic president in the past half century. By looking at what percentage of the budget presidents propose to spend to fight poverty, we can compare their degree of commitment."
 
* We'll see: "House Republicans won't shut down the government in September, Heritage Action is 'constructive at the end of the day' and a person can write a book without necessarily running for president. Those were some of the points Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., hit home during an exclusive interview with CQ Roll Call Wednesday afternoon from the ornate Union League Building in downtown Philadelphia."
 
* Did the Affordable Care Act cause trouble at a Chicago Cubs game this week? No, which is why it's a shame so many in the media have reported this incorrectly.
 
* Good move: "The Washington Post editorial board said Friday it will stop using the word 'Redskins' when referring to Washington's football team, joining a growing list of other commentators who have renounced the term because they believe it disparages Native Americans."

Obama admin eyes new contraception compromise, post-Hobby Lobby

08/22/14 04:03PM

It's been a couple of months since the Supreme Court's conservatives, in a 5-4 ruling, sided with Hobby Lobby. In the case, the private, for-profit corporation sought an exemption from the Affordable Care Act's contraception policy, and the Republican-appointed justices agreed.
 
But as a matter of public policy, that left an unresolved problem in need of a remedy: employees at "closely held" companies run by religious conservatives still need access to birth control. It was only a matter of time before the Obama administration unveiled a new set of rules to guarantee access for these affected workers.
 
And today, as msnbc's Irin Carmon reported, the White House unveiled its new policy.
The new policies are intended to fill gaps left by two Supreme Court moves: The landmark Hobby Lobby decision saying contraceptive coverage violated the religious liberty of a for-profit corporation, and a preliminary order in Wheaton College v. Burwell. With today's regulations, employees of for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby will be able to access an "accommodation" where the insurer directly provides the cost-free coverage with no financial involvement by the employer. That accommodation was originally limited to religiously-affiliated nonprofits like Little Sisters of the Poor; houses of worship are fully exempt.
 
For nonprofits like Wheaton College that object to even that accommodation -- which involves them signing a form to their insurer -- the Obama administration has created a new accommodation to the accommodation. (Yes, it gets complicated.) 
Irin, of course, is correct. It does get complicated.
 
The good news, under the newly unveiled rules, Americans will still have the contraception access they deserve, regardless of their boss' religious beliefs. The bad news is, navigating the process, designed to accommodate anti-contraception private employers, isn't easy.
Obama Meets With Leaders Of Honduras, Guatemala And El Salvador At White House

So much for politics stopping at the water's edge

08/22/14 12:45PM

We talked earlier about Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who brought three television cameras, three photographers, six reporters, a political aide, two press secretaries, and far-right activist David Bossie to Guatemala for a "stage-managed political voyage." But it appears that wasn't the only reason for the trip.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told the Guatemalan president the surge of child immigrants flooding the U.S. border this year is a result of President Obama's policies, not problems in Central America.
 
"I told him, frankly, that I didn't think the problem was in Guatemala City, but that the problem was in the White House in our country, and that the mess we've got at the border is frankly because of the White House's policies," Paul told Brietbart News in an article published Thursday.
According to the report in The Hill, the Kentucky Republican sat down with Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina for 45 minutes, and the senator discussed politics with the foreign head of state.
 
"I think what's happened at the border is all squarely at the president's lap," Paul said. "The problem and the solution aren't in Guatemala. The problem and solution reside inside the White House."
 
As a substantive matter, the senator's position is tough to defend or even understand. President Obama didn't sign the 2008 human-trafficking measure into law; he didn't create awful conditions in Central American countries; and he didn't encourage anyone to lie to desperate families about what would happen to their children. If there's a coherent explanation for why the White House to blame, it's hiding well.
 
But even putting that aside, since when is it kosher for U.S. officials to travel abroad to condemn U.S. leaders like this?

Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 8.22.14

08/22/14 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:
 
* For months, nearly every poll in New Hampshire's U.S. Senate race has shown incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) with a comfortable lead over former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.). Yesterday, however, a Granite State Poll found Shaheen's lead slipping to just two, 46% to 44%. (Sometimes, when a poll seems like an outlier, that's because it's an outlier.)
 
* Speaking of Scott Brown's original home state, state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) continues to lead Charlie Baker (R) in Massachusetts' gubernatorial race, 41% to 34%, in the new Boston Globe poll.
 
* In Kentucky's closely watched U.S. Senate race, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) reminded the Kentucky Farm Bureau this week that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) not only opposed the Farm Bill, he's "missed every Agriculture Committee meeting" for nearly three years.
 
* In Georgia's close U.S. Senate race, Michelle Nunn (D) continues to slam David Perdue (R) for his Romney-esque business practices. Her latest ad features laid-off workers from a textile company that Perdue closed and profited from.
 
* On a related note, EMILY's List, a reproductive-rights organization, is also launching a $1 million ad campaign criticizing Perdue's controversial private-sector background.
 
* In South Dakota's U.S. Senate race, Rick Weiland (D) is a heavy underdog against former Gov. Mike Rounds (R), a point that isn't lost on the Democrat. Referencing Rounds, Weiland called his opponent, "senator, or, soon-to-be," before catching himself. He added, laughing, "No, not soon-to-be. That's a good gaffe. I'll take that back. Soon-to-want-to-be Sen. Mike Rounds."
A roll of stickers showing support for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl sit on a table inside of Zaney's coffee shop, June 2, 2014 in Hailey, Idaho.

Bergdahl prisoner swap reclaims political spotlight

08/22/14 11:32AM

It's been nearly four months since President Obama announced that Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the last remaining P.O.W. in Afghanistan, was returning home, touching off a fierce political controversy. It seemed implausible that the freeing of an American prisoner of war being treated as bad news, but White House critics characterized it as a "scandal," possibly worthy of impeachment.
 
For the most part, congressional Republicans undermined their own political cause from the outset. There were legitimate questions about whether the administration sidestepped the letter of the law when it failed to notify Congress 30 days in advance of the prisoner-transfer plan, but for much of the right, these questions were less interesting than wild-eyed conspiracy theories. As Paul Waldman put it at the time, conservatives were "so quick to jump on the train to Crazytown" that they undermined "their own legitimate arguments."
 
In time, GOP officials lost interest in the story -- apparently, there's going to be some new Benghazi committee? -- but those underlying concerns haven't completely faded just yet.
The Defense Department violated the law when it didn't tell Congress before transferring five Taliban detainees from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar in return for the Taliban's release of captured Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the Government Accountability Office said in a legal decision made public Thursday.
 
Pentagon officials "did not notify the relevant congressional committees at least 30 days in advance of the transfer," as required by law, GAO General Counsel Susan A. Poling said in a letter to nine Republican senators who had sought the analysis.
The GAO's findings came in response to a formal request from nine Republican senators. (The report largely mirrors an argument Adam Serwer published for msnbc in June.)
 
Seizing on the opportunity, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, now wants the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel.
 
So, do Republicans have a point? It's a little complicated.
The Chrysler Toledo Assembly Complex which will be used to produce the Jeep Cherokee in Toledo, Ohio July 18, 2013.

U.S. auto production bolsters rescue plan

08/22/14 10:46AM

Some new data was released this week on U.S. manufacturing, and the news was encouraging: the U.S. auto industry has "hit the gas pedal." The White House, as it's done before, is taking a victory lap.
Now, our auto industry is once again a source of economic strength, with more and more of the world's top-of-the-line, fuel-efficient vehicles being made by American workers in American factories. In fact, the number of cars coming off our assembly lines just reached its highest level in 12 years. [...]
 
[T]he number of vehicles built on American assembly lines since 2000 rose to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 13.2 million vehicles in July. The increase in auto production mirrors the growing strength of America's manufacturing sector, which has added more than 700,000 jobs since early 2010.
The White House, which produced the above chart, has plenty of reasons to be happy. The first and most obvious, of course, is that a stronger U.S. auto industry is necessarily good news for the domestic economy.
 
But there's also the matter of who was right in 2009 and who wasn't. President Obama took a big risk launching his rescue policy during the economic crisis. It wasn't a popular idea, and though it looks like a no-brainer with the benefit of hindsight, there was no guarantee the plan would work.
 
In July 2010, NBC News' First Read said, "As the GM bailout goes, so goes the Obama presidency." More than four years later, the White House probably thinks that sounds pretty good.
 
And then there are the policy's critics, whose condemnations don't hold up nearly as well.
A Tea Party member reaches for a pamphlet titled "The Impact of Obamacare", at a "Food for Free Minds Tea Party Rally" in Littleton, New Hampshire in this October 27, 2012. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)

Watching the tide turn quickly on 'Obamacare'

08/22/14 10:16AM

About a year ago, Georgia Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens bragged to a crowd of fellow Republicans: "Let me tell you what we're doing [about ObamaCare]: Everything in our power to be an obstructionist."
 
It was a striking quote that quickly took on national significance. As a rule, policymakers at least pretend to care about working constructively, but here was a state official boasting about his deliberate embrace of obstructionism.
 
And yet, this week, Hudgens said he didn't really mean it.
"I spoke to a Republican group in Rome, Ga., and I said I was going to be an obstructionist, but I can't be. I mean, I was talking to a Republican group and I was throwing them some red meat."
Hudgens added yesterday that the number of private insurers competing for Georgia consumers' business has nearly doubled -- these companies "took a wait and see attitude and now they've come in" -- which may expand the public's choices and possibly lower prices.

The Georgia Insurance Commissioner went to say he's still "not a fan" of the Affordable Care Act, "but there's nothing I can do about it."
 
Also yesterday, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a far-right Republican and fierce ACA critic "applied to participate in an Affordable Care Act program designed to help states develop innovative models for delivering care and reducing costs for participants in Medicaid, Medicare and the Children's Health Insurance Program" (thanks to reader F.O.R. for the tip).
 
What do these stories have in common? They're emblematic of a sea change in the politics of health care.
Participants tip buckets of ice water over their heads as they take part in the World Record Ice Bucket Challenge at Etihad Stadium on August 22, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia.

Cincinnati Archdiocese throws cold water on Ice Bucket Challenge

08/22/14 09:22AM

Not everyone wants to participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge. President Obama and Vice President Biden, for example, have both demurred. Due to rules related to public officials and fundraising campaigns, diplomats and active-duty U.S. troops aren't supposed to partake in the campaign, either.
 
This Associated Press report, however, presented an angle I hadn't considered.
A Catholic diocese in Ohio is discouraging its schools from participating in the ice bucket challenge to benefit the ALS Association, citing its funding of research involving embryonic stem cells.
 
In a letter sent Tuesday to its 113 schools, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati's superintendent of Catholic schools says the research being funded is "in direct conflict with Catholic teaching."
Apparently, the schools can participate in the challenge in a general sense, but they're not supposed to support the ALS Association, which started the campaign to raise money and awareness about the fight against Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.
 
The AP report added this quote from diocese spokesman Dan Andriacco: "We certainly appreciate the compassion that has caused people all over the country, certainly including many Catholics, to be interacting and engaging in a fun way to support ALS research. But it's a well-established moral principle that not only the ends be good, but the means must be good, too."
 
And in this case, because the "means" might include research on embryonic stem cells, the Cincinnati Archdiocese doesn't want schools contributing to the ALS Association.
 
I knew there were some political/policy angles to the Ice Bucket Challenge, but I'll confess, I didn't see this one coming.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. listens as he is introduced to speak during a meeting with local Republicans, Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014, in Hiawatha, Iowa.

Rand Paul backs plan to deport Dream Act kids

08/22/14 08:42AM

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) will occasionally talk a good game about expanding the Republican Party, creating a more inclusive approach to conservative politics, and reaching out beyond the GOP's far-right, homogeneous base. But when it comes to immigration, when push comes to shove, the differences between Paul, Steve King, and Ted Cruz no longer exist. Sam Stein reported this morning:
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said in an interview published Thursday that he supports legislation ending the president's program to defer deportation for undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.
 
Speaking to Breitbart News during a medical mission in Guatemala, Paul lent his backing to House Republican efforts to address the crisis of unaccompanied minors crossing the southern U.S. border.
The Kentucky Republican specifically said, "I'm supportive of the House bill and I think it will go a long way to fixing the problem." After complaining about the Senate Democratic leadership ignoring the House plan, Paul added, "I think there's a very good chance the House bill could pass in the Senate, but it won't ever pass if it doesn't ever see the light of day."
 
It's worth clarifying that there are actually two House bills, not one, which were packaged together, but the senator's office later clarified that Paul supports both.
 
And this, in turn, puts Paul squarely in the middle of what Greg Sargent calls the party of "maximum deportations."
 
It's been a few weeks, but let's not forget that House Republicans ignored their own leaders and rejected their own party's border bill. Left with no choice, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told far-right extremists they could craft their own legislation.
 
The result was ridiculous. Right-wing lawmakers largely ignored the humanitarian crisis the bill was originally intended to address, and instead targeted President Obama's DACA policy. The top Republican goal became the deportation of Dream Act kids. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said the Republican Party's policy could effectively be described in three words: "Deport 'em all."
 
The proposals were, by any fair measure, a joke that included far-right provisions that GOP leaders had themselves rejected a few days prior. No one, including proponents, expected the House package to actually go anywhere legislatively -- it wasn't even the point. And yet, here's Rand Paul throwing his enthusiastic support to this right-wing nonsense.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) and Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey hold a joint news conference at the Pentagon in Washington March 17, 2013.  (Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Obama admin raises alarm on ISIS

08/22/14 08:00AM

Last week, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) complained bitterly and publicly about the Obama administration for not "addressing the threat" posed by ISIS. Graham's expectations were clear: he wanted more rhetoric, sooner rather than later.
 
In theory, the senator has less to complain about this week. In the wake of James Foley's murder, President Obama issued a sweeping condemnation of ISIS, as did Secretary of State John Kerry. Yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel characterized the terrorist group as "beyond anything we have seen."
In a joint briefing at the Pentagon a day after officials revealed the U.S. secretly launched a failed mission to rescue Foley and other kidnapped Americans held by the Islamic State and Syria and Iraq (ISIS), Hagel suggested the terror group poses a "9/11-level" threat to America.
 
"ISIL is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group we have seen. They are beyond just a terrorist group," Hagel said. "They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess, they are tremendously well funded. This is beyond anything we have seen."
During the same briefing, General Martin Dempsey, the Obama-appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added, "This is an organization that has an apocalyptic end-of-days strategic vision that will eventually have to be defeated.... Can they be defeated without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria? The answer is no."
 
The assessments came against the backdrop of additional airstrikes against ISIS in northern Iraq. All told, there have been 90 U.S. airstrikes against the terrorist group over the last two weeks.
 
As for the politics surrounding the national-security strategy, the line from the president's critics has not yet come into focus. We know they're not satisfied; we don't know what they'd do differently.

Calm in Ferguson and other headlines

08/22/14 07:56AM

Another calm night in Ferguson. (KSDK)

Supreme Court case to shape Ferguson investigation. (AP)

Among whites, Ferguson protests stir a range of emotions and a lot of perplexity. (NY Times)

Ukraine accuses Russia of invasion after aid convoy crosses border without permission. (BBC)

U.S. eyes wider action on Islamist militants. (Wall Street Journal)

U.N.: Death toll from Syrian civil war tops 191,000. (AP)

GAO: Pentagon violated law with Bergdahl swap. (AP)

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