At a much-anticipated Senate hearing on Wednesday morning, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton erupted at a Republican senator who demanded to know why the Obama administration said the September 11 attacks on a US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, began as a protest.

"With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or because of guys out for a walk one night and decided to go kill some Americans? At this point, what difference does it make, Senator?" Clinton said, raising her voice at Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). "It is our job to figure out what happened and prevent it from ever happening again, Senator."

Despite months of GOP sound and fury over the Benghazi attack—which led to John McCain and other GOP senators preemptively scuttling UN Ambassador Susan Rice's bid to replace Clinton at Foggy Bottom—for the most part Republicans at the hearing were respectful of Clinton, who has recently been ill. (GOP Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky did suggest that Clinton should have been "fired and replaced" for being responsible for what he called "the worst tragedy since 9/11"). When Senator James Risch (R-Idaho) asked her about the talking points (which tied the attacks to supposed protests over an anti-Islam video) that Rice quoted when she appeared on several Sunday morning television shows to discuss the Benghazi assault, Clinton said that the motivations of the attackers have yet to be completely determined. There was no organized protest at Benghazi, but the role of that anti-Islam film in motivating the attackers in Libya (as well as protesters elsewhere in the Middle East) remains murky. After all, the group suspected of carrying out the attack in Benghazi has cited the movie as motivation.

Still, Senator Johnson accused the administration of deliberately misleading the public and of using the fog of war that followed the attacks as an excuse. "Nothing could be further from the truth," Clinton declared. (The information that the Benghazi attack had begun as a protest actually came from the CIA.)

Conservatives are likely to frame Clinton's contention that the existence (or lack thereof) of any protest doesn't really matter as merely a way to sidestep the administration's initial attempt at a some sort of a cover-up. But her point is that if there had been a protest, the consequences of the attack would not have been any less terrible and the administration would have been no less culpable, so there was no motivation for them to lie. In other words, sometimes a mistake (even one that originates with the CIA) is just a mistake, and not a conspiracy.

UPDATE: Here's video of the exchange, via C-Span:

Robert Costa reports:

Speaker John Boehner told House Republicans this afternoon that the GOP’s upcoming budget will balance the federal books in a decade....According to sources in the room, Boehner made the pledge at a closed-door meeting in the Capitol basement. The speaker said that Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the budget committee chairman, will lead the effort.

Well, I suppose this is possible. Paul Ryan's previous budget was out of balance by about 1 percent of GDP in 2023, and as I recall, it included several tax breaks for rich people and corporations. If Ryan simply agrees to stay revenue neutral at the level set by the recent fiscal cliff negotiations, the next iteration of his budget might theoretically be in balance in ten years.

Of course, that seems unlikely, since tax cuts for the rich have always been Ryan's primary target, not deficit reduction. But Ryan's other primary target has been spending cuts on the poor, and there's always room to nick the poor even more, isn't there?

Alternatively, he could simply offer no details at all on where spending will be cut. That's the usual wheeze. I guess we'll have to wait and see.

The Boy Scouts of America teach young men how to build fires, pitch tents, weave camping chairs, and "be prepared"—unless your son happens to be gay. But the Boy Scouts long-standing policy of banning "open or avowed homosexuals" is starting to cost it some major financial backers: In the last six months, companies including UPS, United Way, the Merck Company Foundation and the Intel Foundation have announced they will drop or postpone funding for the Boy Scouts. Verizon Communications could be next: Over 70,000 people have signed a petition asking the corporation to stop funding the Scouts over their discriminatory policies.

"We more than understand how much value the Scouting program offers to our Nation and its youth," Brad Hankins, a campaign director for Scouts for Equality, the organization behind the Verizon petition and others, tells Mother Jones. "However, we feel that over the long term the damage the ban has caused to Scouting's perception in our changing cultural climate is much greater than a temporary loss of funds."

Since at least the late 1970s, the Boy Scouts executive leadership has discriminated against gay members. In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that forcing the organization to accept gay members would violate its rights under the First Amendment, and the Boy Scouts reaffirmed their ban on gay scouts and scoutmasters in 2012. Since then, hundreds of Scouts have returned their pins in protest, and the Boy Scouts anti-gay stance has even outlasted the military's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy.

Hankins says it's hard to say how much money the Boy Scouts have lost from donors since the petitions began, because the "information isn't immediately disclosed." However, according to The American Independent, in the 2009 tax year, the biggest donor to the Boy Scouts was the Intel Foundation, who donated nearly $700,000. Intel announced in September it will stop funding Scout troops that adhere to the ban, and UPS followed suit (Scouts for Equality ran petitions against both companies.)

Intel, UPS, and other companies have recently stopped funding the Boy Scouts. The American Independent

Verizon gave at least $300,000 to the Boy Scouts in 2009, according to The American Independent, and Scouts for Equality claims that Verizon's donations conflict with its policy of not funding organizations that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Harry J. Mitchell, a spokesman for Verizon, told Mother Jones that the company "does not discriminate on the basis of [sexual orientation]" and they expect "all of its grant recipients to comply with all applicable laws."

But that won't stop customers from boycotting the company. "Our family uses Verizon: each of our three sons included, one of which is gay. Two of them are Eagle Scouts and one is 13 and is a Life Scout. We fully support a full financial boycott," writes Christie Draper, from Aliso Viejo, California. "Give the money to the Girl Scouts instead."

The Boy Scouts did not respond to request for comment.

Democratic Senators Debbie Stabenow, Claire McCaskill, and Amy Klobuchar urge passage of the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization last year.

Congress is giving preventing violence against women another try.

On Tuesday, Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) reintroduced the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Previous reauthorizations of the act, known as VAWA, have passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, but when the 1994 legislation needed to be reauthorized for a third time last year, the House GOP blocked it.

Many Republicans opposed over the bill's increased number of visas for undocumented victims of domestic violence, its extension of tribal authority over nontribe members who abuse their American Indian partners, or its establishment of protections for gay and lesbian victims of domestic violence. But the GOP's main talking point against the bill was procedural: Pointing to an application fee for visas for undocumented immigrants of domestic violence, Republicans said the bill raised revenue. The Constitution requires bills that raise revenue to originate in the House, not the Senate.

The new version of the bill resolves the House GOP's procedural objection by removing the portion that would have increased the number of special visas allotted for undocumented immigrant victims of domestic violence. On the approval of law enforcement the federal government grants legal status to undocumented victims so that those victims can assist in prosecuting their attackers, who might otherwise use their lack of legal status as leverage to keep them silent. There is a cap of 10,000 of these "U visas" a year, and the government consistently hits the cap. Although the visas themselves are handed out by law enforcement, and the increased number of visas would have come from unused visas in past years, Republicans objected to the increased number as an invitation for fraud. "Caps are a way to control the flow of people. They are a stop-gap measure against fraud," Sen. Chuck Grassely (R-Iowa) said in a floor speech against the bill last year.

Nevertheless, women's rights activists are supporting the new version of the bill, citing other provisions in the bill helping immigrant victims of domestic violence and a promise from Leahy to use a potential immigration reform bill to address the U visa issue. "Does it thrill us that the U visa piece is not in there? Absolutely not," says Lisalyn Jacobs of the women's rights group Legal Momentum. "Are we sanguine about it, because we think we can now get a bill over to the House they can act on we hope? Yes."

Although Leahy and Crapo's new version of the bill resolves House Republicans' procedural objection, it's unclear whether the House GOP will back it. The House version of the bill was reintroduced with no Republican cosponsors. Anti-domestic-violence campaigners have resolved to press on regardless.

"[There] is no excuse to let VAWA reauthorization continue to drag on, especially when you see what is happening around the world, when you see what's happening in India, when you see what happened in Steubenville," says Rosie Hidalgo of Casa Esperanza, a group focused on domestic violence in the Latino community. "To have our own Congress unable to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act sends the wrong message."

Corrections: The protections in the bill were for gay and lesbian victims of domestic violence, not employees of groups that deal with domestic violence. The federal government grants legal status through the U-Visa, not local law enforcement, which lacks the authority. 

A video circulating on the Internet this month has gotten tea partiers and other conservative activists riled up over what they see as the never-ending assault on the right to bear arms, particularly with the Obama administration mobilizing on gun control. The video (below) shows a man getting stopped by Citrus County, Florida, Deputy Sheriff Andy Cox for having expired tags on his van. After the man gets out of the car and futzes around to find his license, proof of insurance and registration, the officer notices that the man has a gun on his hip and asks, "What are you carrying a gun for?" The man answers, "I always carry a gun." At which point the officer quickly gets agitated and demands that he turn around and face the van, or "I'll shoot you in the back." The officer then orders the man to the ground, handcuffs him, and calls for backup.

Gun-rights activists have seized on the video as an example of how they are the persecuted, innocent victims of overzealous law enforcement, and they're using it to support a larger crusade: Ensuring that police officers can never take action against anyone simply because they're carrying a gun. Which is what the activists are implying happened here. The problem is, the man in the video in fact ran afoul of a state gun law, although Florida authorities declined to prosecute him for it.

Gun-rights activists posted the video online in early January and it has since gone viral—but the incident actually took place in July 2009, a fact they don't bother to mention. Yet, the date is key: The man in the video, Joel Edmond Smith, was arrested and charged with a violation of what was then the state's "open carry" prohibition. At the time of his arrest, it was illegal for someone—even with a valid concealed weapon permit—to display a gun openly in public, which Smith did accidentally when he was trying to get his paperwork out of his van. The state legislature changed the law in 2011 so that an accidental display of a legal concealed weapon is no longer a criminal offense, but in 2009, Cox still had solid legal justification for arresting Smith. Nonetheless, the state's attorney didn't see the charges against Smith as sufficiently serious to warrant prosecution and they were dropped shortly after he was arrested.

Those facts haven't stopped gun-rights activists in the past week from urging supporters to call the sheriff's department and ask that Cox be fired. They've done so in the thousands, according to Detective Corey Davidson, an internal affairs investigator with the Citrus County sheriff's department. Davidson said Cox was placed on paid administrative leave about a week ago, and that the department is investigating the incident (again). He said the department never released the video and that it is unclear how it got out or why it started circulating this month. He added that the man arrested in the video has never made any complaints against the department. (Davidson would not release the defendant's name because of the investigation, but it's been circulating on the Internet and is listed in county arrest records.)

The officer's treatment of Smith, who had a valid concealed weapons permit, may not have been model policing, but his reaction was understandable: According to the Violence Policy Center, at least 14 law enforcement officers have been killed by people legally carrying concealed weapons since May 2007, two of them in Florida. In several of these shootings, the officers were killed while conducting routine traffic stops like the one in the video.

The video appears to have been first posted by Sean Caranna, the executive director of Florida Carry, a major figure in the state fighting for the right for people to carry guns in public. Activists like Caranna want to change the law to ensure that cops can't confront or search anyone for carrying a gun in public—whether or not that gun may be illegally possessed. Florida Carry is involved in a legal case pending in the Florida Supreme Court that would decide whether the mere presence of a gun on someone's person can constitute a reasonable suspicion to justify an officer making an investigatory stop or search. A victory for gun activists could make it extremely difficult for law enforcement in the state to crack down on illegal guns and the crime associated with them.

Cecilia Tkaczyk.

You probably haven't heard of Cecilia Tkaczyk—CeCe to her friends. But the nation's leading activists fighting to get big money out of politics want you to hear her story. After months in court, Tkacyzk squeaked out the second-narrowest win in the history of New York's state Senate, a win progressives are hailing as a potential turning point in the fight to clean up Albany's noxious politics. And if they can pass reform in New York, the front line of the campaign finance wars, activists believe they can pressure other states to do the same.

Liberals love Tkaczyk because she made the public financing of elections a central issue, if not the issue, in her campaign. The underdog in a race against GOP state Assemblyman George Amedore, Tkaczyk proposed replacing New York State's lax campaign finance system with a voluntary program that matches small-dollar donations with taxpayer money. The idea: nudge candidates to court lots of less wealthy individual donors instead of wooing a handful of rich ones. Throughout the campaign, Tkaczyk pressed Amedore on the campaign cash issue, and in the final weeks of the campaign, Amedore turned around and attacked her specifically over public financing, ripping it as too costly and unnecessary.

Strange, right? Two candidates locking horns over...campaign finance? Yet in the Amedore-Tkaczyk race, the dry, unsexy issue of money in politics was front and center.

After the ballots had been counted, and a few dozen votes separated Amedore and Tkacyzk, the election headed to the courts. The two sides fought over which ballots to count and which to exclude, Amedore briefly took a 37-vote lead, but then, more than two months after the election, the court's decision to count a few more ballots tipped the race to Tkacyzk. According to the current count, she won by 19 votes. Campaign reformers point to her victory as proof, albeit on a small scale, that corruption and the influence of money in politics resonates with voters, and that an anti-big-money candidate can win by running on this specific issue. "Her victory shows that voters will support candidates who champion real campaign finance reform, including citizen-funded elections," says Jonathan Soros, who runs Friends of Democracy, which he calls an anti-super-PAC super-PAC.

Yes, Tkaczyk had lots of help. Progressive groups such as Citizen Action of New York and the Working Families Party phone-banked and knocked on doors. Soros' super-PAC spent $265,000 on polling, TV ads, and phone calls to elect Tkaczyk, focusing on the campaign finance issue. And Protect Our Democracy, another pro-reform super-PAC started by investor Sean Eldridge, the husband of Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes, spent thousands more to back Tkaczyk while highlighting the campaign money issue. If all that spending sounds a tad ironic to you—outside groups spending big to support an anti-big-money candidate—that's because it is.

But Soros and Eldridge say they want to build a coalition of pro-campaign-reform candidates in New York State, and they argue that it takes money to do so. They focused on New York State Senate races because Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly signaled his support for public financing—but he needs the legislature to send him a bill. Tkaczyk's win adds another pro-reform Democrat to the state Senate. Now, in a divided state Senate, the hard work begins. "It's now up to Ms. Tkaczyk," the Albany Times-Union wrote in an recent editorial, "and all those politicians from Gov. Andrew Cuomo on down who say they stand for campaign reform to live up to their promises to do it."

Kerry Emanuel

At this point, climate change is so politicized that it's difficult for the general public to sort out what scientists really know—and don't know—about it. Penned by Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric sciences professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this latest edition of What We Know About Climate Change is the most comprehensive, readable, BS-free rundown on the topic that you're likely to find. It's short enough to read in a day, apolitical enough to appeal to both your Fox-obsessed wingnut uncle and your dreadlocked freegan older sister in Brooklyn, and just detailed enough to provide a reload of fresh intellectual ammunition to help you engage others on the topic.

President Obama's second inaugural address was a reaffirmation of liberalism in America, DC bureau chief David Corn says. Watch Corn and The Grio's Joy Reid discuss his speech, and the Republican reaction, on MSNBC's Martin Bashir.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

The chart below has been making the rounds today, so I thought I'd colorize it and annotate it to drive home its point a little more clearly. Republicans like to say we have a spending problem, not a taxing problem, but the evidence doesn't back that up. Total government spending didn't go up much during the Clinton era, and it's actually declined during the Obama era. In the last two decades, it's only gone up significantly during the Bush era, the same era in which taxes were cut dramatically.

What we have isn't a spending problem. That's under control. What we have is a problem with Republicans not wanting to pay the bills they themselves were largely responsible for running up.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is taking back what he said about "takers"—well, kind of.

In his second inaugural address Monday, President Barack Obama told Americans, "The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great." My colleague David Corn called that line a slap in the face of the tea party, but it was targeted at one person in particular—Ryan, Mitt Romney's ticket-mate, who has a long habit of decrying the gap between the "makers and the takers" in America.

On Tuesday, Ryan took the president's bait during an appearance on Laura Ingraham's radio show. When guest host Raymond Arroyo played a tape of one of Ryan's "makers and takers" comments and asked Ryan about Obama "implicitly" attacking him, Ryan responded that Obama had set up a "straw man." He insisted that he believes Social Security and Medicare are "not taker programs."

One problem: These assertions contradict what Ryan has said in the past about "makers" and "takers." When my colleague Brett Brownell and I reported on Ryan's "makers and takers" comments in October, we reviewed multiple examples of Ryan's use of the phrase. Here's how he used it in a 2011 interview with conservative Star Parker [emphasis added]:

Right now, according to the Tax Foundation, between 60 and 70 percent of Americans get more benefits from the government than they pay back in taxes. So, we're getting towards a society where we have a net majority of takers versus makers.

The Tax Foundation study that Ryan is referring to includes government benefits "from all sources," including Medicare, Social Security, and even national defense. This covers many benefits that go beyond actual checks—the Tax Foundation study derives its "60 to 70 percent" figure in part by assigning Pentagon spending as a "benefit" to each American family proportional to that family's income. If the Tax Foundation hadn't included Medicare and Social Security (and national defense, which Ryan might also hesistate to categorize as a "taker program"), the "between 60 and 70 percent" statistic Ryan cited would be significantly lower. Ryan can't claim that 60 to 70 percent of Americans are "takers" and assert that Social Security and Medicare don't count as taking. 

The Parker interview wasn't the only time Ryan talked about makers and takers in a way that suggested he thinks Social Security and Medicare recipients are takers. Here's another example, from Ryan's June 2010 appearance on "Washington Watch" with Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.)—a clip that's on Ryan's official YouTube page:

Right now about 60 percent of the American people get more benefits in dollar value from the federal government than they pay back in taxes. So we're going to a majority of takers versus makers in America.

Again, the only way to claim that 60 percent of Americans are "takers" is by including Social Security and Medicare in your calculations. Clearly Ryan, who is a potential 2016 presidential candidate, now doesn't want to deride those pillars of the social safety net as "taker programs." But he can't remake his record.