On Wednesday afternoon, President Barack Obama gave a fiery speech to kick off what he no doubt hopes is the endgame for health care reform—or, as the White House has been calling it, health insurance reform. It was a rather belated recognition that the only way he's going to get anything passed is by rolling the Republicans. Putting aside the issue of partisanship, last week's health care summit demonstrated that there is a huge policy and ideological divide between the Ds and Rs over what to do about the nation's troubled health care system. This gap cannot be bridged by the usual cut-the-difference legislative compromises. It is more of an either/or situation. Obama and the Dems want to remake the private insurance system (still keeping it private), and the Republicans do not. So if the president and the Democrats are serious about what they say, they have no choice but to embrace a DIY approach to the legislation. That is, reconciliation—with no apologies.

Obama did look a bit fed-up. But he has no one to blame but himself. (I'm giving Rahm Emanuel a pass.) Obama has reached a conclusion a year into his presidency that seemed rather obvious to others last spring. Think of all the time the White House wasted negotiating with Republicans, both before and after Sen. Max Baucus, the uninspiring chair of the finance committee, led a painfully slow mark-up of a bill that concluded with not one GOP vote.

"Let's get it done," an impatient-sounding Obama said at the end of his remarks. But though the bills on the Hill are in the hands of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who are counting votes and figuring out how to finesse the reconciliation process, it really is up to Obama to lead the way. He will have to lean on reluctant Democrats—on the right and the left—and serve as The Enforcer for any arrangement reached between Pelosi and Reid on how to proceed. That accord might compel House Democrats to vote for the Senate bill before it is tweaked to their liking via reconciliation, meaning the House Ds will be worrying that that their Senate comrades might pull the rug out from under them by failing to pass those tweaks afterward. Obama will have to be the guarantor.

For months, the president allowed the messy legislative process to dribble along on its own. He refused to take sides on various issues. He declined to state his preferences for assorted provisions. He deferred to the legislators. Now he has to take charge. He is the one he has been waiting for.

It's not often you get to write a column that covers White House pastry desserts and nuclear weapons policy. But I had that opportunity today with my DailyPolitics.com gig. And that column went something like this:

On Monday, as I walked to the White House for the daily press briefing, I bumped into a Canadian journalist who was heading there as well, and we engaged in a common practice: guessing what topic would dominate the questions for press secretary Robert Gibbs. Health care, I said, explaining that this was still the main narrative of Washington's political theater: Would President Obama resolve to use the reconciliation procedure to push his health care overhaul over the finish line? "Not the new Nuclear Posture Review?" she asked, almost incredulously. I chuckled and politely shook my head. "But it's on the front page of The New York Times," she exclaimed.

Indeed it was. That day, Times reporter David Sanger was reporting that Obama was putting the finishing touches on a nuclear weapons policy review that would seek to reduce the U.S. arsenal by thousands of warheads but that would reject a proposal long-advocated by arms controllers -- for the United States to declare it would never be the first to launch nuclear weapons. The article noted that Obama has yet to resolve a crucial matter: Would the United States reserve the right to use nuclear weapons in response to a biological or chemical attack, even if the attacker were a country that didn't possess nuclear weapons? Also under consideration, the Times noted, is withdrawing U.S. tactical nuclear weapons -- essentially, smaller nukes on smaller missiles -- now based in Europe. The big issue, not yet decided, is whether Obama should declare that the "sole purpose" of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is to deter any other nation from firing nuclear weapons at us, or whether he should leave some wiggle room so the U.S. could use its nukes in another extreme situation.

The nuclear option | Flickr/Epic Fireworks (Creative Commons).The nuclear option | Flickr/Epic Fireworks (Creative Commons)."The nuclear option" is a term that was invented by Republican politicians in 2005 to describe their threat to change Senate rules to do away with filibusters of judicial nominees. But GOP media consultants soon decided the term was a political liability, and Republicans started to refer to it as a "smear" term created by Democrats. Then, as TPM reported at the time, Republicans "fann[ed] out to editorial rooms around Washington and New York, attempting to ban the phrase 'nuclear option' from print and airwave, unless it is duly noted as a Democrat-created smear phrase."

Now, in 2010, Republicans are once again counting on short memories (the media's and the public's) to redefine the history of the "nuclear option" term. This time around, Republicans aren't painting the term as a Democrat-created smear. They're using it to describe a completely different maneuver than the one at issue in 2005.

Remember, the "nuclear option" originally described an effort to change Senate rules to prohibit filibusters of judicial nominees. Now, as MediaMatters has extensively documented, Fox News and the GOP are using it to describe the Democrats' efforts to work within Senate rules to pass adjustments to the health care reform bill by majority vote. It's all part of the GOP's effort to delegitimize the filibuster-proof reconciliation process—the same majority-vote procedure that Republicans used to pass the budget-busting Bush tax cuts. It's a bogus effort. Reconciliation was used 21 times between 1981 and 2008—16 of those times by Republicans.

David has a story today on former Sen. Bob Graham's 2002 efforts to force a review of the CIA's torture and detention program. Here's what Graham says about the responsibilities of the intelligence committee, which he used to run:

There's one thing that distinguishes the intelligence committees from other committees. There are many eyes looking at health care policy, agricultural policy, economic policy—journalists, academics, outside groups. When it comes to intelligence, the committees are virtually the only eyes, ears and noses of the public. When there are suggestions that the US government is engaged in activities that subvert our commitment to human rights, the intelligence committees have every obligation to find out the truth.

Graham also pointed out that letting the CIA "self-regulate" on interrogation issues is madness. "The whole notion of oversight is based on the belief that is not possible or credible for a person or institution to monitor the appropriateness, consequences and efficacy of their activities," he said. Anyway, you should read the whole piece. It's not just broad strokes: Graham specifically criticizes Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), his successor as chair of the Senate intelligence committee, for not pursuing a review of the CIA's interrogation program.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the influential House financial services committee, says he'll continue to fight for an independent consumer-protection agency as part of this year's comprehensive financial-reform legislation, and that he opposes housing a consumer agency within the Federal Reserve, a plan that recently emerged from the Senate's ongoing negotiations. "My main objection to housing this critical function in the Federal Reserve has been the central bank's historical failure to implement consumer protection as a central part of its mission and role," Frank said in a statement today.

The Massachusetts congressman recently told Mother Jones that an independent consumer-protection agency was a "dealbreaker" for him. He also said an earlier plan leaked out of the Senate—where the banking committee's chair, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), is leading the talks—to put a consumer agency within the Treasury Department was "weaker than I was hoping." Frank told Mother Jones recently that he'd rather see Senate Democrats push for a stronger financial-reform bill, and let Senate Republicans try to vote down that bill in public, rather than make early compromises in closed-door meetings.

Here's Frank's statement in full from this morning, which he issued to clarify comments in today's New York Times:

I do not support housing the Consumer Financial Protection Agency in the Federal Reserve. I continue to vigorously support the House-passed bill that establishes an independent agency with strong rule-writing authority and enforcement powers to implement consumer protections. I could, if necessary, support housing this important function in the Treasury Department, provided that the entity has sufficient independence and broad regulatory scope to accomplish the mission of protecting consumers.

My main objection to housing this critical function in the Federal Reserve has been the central bank’s historical failure to implement consumer protection as a central part of its mission and role.

In today's New York Times, John Taylor, president and CEO of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, blasts the latest iteration of a consumer-protection agency to emerge from the Senate banking committee's closed-door financial-reform negotiations—namely, a consumer agency housed within the Fed. A vocal critic of the Fed for its failure to police banks under its purview and for its utter lack of regard for protecting consumers, Taylor had this to say when asked where he'd rather see a consumer-protection agency housed:

I'd take the National Zoo over these guys. This is a place to bury it, or at least make it ineffective.

Samantar Speaks

For Bashe Abdi Yousuf, Aziz Mohamed Deria, and three other plaintiffs who suffered under the brutal reign of Somalia's late dictator Mohammed Siad Barre, today is a make or break moment. This morning the Supreme Court is hearing the case of the highest-ranking member of the Siad Barre regime who's still living, Mohamed Ali Samantar, who served as the country's defense minister and later prime minister during a dark era in which a range of human rights abuses were inflicted on the populace. But the high court won't be weighing in on whether the 74-year-old official, who has been living outside of Washington, DC for more than a decade, is the war criminal his accusers say he his. It will render an opinion on whether he—and, by extension, other foreign officials accused of similar abuses—can be sued at all in US courts. When I reported on the case a couple weeks ago, I noted that Samantar, who claims he's immune from suit under a statute known as the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, has drawn an odd coalition of defenders.

Among them were the government of Saudi Arabia, various pro-Israel groups, and three former US attorneys general. At stake is whether foreign officials can be sued in US courts for human rights abuses, or whether they are protected by a swath of immunity that shields them from answering for even the most heinous acts. Supporters of Samantar’s position contend that if the Supreme Court rules against him, it could leave officials from Saudi Arabia, Israel, the US, and elsewhere vulnerable to an avalanche of lawsuits. And the case raises major foreign policy questions, particularly as the Obama administration wages an aggressive fight against terrorism around the world.

Yet, if the court agrees with Samantar's interpretation of the FSIA—and it's important to note that his reading of the law is at odds with the views of both the Bush and Obama administrations—that would effectively gut the Torture Victim Protection Act. The 1991 law, championed by Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and others, allows torture survivors to seek legal redress against their victimizers in American courts. Part of the irony here is that this law came into being partially as a result of the gross human rights violations carried out by Siad Barre's regime.

The Washington Post ran a story on the case yesterday, based on a elusive interview with Samantar. For the most part, the story paints a fairly sympathetic portrait of the grandfatherly man who J. Peter Pham, an expert on Somalia's history, described to me as "the dictator's enforcer."

Samantar says the claims of his accusers—who collectively say they or their family members were subjected to torture, rape, extrajuducial killings, and other horrors—are "baseless allegations, with no foundation in truth." He added, "I served the people rightly and justly. I always respected the rule of law. I am no monster." Perhaps not. But he's made clear, just the same, that he'd rather not take the chance on whether a judge and jury will agree.

Larry Summers, the top economic aide and somewhat mercurial adviser to President Obama, told leading US business leaders in a speech in New York yesterday to accept the bitter pill of financial reform. "A strong government (that) responds to market failures, provides social protection regulates potential abuses and supports economic conditions is undeniably in the long-run interest of business, he told audience members.

Summers' speech comes as the Senate banking committee, led by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), is trying to reach an agreement on a bipartisan financial-reform bill. The Obama administration has of late deployed some of its top financial officials—Treasury Assistant Secretary Michael Barr, even President Obama himself—to drum up support in the financial-services community for Congress' proposed crackdown on financial products, the housing markets, and mortgage lenders, while also bolstering consumer protections—a major sticking point for lawmakers in Washington.

Here's a few other highlights from Reuters' report on Summers' stump speech yesterday:

While Summers said he understood business antipathy, "history teaches us that active government is a necessary force," he added.


To make his point, Summers suggested that few, if any, major financial institutions would have survived without the emergency liquidity offered by the government.

It was just 18 months ago that leading companies were reduced to borrowing money overnight because they were unable to borrow for a week, he said. The nine financial institutions benefited by the U.S. bailout fund today have a combined market value approaching $1 trillion, he said.

On comprehensive financial reform, he said "On one level, it's mind numbingly complex. On another, it's not that hard."


US Army Sgt. Van Forbes mans an M-2 .50-caliber machine gun during a resupply mission in support of Operation Helmand Spider in the Badula Qulp, Helmand province, Afghanistan, on Feb. 22, 2010. Photo via US Army.

"Mordor is the SPDC [Burmese government], and guys like us are hobbits," Tha U Wa A Pa says by way of explaining why he built a training base for medics in a land-mine-infested war zone in Burma, where he lives with his wife and three children.

Tha U Wa A Pa and his Free Burma Rangers document the atrocities of the Burmese army and provide medical and tactical help to those fleeing from it. It's a quest requiring almost inconceivable bravery and, in Tha U Wa A Pa's case, a conviction that God has chosen him for this task. Though he uses a Karen nom de guerre (meaning "Father of the White Monkey"—a.k.a. his daughter), he's the son of prominent American missionaries in Thailand, an alum of Texas A&M (BA, poli-sci) and a former US Army Ranger. After graduating from Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, Tha U Wa A Pa became a missionary in Thailand himself. Which is where he was in 1997, when a major SPDC offensive sent a flood of Karen refugees across the border. Tha U Wa A Pa loaded up a backpack full of supplies and, together with a KNU soldier he met along the way, rushed into Burma as if it were a house on fire. The two men treated as many wounded as they could, carrying a guy who'd stepped on a land mine to a hospital to have his leg amputated. Over the next three weeks, they ferried supplies and patients back and forth over the border.

Since then, the Rangers have trained more than 110 roving teams who provide medical assistance to (and document the plight of) the more than half a million internally displaced persons in the eastern Burmese jungle. Rangers have treated some 400,000 people for malaria, AIDS, dysentery, diarrhea, malnutrition, worms, anemia, skin disease, and infections. They pull teeth and deliver babies. Six have lost their lives on the job. As the junta's violence escalates, so do their efforts; the Rangers' budget is up to $1.3 million a year, all donations, mostly from churches and their parishioners. "We're just little guys trying to do some good," Tha U Wa A Pa says. "On the surface it seems like Mordor has all the strength and power and might. But if our fellowship of hobbits stays united, good will defeat evil in the end."

In 2006, MoJo human rights reporter Mac McClelland found herself living in Thailand with activists engaged in battling Burma’s dictatorship. What she didn’t know at the time: Those activists were associates of a US-designated terrorist organization. To read an article about Mac’s adventures with the activists/terrorists, click here. To see a slideshow of Burma's dirtiest exports, click here.