2010 - %3, January

Healthcare: One Step Forward, One Step Back

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 4:41 PM EST

It may be irresponsible to blog this, but here's what Nick Baumann just tweeted:

Word on the Hill is that after leadership meeting, Baucus said #hcr by spring/summer, immediately regretted it. Hearsay tho.....

I'll refrain from going bananas until/unless this is confirmed. But Senate Dems can't seriously be thinking of spending another 3-6 months on healthcare reform, can they? [UPDATE: Probably not. More here.]

On the bright side, though, Nick also reports that Kent Conrad, who needs to be on board with any kind of reconciliation strategy since he chairs the Senate Budget Committee, is on board with a reconciliation strategy:

The Senate "was not designed to have everything require 60 votes," Conrad said. "It wasn't designed to prevent important action on the problems facing the country." If a supermajority is effectively necessary to pass any piece of legislation, he added, this "puts a great deal of pressure on going to more of a reconciliation process to deal with things."

Conrad argued that it's not possible to use reconciliation — which requires merely a straight majority vote — to win passage of an entire comprehensive health care bill, as some progressives have advocated. (There are assorted rules that prevent this.) But Conrad noted that he's open to using this legislative maneuver to make limited, though significant, changes to a measure the Senate has already passed — provided that certain procedural kinks could be ironed out....He said, "Frankly I think we have to reconsider the rules by which this body is governed," because the Senate "is in danger of becoming dysfunctional," and "there's going to be a building demand in the country to change the system."

Baby steps.

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Graham: Obama Admin "Very Pro-Nuclear"

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 4:22 PM EST

Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a nuclear champion who is leading efforts to pass energy and climate legislation on the conservative side of the aisle, described the Obama administration on Wednesday as the most pro-nuclear of those he has worked with during his two terms in the Senate. Graham told reporters that Obama's energy secretary, Steven Chu, has "probably been the easiest secretary of energy to work with since I've been up here," adding, "He's a very pro-nuclear guy."

Graham said that Chu had been "incredibly helpful" in heralding the "nuclear renaissance" Graham wants to bring about. Chu has headed efforts to speed up the nuclear loan gaurantee program, which Graham would like to see expanded in a climate and energy bill. The loans would use taxpayer dollars to back a massive expansion of nuclear power that the private sector has been reticent to support given the expense and high default rate for these investments. Graham also wants to see nuclear power included in the new federal renewable electricity standard, which would require utilities to drawn a percentage of their power from renewable sources. Including nuclear concerns many environmental advocates because nuclear energy is neither renewable nor a new technology, and the RES is intended to boost use of energy sources that are actually renewable, like wind and solar.

Chu has been at the forefront of the administration's efforts to expand nuclear power, and has been working to set up a blue-ribbon commission that will focus on nuclear fuel issues. And while some Republicans have been critical of Chu for not moving fast enough on nuclear, he has promised to do more. "I'm pushing it as hard as I can," Chu told senators last week.

President Obama, too, gave the nuclear industry top billing in the energy portion of his State of the Union address on Wednesday night, to the surprise (and chagrin) of some environmentalists.  He began his remarks on climate with a call for "a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country." (That didn't stop the Viriginia's Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell from accusing the administration of "hindering nuclear energy expansion" in his rebuttal.)

Environmentalists also criticized Obama for explicitly voicing support for oil, gas, coal, and biofuels in his speech—with no mention of wind, solar, or other renewable sources of energy. "President Obama's support for all these dirty energy sources was a big win for corporate polluters and their Washington lobbyists, but it was a kick in the gut to environmentalists across the country," said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth.

The End of Diplomacy?

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 3:40 PM EST

Matt Yglesias points out that increasing partisanship in Congress makes it not just hard to pass domestic legislation, but nearly impossible to pass international treaties:

The dysfunctional nature of the United States Congress means that essentially all diplomatic intercourse with the American government is worthless. If you were at a G8 meeting talking regulation, why would you take the Obama administration’s positions seriously? Or at a Major Economies Forum meeting talking about climate change? Or at a UN Security Council meeting talking about multilateral nuclear disarmament?....If the people you’re negotiating with think that anything you oppose will face unanimous opposition from a minority with the power to block bills, while your own party isn’t even disciplined enough to provide the leadership with consistent backing on procedural issues, then what is there really to negotiate about?

It's a good point, but I think it's probably overstated. The problem with things like the filibuster and the Senate hold isn't so much that they exist, or that they're anti-majoritarian per se, but that they've become routine. That really does represent a qualitative change in the way Congress operates, and it's a change that no one, from the founders forward, ever really intended.

But for better or worse, formalizing international treaties has always been hard, and it's hard by design. So this doesn't represent any real change in how the government works. Foreign countries have always known that they're at the mercy of a very difficult ratification process if they want to conclude a formal treaty with the U.S., and it's not clear to me that minority obstruction on treaties is worse now than it's been in the past.1

What's more, it's not always as bad as it sounds. Executive agreements have become much more popular in recent years, and these can be passed with 60 votes. In that sense, passing treaties has actually become easier. Beyond that, in some cases the president can simply agree to push for harmonizing rules without a treaty in place at all. Sometimes this can be done via executive order and sometimes via riders to budget bills that are passed via reconciliation. It's not always necessary to get Congress to sign on to everything.

But an honest to God treaty? Yeah, that requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate. But it always has, and treaties have been failing for a long time because of it. Just ask Woodrow Wilson's ghost.

1Data to the contrary welcome, of course

Enviros Aim to Unseat Sen. Lincoln

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 3:17 PM EST

Is Blanche Lincoln the dirtiest member of Congress? The League of Conservation Voters thinks so. The group named the Arkansas Democrat the inaugural member of their 2010 Dirty Dozen—a list of top targets for environmentalists to unseat in the next election.

Lincoln is "one of the worst Democrats in the US Senate," said Tony Massaro, the League's senior vice president for political affairs. He cited Lincoln's opposition to climate legislation and her support for efforts to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions as reasons that Lincoln is the first person to be named to their 2010 list (the rest will be released in the coming weeks.) Lincoln has received a lifetime voting score of just 49 percent on environmental issues from the organization—the lowest of all Democratic senators up for reelection this year.

Massaro pointed to a recent poll from Democratic polling firm Benenson Strategy Group that found that 55 percent of Arkansans support passing a bill that includes a cap on carbon dioxide pollution and measures to expand use of renewable energy. "She is out of step with the majority of people in Arkansas," said Massaro.

Lincoln's chances of reelection look tenuous at best, as she has come under fire from Arkansas Republicans for her support of health care reform. At least five Republicans are expected to file to run in the primary, and more may jump in before the March 8 deadline. The state Democratic Party has been openly considering whether another Democrat might fare better in the election.

The League of Conservation voters spent $1.5 million during the last election cycle targeing Dirty Dozen members, and has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on individual races. Half of the candidates they've targeted to date lost their election bids.

The League is also going after Steve Pearce, a GOP candidate for New Mexico's second congressional district. He represented the district from 2003 to 2009, and made an unsuccessful bid for the Senate in 2008. He has a 3 percent lifetime voting record from the organization.

UPDATE: Lincoln's office issued a statement defending her environmental record on Thursday afternoon, calling LCV a "liberal" and "extremist" group and vowing that "threats from outside special interest groups will not deter her from remaining a strong and independent voice for Arkansas."

"I have built a practical, common-sense record on energy and environmental issues while working closely with Arkansas environmental advocates," said Lincoln. "Threats from extremist groups from outside our state tell me I'm doing something right for Arkansas."

Vermont's Nuclear FAIL

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 3:07 PM EST

In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama praised nuclear energy as a promising renewable option to help solve the country's energy crisis. But rising radioactive chemical levels at a nuclear plant in Vermont give us another reason to be queasy about the idea... as if we needed one.

In response to leaks of tritium (radioactive hydrogen) at nuclear plants in Illinois and New York, the Vermont Yankee plant began monitoring the harmful chemical in 2007. In recent weeks, tritium levels have spiked in water sources surrounding the plant, prompting Vermont lawmakers to question whether they should extend Vermont Yankee's operating license, which expires in 2012. The New York Times reports:

Vermont's governor, Jim Douglas, a longtime supporter of the plant, said on Wednesday in a statement that recent events had "raised dark clouds of doubt" about the reactor’s safety and management. He suggested that the Legislature put off any decisions on the future of the plant, located in the town of Vernon.
If the nuclear plant were to be denied an extension, it would be the first such move by the public or its representatives since 1989, when residents in Sacramento voted to close the Rancho Seco nuclear plant, owned by their municipal utility. No state legislature has ever voted to close one.

Despite the environmentally harmful waste and potential dangers associated with nuclear energy, applications to build new reactors have surged in the past three years. But as the need for increased renewable energy production expands, so does the perceived necessity of nuclear power. And nuclear lobbyists hope to capitalize on this trend by securing massive federal loan guarantees for new reactors from the Climate bill currently being debated in Congress.

But nuclear energy isn't the homerun that the NEI and congressional politicians want you to think it is. And chemical mishaps like the tritium scare in Vermont should make Congress pause before it prioritizes the industry over cleaner, safer renewable options like wind and solar. 

Inside Af-Pak's Black Sites

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 3:00 PM EST

Anand Gopal, a war correspondent in Afghanistan for the Wall Street Journal and formerly the Christian Science Monitor, has a superb, year-long investigation out today on the US' raids, "black site" detention cetners, and "Black Jail" at the Bagram air base in eastern Afghanistan. The story, co-published by TomDispatch.com and The Nation magazine, is the first of its kind to report on the shadowy counterterror and torture methods used by the US in Afghanistan, a war led in large part by a general, Stanley McChrystal, who made a name for himself leading these same kinds of under-the-radar missions. For his report, supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism, Gopal interviewed dozens of Afghans, some of whom had either been kidnapped and tortured themselves (and lived to tell about it) or who knew people who'd been disappeared or killed during this night-time raids.

As Gopal points out, these kinds of missions undermine the US' entire presence in Afghanistan:

Sometime in the last few years, Pashtun villagers in Afghanistan's rugged heartland began to lose faith in the American project. Many of them can point to the precise moment of this transformation, and it usually took place in the dead of the night, when most of the country was fast asleep. In the secretive U.S. detentions process, suspects are usually nabbed in the darkness and then sent to one of a number of detention areas on military bases, often on the slightest suspicion and without the knowledge of their families.

This process has become even more feared and hated in Afghanistan than coalition airstrikes. The night raids and detentions, little known or understood outside of these Pashtun villages, are slowly turning Afghans against the very forces they greeted as liberators just a few years ago.

In addition, he reports on the presence of a "Black Jail" at Bagram air base and nine official holding jails in Afghanistan, known as Field Detention Sites, usually comprised of a few cells walled off with plywood and used for interrogation purposes. Gopal's story retells the experiences of individual Afghans who were detained and tortured by US forces:

One of these former detainees is Noor Agha Sher Khan, who used to be a police officer in Gardez, a mud-caked town in the eastern part of the country. According to Sher Khan, U.S. forces detained him in a night raid in 2003 and brought him to a Field Detention Site at a nearby U.S. base.  “They interrogated me the whole night,” he recalls, “but I had nothing to tell them.” Sher Khan worked for a police commander whom U.S. forces had detained on suspicion of having ties to the insurgency. He had occasionally acted as a driver for this commander, which made him suspicious in American eyes.

The interrogators blindfolded him, taped his mouth shut, and chained him to the ceiling, he alleges. Occasionally they unleashed a dog, which repeatedly bit him. At one point, they removed the blindfold and forced him to kneel on a long wooden bar. “They tied my hands to a pulley [above] and pushed me back and forth as the bar rolled across my shins. I screamed and screamed.”  They then pushed him to the ground and forced him to swallow 12 bottles worth of water. “Two people held my mouth open and they poured water down my throat until my stomach was full and I became unconscious. It was as if someone had inflated me.” he says. After he was roused from his torpor, he vomited the water uncontrollably.

This continued for a number of days; sometimes he was hung upside down from the ceiling, and other times blindfolded for extended periods. Eventually, he was sent on to Bagram where the torture ceased. Four months later, he was quietly released, with a letter of apology from U.S. authorities for wrongfully imprisoning him.

The piece is absolutely worth reading in full. It sheds light on the secrecy surrounding these detention centers, the torture taking place in this facilities, and the fear among Afghans of being the next person swept up in a violent night-time raid—all crucial elements of the US war in Afghanistan that haven't been reported anywhere else yet without which our understanding of the Af-Pak war is incomplete.

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California's Fresh Prince of Bel Air

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 2:48 PM EST

It's a bit early for California's gubernatorial race to get weird, but this is a promising sign of things to come. For anyone who worries that they'll miss the Governator's accent, your candidate is here: Prince Frederic von Anhalt, A.K.A. the Duke of Saxony, A.K.A. Zsa-Zsa Gabor's ninth husband. And why should Californians vote for a psuedo-royal from Bel Air who claimed—incorrectly—to have fathered Anna Nicole Smith's baby? As the prince explains on his website, "We've had Irish-American, African-American, Amenian-American and Austrian-American Governors and now it's time for a GERMAN-AMERICAN to lead the state." California über alles! The prince's platform includes legalizing pot and Cuban cigars, opening the US-Mexico border, chucking out Prop. 8 ("Throw the Divorce Lawyers a Bone and quiet the Gays"), and "Mandatory Solar Panels on every New Building." And lots of gratuitous, haphazard Germanic Capitalization of Nouns. Now if we can just convince Gary Coleman to run again...

Kerry to Enviros: Be More Like Tea Partiers

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 2:27 PM EST

Should climate campaigners take a page from the Tea Party playbook? That was the suggestion of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) yesterday, who is heading up efforts to pass an energy and climate bill in the Senate.

"If Tea Party folks go out there and get angry because they think their taxes are too high, for God's sake, a lot of citizens ought to get angry that they're being killed, and our planet is being injured by what is happening on a daily basis with the way we provide our power and our fuel and the old practices we have," said Kerry in a speech on Wednesday at a clean energy forum. "That's something worth getting angry about, and I think it's time for people to do that."

"I want you to go out there and to start knocking on doors, and talking to people and telling people, 'This has to happen,'" Kerry told the gathered representatives from labor, environmental, and agricultural groups.

Asked by a reporter afterward whether he thinks the Tea Partiers have something to teach climate activists, Kerry backtracked a bit. What he and other advocates in the Senate need to do, he said, is draw from the lessons learned in the fights to pass the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. "We have done this before. We just have to get back to basics and make it happen again."

But Kerry was clearly frustrated at the lack of visible citizen advocacy for his efforts to pass climate and energy legislation. In theory, public support for tackling climate change is strong. As polls released last week by both the Democratic polling firm Benenson Strategy Group and Republican pollster Frank Luntz have affirmed, Americans overwhelmingly support both a cap on carbon dioxide pollution and a shift to renewable energy sources.

But, as a Pew Research Center poll released earlier this week found, Americans rank global warming dead last out of a list of 21 priorities for the Obama administration. While support for the concept of addressing climate change is high, there isn't much enthusiasm for actually doing anything in practice. Maybe there is a thing or two clean energy advocates could learn from the Tea Partiers.

Bank Bashing is a Hit!

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 2:15 PM EST

I'm never quite sure how seriously to take this stuff, but left-leaning pollster Democracy Corps did some dial testing of Obama's speech last night with "50 independent and weak partisan voters in Nevada":

This difficult audience for Obama was a heavily Republican-leaning group (46 percent Republican, 20 percent Democratic) that split their votes in 2008 (52 percent Obama, 46 percent McCain) but had moved away from him over the past year, with majorities expressing disapproval with his job performance and unfavorable views of him on a personal level.

So how did Obama do with this crowd? Apparently his strongest suit was bank bashing and standing up to special interests:

These voters were especially pleased to see him express his anger about the behavior of banks that received bailouts, and they accepted the president’s explanation that the banking bailouts were an unpleasant but necessary action for the government to take.  These swing voters also focused on Obama’s call to end tax breaks for companies that outsource jobs overseas and his pledge to double exports.  They viewed these two issues as closely linked, emphasizing the fact that we need to start “making stuff” in America again if we are going to have any chance of increasing our exports.

I expect a bull market in bank bashing rhetoric this year. Unfortunately, I'm less sure about the market for serious banking reform.

Fiore Cartoon: The SOTU That Could've Been

Thu Jan. 28, 2010 2:06 PM EST

In last night's State of the Union address, Obama practiced politics as usual, with talk of national security, bipartisanship, and why America should be #1. But what if instead, he had called Republicans out on their lack of a conscience, and Dems out on their spinelessness? Or if he had proposed a reality TV show exposing political corruption, and live broadcasts of health care negotiations?

Watch satirist Mark Fiore explore what could've (and should've?) been below: