60 Votes

Quick background: Republicans will filibuster any healthcare bill that reaches the floor of the Senate, and it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster.  If a healthcare bill includes a public option provision, it's vanishingly unlikely that we can find those 60 votes.  But budget reconciliation bills can't be filibustered, so an alternative is to include the public option but then introduce the bill via the reconciliation process, where it needs only 50 votes to pass.

So then: A couple of days ago I asked what would happen if Democrats did this.  The reconciliation process can only be used to pass provisions with direct budget impact, so the question is: which provisions would be deemed to have no budget impact and therefore get tossed out?  Stan Collender is a serious budget wonk of many years' standing, but it turns out that even he really doesn't have any idea:

The question isn't at all clear cut.  Is a provision a line in a bill, a phrase in a line, a whole section of legislation, etc.?  Even if a section of a bill doesn't affect outlays or revenues and, therefore, seems to qualify under #1 to be excluded, is it integral to other parts of the legislation that do change outlays or revenues and, therefore, should be allowed to stay.

As I said, this is complicated and will be extremely controversial.  There are budget experts on both sides of the aisle and this is more of a judgment call than the application of a hard and fast rule.

So to Kevin Drum...if you think you have questions now, just wait.

I don't know if Harry Reid can find 60 votes to break a filibuster of a bill that contains a public option provision.  But if he can't — something that seems pretty likely — and he has to try the reconciliation route, we're in terra incognita.  And once we get to that point, the shape of the bill won't be a matter of negotiating skill, or liberal spine, or presidential leadership, or backroom deal cutting.  It will be a matter of the Senate parliamentarian tossing out provisions randomly based on his good faith understanding of the rules.

Call me gutless, call me chicken, call me whatever.  But that's a process that won't turn out well.  It's just not a realistic option to take a big, complex piece of legislation, toss out individual provisions here and there, and expect to have anything other than a complete hash of a bill that will end up so unworkable it can't pass at all.  Like it or not (and I don't!), we need 60 votes to get healthcare through the Senate.  The question is how best to do that.

In the fight against terrorism, some of the most indispensable weapons are the most ordinary of objects: A scrap of paper with a name scrawled on it, found in the pocket of a suspected insurgent; or his cellphone, programmed with numbers. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, Special Operations forces have stepped up efforts to collect anything that might broaden its understanding of insurgent and terrorist networks—so-called pocket litter, documents, and computer hard drives. But according to a report from a House commiteee, they lack the capability to actually do anything with the material they gather.

This troubling observation is buried deep in the House Appropriations committee's 476-page report on the FY2010 defense budget, which notes that Special Operations personnel have, on multiple occasions, informed lawmakers that they need better technology to quickly process intelligence finds in Iraq and Afghanistan and share the resulting information with relevant agencies. "The Committee is concerned about the urgent need for the modernization of Special Operations Forces' (SOF) capabilities to process, exploit, and disseminate critical operational intelligence from deployed locations overseas," the report says. "[W]ithout specialized expeditionary processing, this information becomes inacessible and of no value to SOF in immediate urgent operational missions, and over the longer term to the war fighter, the intelligence community and others in need of access."

To address this shortcoming, the appropriations committee added an extra $14 billion to help Special Operations Forces analyze and share the intelligence it collects before it becomes useless. I've called the committee for details, and will post an update if I learn more.

h/t: Secrecy News.

 

Vodka's good in screwdrivers, cosmopolitans, and Cape Codders. It also works for:

1. Cleaning eye glasses: Wipe your lenses a soft, clean cloth dampened with vodka for dust- and bacteria-free specs.

2. Preserving razors: Soak your razors in vodka after use to clean them and prevent rusting.

3. Removing bandaids: Alcohol dissolves the sticky material. No painful rrrip!

4. Scrubbing the tub: Fill a spray bottle with vodka and spray caulking, let sit 5-10 minutes, and wash clean.

5. Perking up flowers: Mix vodka, sugar and water and pour in a vase to keep your aging flowers looking fresh.

Thanks, AltUse.com. Look for five creative ways to use common products every Tuesday here on the Blue Marble.

Tuesday's list of environment, science, and health stories from our other blogs and around the web:

Lipstick on a junta: Does Fiji Water prop up a dictatorship? We let the experts duke it out.

PETA, please: The animal activist group's latest antic is an embarrassing fat-bashing billboard. Oy.

Bye bye, public option; hello co-ops: James Ridgeway on why health care co-ops are a cop-out.

No crystal ball necessary: Should democrats have foreseen the outcry over advance care counseling? Kevin Drum says it wouldn't have mattered even if they had, since the lunatic fringe would have found something to obsess over no matter what.

Of pressure and pollen: Can stress make your allergies worse?

Cigna spills: The former head of corporate communications at one of the largest health insurance companies in America tells all.

Critical mass: When it comes to bikes, there's safety in numbers.

To keep up with environment, health, and science news from Mother Jones and beyond on Twitter, follow @MoJoBlueMarble.

Despite what a recent PETA ad would have you believe, some vegetarians are fat. Take, for example, the herbiverous and tubby Dugong. Dugongs have long been hunted for their fat, meat, and oil and they're easy targets: they swim slowly through shallow waters munching on seagrass like a cow on pasture. In fact, they're often called seacows. Though dugongs are protected in the US under the Endangered Species Act, some are still killed by motorboat collisions and poachers.

There are about 100,000 dugongs left, the majority in Australian waters. Like their relative the elephant, dugongs can grow huge: up to 11 feet in length and 2,000 pounds in weight. The shy animals can only stay underwater for about 6 minutes, and sometimes "stand" on their tail flukes to push their heads to the surface, holding their front flippers in front of them like arms. This activity, combined with the dugong's distinctive head and body shape, not to mention its "conspicuous" nipples, is thought to have inspired lovelorn sailors' tales of mermaids and sirens. Accordingly, dugongs (along with manatees) belong to the order Sirenia

The dugong's long lifespan (70 years) and a slow reproduction rate (one calf every 3 to 7 years) makes it less able to adapt to environmental changes than smaller, more fertile animals like squid or jellyfish. However, unlike some other animals, the dugong has no set breeding period and can mate year round. Although unusual now, there used to be "herds" of hundreds of dugongs, who would segregate cream-colored young in a "nursery" while blue-grey adults foraged for food. Now, most dugong groups sighted have only 6 or so members. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) dugongs are rarely found in captivity, but you can "adopt" your own dugong via the World Wildlife Fund here.

 

Follow Jen Phillips on Twitter.

AL ASAD, Iraq (Aug. 6, 2009) Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) the Honorable Ray Mabus addresses Sailors and Marines during a tour of Al Asad Air Base. Mabus thanked them for their dedicated service and their significant role in preserving security and stability in the region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kevin S. O'Brien/Released.)

Some essential reading you may have missed:

The public option is dead. Who cares?

Obama delivers tough words on defense spending to an audience of veterans.

The DOJ belatedly softens its harsh stance against gay marriage.

Both David Corn and Newt Gingrich think Obama could learn a thing or two from Ronald Reagan. Although for somewhat different reasons.

North Korea reopens border with South Korea.

At least someone's paying attention: the Times-Herald of California's Solano and Napa Counties condemns Obama's use of signing statements.

More details emerge on the American Petroleum Institute's anti-cap and trade astroturf ops.

MoJo = contraband? Virgina prisons bans our issue on the failure of the drug war.

David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, is on twitter, and so are my colleagues Daniel Schulman, Nick Baumann, and our editor, Clara Jeffery. You can follow me here. (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)

The New Pentagon

In the Washington Post today, Rajiv Chandrasekaran tells us why Gen. David McKiernan was so abruptly fired a few months ago as the top commander in Afghanistan:

Gates and Mullen had been having doubts about McKiernan since the beginning of the year. They regarded him as too languid, too old-school and too removed from Washington. He lacked the charisma and political savvy that Gen. David H. Petraeus brought to the Iraq war....He did not fawn over visiting lawmakers like Petraeus did in Iraq.

...."Blame General Petraeus," a senior Defense Department official said. "He redefined during his tour in Iraq what it means to be a commanding general. He broke the mold. The traditional responsibilities were not enough anymore. You had to be adroit at international politics. You had to be a skilled diplomat. You had to be savvy with the press, and you had to be a really sophisticated leader of a large organization. When you judge McKiernan by Petraeus's standards, he looked old-school by comparison."

There's more to the story than just this, and given the importance of the Afghanistan campaign it was hardly unreasonable for Gates and Mullen to install a new commander they thought was better suited to the job — even if this was based primarily on personal chemistry and even if it involved some level of unfairness to an existing commander who hadn't done anything especially wrong.  That's just the way it goes with top level executive positions sometimes.  What's more, there's evidence in Chandrasekaran's piece that quite a few people in the Pentagon were objectively unimpressed with some of McKiernan's planning, though he's pretty vague about just why that was.

Still, even with all that said, it's a little disturbing that Gates and Mullen apparently placed such a strong emphasis on "charisma and political savvy."  That's only a thin line away from "boot licking empty suit," after all, and it wasn't so very long ago that we were complaining that the Army promoted too many politically savvy generals and too few real warriors.  That's probably not what happened here — McKiernan's replacement, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has a good reputation — but there's still a slight whiff to the whole thing.  And there's also this:

Before McChrystal left Washington, Gates asked him to deliver an assessment of the war in 60 days. Instead of summoning a team of military strategists to Kabul, McChrystal invited Washington think-tank experts from across the ideological spectrum.

....There were few revolutionary ideas in the document, but McChrystal may have received something far more important through the process: allies in the U.S. capital, on the political left and right, to talk about the need for more troops in Afghanistan — in advance of his assessment to Gates, which will probably be submitted this month.

As Spencer Ackerman points out, this is indeed politically savvy.  Whether it was the right thing to do is another question entirely.

Sometime in the next ten days, President Obama can expect a call from Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Lula wants to invite Obama to a meeting of the Union of the South American Nations (Unasur) meeting to discuss the increasing American presence in Colombia, now that the South American country has allowed US military forces to use Colombian air bases to track down rebels and drug dealers. A conversation about the topic should take place before the next Unsaur meeting, scheduled for August 28th in Bariloche, Argentina.

During the last meeting of Unasur leaders, last week, in Quito, Ecuador, the Brazilian president said he was “uneasy” with American troops going to Colombia and proposed the meeting with Obama. The main reason for his concern, he said, is that South America should be able to solve its own problems without outside help, especially since the Narcotraffic Combat Council was just created by Unasur to fight drug traffic in South America without international interference. “The Council can answer many things that Colombians think only Americans can answer,” Lula said.

But during a press conference, Lula expressed a concern that must cross the mind of every leader whose neighbors are about to host American troops: Are they really going to stay where they’re supposed to? Lula emphasized that it should be made “explicit” that American troops will act only within Colombian territory. Translation: Colombian president Alvaro Uribe and Obama can sign whatever they want, as long as we don’t have American soldiers crossing into the Brazilian Amazon.

Guest contributor Gabriela Lessa is a journalist and blogger spending the summer in her native Brazil. Watch for her dispatches on motherjones.com.

Hard to believe but the Environmental Protection Agency commonly uses 4-day tests to set safe levels of pesticide exposure for humans and animals. New research suggests this timescale is way too short and doesn't begin to account for long-term effects.

The new data, published in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, describe how the highly toxic pesticide endosulfan—a neurotoxin banned in several nations but still used extensively in US agriculture (check out the CDC's outdated description)—exhibits a "lag effect" after direct contact has ended.

The researchers exposed nine species of frog and toad tadpoles to endosulfan levels already occurring in the wild for the EPA's required 4-day period. After 4 days the amphibians were transferred to clean water for an additional 4 days.

Although endosulfan was ultimately toxic to all species, three species of tadpole showed no significant sensitivity to the chemical until after they were transferred to fresh water. Within 4 days of being moved, up to 97 percent of leopard frog tadpoles perished along with up to 50 percent of spring peeper and American toad tadpoles.

Tadpoles and other amphibians are famously sensitive to pollutants and considered environmental indicator species. The authors suggest that if endosulfan does not kill the world's most susceptible species in 4 days, then the 4-day test period is inadequate to gauge the long-term effects for larger, less-sensitive species—like us.

Co-author Rick Relyea said: "For most pesticides, we assume that animals will die during the period of exposure, but we do not expect substantial death after the exposure has ended. Even if EPA regulations required testing on amphibians, our research demonstrates that the standard 4-day toxicity test would have dramatically underestimated the lethal impact of endosulfan on even this notably sensitive species."

A second paper by some of the same authors in the same journal expands on Relyea's earlier findings that the popular weed-killer Roundup® is "extremely lethal" to amphibians in concentrations found in the environment. The latest report on Roundup® is available on Pitt's website (pdf).

Last year Relyea reported that the world's 10 most popular pesticides combine to create "cocktails of contaminants" that can destroy amphibian populations—even if the concentration of each individual chemical is within levels considered safe to humans and animals. I reported on this at TBM at the time. The cocktail killed 99 percent of leopard frog tadpoles. Endosulfan alone killed 84 percent.

A month earlier, Relyea published a paper in Ecological Applications reporting that gradual amounts of malathion (the most popular insecticide in the US)—too small to directly kill developing leopard frog tadpoles—nevertheless sparked a biological chain reaction that deprived the amphibians of their primary food source. As a result, nearly half the tadpoles in the experiment would have died in nature.

In other words, pesticides really really suck. How much research more does the EPA need to embrace 21st-century science?