Monday Mental Health Break: Backstreet Boys Edition

Five cubicle jockeys simultaneously lip-dubbing a Backstreet Boys song for webcam doesn't sound like the stuff of great video, does it? But trust me. This 4-minute short will make you happy for no good reason, starting around minute 2. Watch it below.

Filibusters and Holds

The Republican effort to block Obama's nominees to federal judgeships is, truly, without precedent.  In the past there have always been a few high-profile fights, as well as a general slowdown toward the end of most presidencies when the minority party hopes that a few months of stalling will allow them to take office and fill the vacancies themselves.  It's not pretty, but not surprising either.

But this presidency is different.  Republicans are holding up everyone, and they're doing it during Obama's first year.  Not a single appellate judge has gotten a vote yet:

And it's not just judicial nominees. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, pointing to the difficulties of responding to the global flu pandemic, recently noted that the Senate isn't allowed to vote on a surgeon general, because Republicans refuse to let Regina Benjamin's nomination come to the floor. "We are facing a major pandemic, we have a well-qualified candidate for surgeon general, she's been through the committee process. We just need a vote in the Senate," Sebeilus said late last week. "Please give us a surgeon general."

....People for the American Way reported last week that between 1949 and 2009 — spanning 11 presidents — there were 24 nominees on which cloture was forced. In the first nine months of Obama's first year in office, there have been five, meaning Senate Republicans on track to force more cloture votes on more Obama nominees than practically every modern president combined.

That's Steve Benen, who points out accurately, "And that doesn't include the secret and not-so-secret holds."  Temper tantrum politics is alive and well in the modern Republican Party.

UPDATE: Oops.  One appellate judge has been confirmed so far: Gerard Lynch for the 2nd Circuit.  Sorry about that.  Complete list here.  More comparisons here.

University of Carbon Storage?

Proponents of clean coal, an umbrella term for all efforts to reduce the environmental impact of our most abundant fossil fuel resource, hail carbon storage and sequestration (CCS) as the best way to get rid of power plants' carbon emissions for good. In essence, CCS entails rounding up carbon dioxide and keeping it in reservoirs deep below our feet. Unfortunately, It is incredibly expensive, and some scientists have said it could harm plants, animals, and even people if not executed properly.

But the government is moving ahead with its full-fledged embrace of CCS. Last month, the Department of Energy announced that it would allocate nearly $13 million for 43 research projects designed to advance CCS with the help of graduate and undergraduate training programs.

But as Victoria Schlesinger reports for the November/December issue of Mother Jones, some are saying "Not Under My Backyard" to CCS projects. Schlesinger's story highlights a failed attempt in a small California town of 2,000, that has received significant scrutiny:

"Right at first, you go, 'Oh my gosh, I don't want that in my backyard,'" says Marlene Corbitt, secretary of Thornton's Chamber of Commerce. A special town meeting, held in the elementary school, was organized, and the WESTCARB scientists explained their proposal: to build the storage facility at a site five minutes from town for two weeks, then monitor the structure for two years. The 4,000 tons of CO2 would remain underground for good. The townspeople, recalls Thornton's fire chief and de facto mayor, Vince Tafuri, were unconvinced. "Even though they said there was no potential danger, I don't think the community believed that 100 percent."

Read the story for more about CCS and whether the NUMBY dilemma will derail clean coal's best hope.

Obama and the Public Option

Ezra Klein and Jon Cohn both report that the Senate leadership is getting a little annoyed with President Obama regarding his support for various flavors of the public option.  They want to know exactly where he stands, and he's not telling them.  Ezra:

If the White House wants to advocate for the trigger, fine. If the White House wants to advocate for the public option, fine. But for the White House to host one meeting where they signal that they're uncomfortable with Reid's decision to push the envelope on the public option and then make a big effort to walk that meeting back after the left gets angry is confusing everybody.....Since the administration is considered the most important actor here, no one knows quite how to structure their strategy so long as the White House refuses to fully show its cards.

And Jon:

Supporters of the public plan have made headway by seizing on a proposed compromise first introduced by Delaware Senator Tom Carper — a proposal under which the federal government would create some sort of national public plan, but still allow states to opt out of it....But when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid briefed the president at the White House on Wednesday, Obama responded with a series of tough questions — not rejecting the idea, but not rushing to embrace it, either. When word of that meeting leaked out, public option supporters took Obama's reaction to mean that the administration continued to prefer the "trigger" compromise, under which a failure by private insurers to deliver affordable coverage would trigger the creation of a public plan.

I think this is a case where my sympathies may be more with Obama than with the Senate leadership.  My guess is that Obama (a) supports a strong public option but (b) doesn't really care about it that much.  Like it or not, that's just the way he feels: he'll support anything that Reid can deliver 60 votes for.  So if Reid tells him flatly that he thinks he can pass opt-out, but he needs a full-court press on, say, Nelson and Lincoln, I'll bet that Obama would be on board as long as his own staff agreed with Reid's assessment.

But is Reid telling him anything that clear cut?  Nobody knows for sure, but I'm sure not getting that impression, and no president is going to lay the full power of the Oval Office on the line without that.  This is hardly something unique to the Obama presidency.

Bottom line: everyone's getting frustrated, but this is just a very tricky issue.  It's literally something where one or two senators can make or break it, and Obama might or might not have the leverage to get them on his side.  Either way, though, it strikes me that Reid needs to deliver a very clear message on whip counts, who the holdouts are, and possible bribes to get them in line.  He's really the key player here, not Obama.

Families that are worried about climate change but also concerned about the cost of fighting it can breathe easy. Climate change legislation pending in the Senate will combat global warming and won't burden families with huge costs, the Environmental Protection Agency has found

The Environment and Public Works Committee released the EPA's economic analysis of the Kerry-Boxer climate change bill on Friday night along with a more detailed version of the legislation. The EPA found that the Senate bill's impact would not be significantly different from the bill that passed the House in June: "[A]verage household consumption would be reduced by less than 1% in all years," and the whole package will cost households $80 to $111 per year, or 22 to 30 cents per day.

The EPA bases its calculations on a "business-as-usual" scenario. But with a different, more realistic baseline, the actual cost of the climate bill could be even lower. That's because the EPA's economic analysis cannot account for the costs of inaction. Unmitigated climate change could have a devastating on the American economy. And the EPA's modeling focuses on the legislation's cap-and-trade provisions; It doesn't account for measures like a renewable electricity standard, efficiency enhancements, and other programs meant to complement the cap.

Even with those limitations, the EPA concludes that the climate bill will produce significant environmental and energy-use improvement, with little negative impact on households:

Four key messages from the EPA analysis of H.R. 2454 would remain unchanged: (1) the cap-and-trade policies outlined in these bills would transform the way the United States produces and uses energy; (2) the average loss in consumption per household will be relatively low, on the order of hundreds of dollars per year in the main policy case; (3) the impacts of climate policy are likely to vary comparatively little across geographic regions; and (4) what we assume about the actions of other countries has much greater implications for the overall impact of the policy than the modeled differences between the two bills.

There are a few differences between the House and Senate bills. The Senate bill has a higher emissions-reduction target for 2020, at 20 percent below 2005 levels. And it also includes stronger market-stability provisions that could make the costs slightly higher, though ideally more stable. The Senate bill also allows landfill and coal mine emissions capturing to be a source of offsets, while the House bill subjected them to performance standards. But, overall, the EPA concludes that they are "relatively small differences in estimated costs and may even cancel each other out on net."

Who Gets to Pollute?

Who gets to spew carbon dioxide into the air for free, and who has to pay for the right?

The first draft of the Senate version of the climate change bill left a number of unanswered questions, including the much-discussed allocation of pollution permits under a carbon-pricing plan. Exactly which industries will get pollution permits has been a hot topic among senators who haven't decided how they're going to vote. The fence-sitters got the information they were waiting for late Friday, when Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) released her "chairman's mark." The mark is the version of the bill that Boxer wants the committee to use as a baseline when it considers the legislation, which is cosponsored by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.)

Boxer's Environment and Public Works Committee will begin hearings on the bill on Tuesday with testimony from a panel of top officials: EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Jon Wellinghoff. Hearings will continue nearly all day on Wednesday and Thursday, and the President will weigh in, too, with a major speech on Friday and another planned for Tuesday. But Boxer's "mark" sets the stage for what everyone will be talking about.

Here's what you need to know:

The Health Care State of Play

Liberals, prepare to have your hopes crushed. Harry Reid says he's "close" to getting the sixty votes he needs in the Senate for a health care bill with an "opt-out" public option. But the White House seems to be worried that pushing even this weakened public option might cost them the vote of Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). If they lose Snowe, conservative Democrats like Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) might bolt, too. The New Republic's Jon Cohn has some good analysis:

[I]t seems pretty clear (at least to me) that Obama really would prefer a strong public option—but that he, like his advisers, has serious concerns over whether such an option can pass. In other words, he wants a good public plan but he wants a bill even more—and he's not sure that the former is compatible with the latter. So he's being careful—more careful, in fact, than some of his Senate allies would like.

I think this gets at Obama's biggest problem in this fight. Everyone knows that he needs to pass a bill. That makes it hard for him to hold out for his preferred solution and gives whoever is standing in the way a whole lot of leverage. The obstructionists have a lot more freedom. It's really unclear that Ben Nelson, for example, needs the President to like him. If he's savvy, he's probably much more interested in paying insurance companies back for the $2 million in campaign cash they've given him. The President thinks he needs Ben Nelson more than Ben Nelson thinks he needs the President. That doesn't bode well for the public option.

UPDATE: David Corn is writing about this, too, over at Politics Daily:

If Reid can indeed keep his 60 votes together on a procedural vote (blocking the filibuster), he can tell Snowe to take a hike. But Obama may still want her Republican cred attached to the final bill. That would place him and Reid dramatically at odds.

I don't think Obama wants Snowe's "cred." He just wants (and needs) a bill, and he has many, many reasons to believe Harry Reid isn't a strong enough leader to hold Senate Democrats together on a party-line vote. The President thinks he needs a Republican vote to make sure he gets all the Democratic votes. If the past 48 hours have shown us anything, it's that Obama doesn't have much faith in Harry Reid—and he has even less faith in conservative Dems like Ben Nelson. The push to get Snowe's vote isn't cosmetic (at least I hope not—if it is, the White House had better get its priorities straight). It's strategic.

US Army Spc. Jason Hebert provides security in the early dawn during an air assault mission above Tacome valley in Zabul province, Afghanistan, Oct. 14, 2009. Hebert is assigned to Company A, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment. (US Army photo by Spc. Tia P. Sokimson.)

Need To Read: October 26, 2009

Today's must-reads:

Get more stuff like this: Follow me on twitter! David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, also tweets, as does MoJo blogger Kate Sheppard. So do my colleagues Daniel Schulman and Rachel Morris and our editors-in-chief, Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein. Follow them, too! (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)

Econundrum: A Greener Commute

Considering how much car travel affects a person's carbon footprint
, I'm always looking for ways to cut down on my driving time. Luckily for me, the commute isn't a problem, since a rapid-transit train whisks me under the San Francisco Bay practically to MoJo HQ's doorstep every day. But if you don't live near public transportation or a bike-friendly commute (and you don't happen to have an extra 25 grand kicking around for a Prius), you're probably going to have to get creative.

One idea: Get a GPS device. The technology company Navteq recently found that German drivers who were given navigational devices with real-time traffic information increased their fuel economy by an average of 12 percent. The researchers calculated that GPS systems could save 2,006 pounds of carbon per driver per year, a 24 percent reduction from current emissions levels.

An ABC poll estimated the average American commute at 16 miles one way, creating about 29.3 pounds of CO2 round-trip every day. According to the Navteq researchers' findings, then, getting a GPS device is the same as not driving to work 68 days every year.

A caveat: Since Navteq, the company behind the study, sells software to GPS manufacturers, it has a vested interest in touting the benefits of navigational systems. Still, some independent traffic-savvy types told me they think that the study is solid, if taken with a few grains of salt. First, the study was conducted in Germany—and any American who's been to Europe knows that US freeways take crowded to an entirely different level. Another problem: Once everyone starts using the alternate route that a GPS suggests, it's, well, no longer an alternate route. "The impact for any one driver may be somewhat smaller if more people use these devices and start to clog up alternate routes," said Tai Stillwater, a graduate student who studies traffic and sustainability at the University of California-Davis.

If you don't want to shell out for a GPS (they run about $150-$200), consider these fuel efficiency tips. You can also talk to your boss about telecommuting a few days a week. And for advice on whether to junk your clunker in favor of a hybrid, read our piece on the subject here.