Mojo - December 2010

Stone Age Bombing

| Thu Dec. 9, 2010 5:38 PM EST

I mean, you couldn't make this stuff up. In fact, if I were to offer a conspiracy theory to explain it, I might suggest that the US government now exists mainly to feed material to The Daily Show. I'm referring to an article in the New York Times reporting that "the Obama administration and the Department of Defense have ordered the hundreds of thousands of federal employees and contractors not to view the secret cables and other classified documents published by Wikileaks and news organizations around the world unless the workers have the required security clearance or authorization."

Don't laugh. No, really, stop it!

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In DADT Wreckage, a Tale of Two Vulnerable Dems

| Thu Dec. 9, 2010 5:22 PM EST

The repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell failed Thursday in the Senate, with the Democrats coming up three votes short of being able to block a Republican filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had been negotiating with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) to bring DADT repeal to the floor while satisfying Republican demands for more time for debate and GOP amendments to the bill. But Reid was reportedly worried that Republicans would continue to prolong the debate unnecessarily—impeding other Democratic legislation on deck—and then decide in the end to kill the repeal provision anyway

Two Republican Senators—Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)—said earlier this week that they supported DADT repeal. But both GOPers voted no on Thursday after Reid rejected Republican demands for more time and amendments. Speaking to reporters, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) laid down his party's rationale: "You're not going to get our cooperation when you take these bills, you bring them up without any chance that we can participate in the debate." Collins, however, voted yes—despite having been the GOP's point person in negotiations with Reid and despite having made the procedural demands in the first place.

There was a lone Democrat—a vulnerable Blue Dog soon up for re-election—who joined with the GOP to defeat DADT. Sen. Joe Manchin, the newly sworn-in member from West Virginia, admitted that he ultimately thought the ban on gay servicemembers should be lifted. The former governor defended his opposition to the bill by saying the timing wasn't right, citing Congressional testimony from two frontline commanders that DADT could be disruptive during a time of war:

I think it's going to happen and it probably should happen. But it's the timing issue for me and for my constituents back home... I'm just saying we have war going on, and when you have a war going on, you ought to listen to the front line.

By contrast, another vulnerable Democratic member up for re-election in 2012—Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri—not only supported repeal, but also lit into the GOP for sabotaging the vote. Leaving the Senate chamber, she told reporters that Reid's attempt to come up with a DADT deal broke down when Republicans demanded the power to offer up amendments that were too extreme. "There was a breakdown over the terminology between relevant and crazy," McCaskill told reporters. She added that she admired Collins' "courage" for voting to move forward with DADT repeal, noting that its failure also blocked everything else in the defense reauthorization bill attached to the provision.

Altogether, DADT's defeat was a depressing reminder of just how intractable the GOP has become. This is just the latest example of the minority party using Senate procedural arguments as an excuse for blocking legislation that may not have another chance to pass for years. Repeal's defeat also shows how little faith Reid has in the GOP and, perhaps, how few risks he's willing to take right now given how little time is left in the lame-duck Congress. Earlier on Thursday, the Democratic majority leader decided to defer a tough vote on the DREAM Act, pushing it farther to the margins—perhaps because the Democrats also lacked the votes to put it through. In an increasingly treacherous political climate, moderate and vulnerable Democrats will be under more pressure to protect their right flanks. As Politico's Dave Catanese noted, the Manchin-McCaskill split on DADT reveals that such Democrats could either use the GOP as cover—or take a risk and charge to the forefront to attack the opposition.

UPDATE, 6:15 p.m. EST: There may be hope yet for repeal. Collins, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) are co-sponsoring a standalone repeal bill that Reid has said he will try to bring straight to the floor (bypassing the committee process) at the end of the lame duck session. TPM's Brian Beutler has more.

Barney Frank: We Can't Stop Obama's Tax-Cut Deal

| Thu Dec. 9, 2010 12:47 PM EST

The House Democratic Caucus has rejected President Obama's bargain to retain the Bush-era tax cuts, voting nearly unanimously during a caucus Thursday meeting to oppose bringing the deal to the House floor. The resolution was a symbolic move intended to demonstrate that House Democrats had the numbers to stop the deal from moving forward, demanding changes to Obama's bargain with the Republicans. But a leading liberal Democrat, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), told Mother Jones that the president's tax-cut deal would pass anyway, and that the bill based on Obama's bargain would have enough votes to pass the House—despite vehement Democratic opposition.

"I still think it's going to go through—why do you think it isn't?" Frank said in a Thursday interview outside the caucus meeting. "I always knew a majority of Democrats would be against it. I still think they have the votes for it, yeah." He added that House Democrats simply lacked the ability to have a major impact on the legislation: "I think the notion that the caucus controls legislation is not a good one."

Frank emphasized that he still opposed the tax-cut bargain but nevertheless thought a vote should be held on the tax package as it currently stands. Speaker Nancy Pelosi will have to decide herself whether to bring any bill to a vote on the House floor, saying Thursday that she stood by the caucus' resolution and would not proceed unless the framework was changed. House Democrats at the caucus meeting said they would specifically demand changes to the watered-down estate tax in the bargain—a cornerstone of Republican support for the bill. 

If Pelosi made such revisions, however, it could derail the entire bargain and prolong the battle indefinitely, potentially running up against the Dec. 31 deadline when the current tax-cuts expire. Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus, asserted Thursday that Democrats were willing to run that risk.* But Frank remains convinced that the Democratic caucus will be unable to hold up the negotiations, predicting that Pelosi will ultimately be forced to bring the president's tax deal forward: "I think she will have to, yeah."

Much has been made of the rift between the president and liberal Democrats over the tax deal. While he agreed that the discord was a "disagreement over a very important issue," the Massachusetts Democrat brushed aside concerns about a looming civil war on the left. "I think this is a pretty unique set of circumstances," Frank said, noting the pending expiration of the tax cuts on Dec. 31. "We will be together most of the time, and there will be occasional times when we're different."

*Update: Story has been updated to reflect Pelosi's latest remarks.

The Obama Admin's Targeted Killing Trump Card

| Thu Dec. 9, 2010 12:20 PM EST

I had a long post written on this Human Rights Watch letter to Obama administration, but MoJo's blog software ate it, so I'm just going to link and excerpt:

We write to ask that your administration provide greater clarity about its legal rationale for targeted killings, including the use of Unmanned Combat Aircraft Systems (drones), and the procedural safeguards it is taking to minimize harm to civilians.

You should read the whole thing, but basically the key takeaway here is that even (long-anticipated) legal defeats on civil liberties issues, like the dismissal of the ACLU/CCR targeted killing case on Tuesday, don't preclude continued pressure on decision-makers. In fact, the main point of the lawsuits themselves (which almost always fail) is to draw attention to these issues and increase the political costs of maintaining the status quo. As Benjamin Wittes points out, the ACLU and CCR are too politically sophisticated to think they have a good chance of winning these sorts of cases. They know how the state secrets privilege works. The ACLU's appeal of the Jeppesen DataPlan detainee abuse case to the Supreme Court, announced Wednesday, will be a really hard sell. But the battle will draw more attention to the state secrets privilege, which is central to the Jeppesen case, and further increase the costs to the Obama administration of using its trump card.

These guys are playing the long game. I won't be at all surprised if we eventually see the ACLU and CCR efforts pay off in the form of the Obama administration releasing more information about the legal rationale behind the targeted killing program.

Tea Party Lawmakers Heart K Street

| Thu Dec. 9, 2010 11:51 AM EST

Well, that didn't take long.

The Washington Post's Dan Eggen reports that a number of Republicans, including tea party-backed senators-elect Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), have hired former lobbyists as their chiefs of staff. Lee has hired former energy lobbyist Spencer Stokes, while Rand Paul has tapped anti-union lobbyist Douglass Stafford on board. In the House, Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.) has brought on food industry lobbyist John Billings as his chief of staff.

From the Post:

Jesse Benton, Paul's campaign manager, said that Stafford "is not a lobbyist in the sense that people think," because he worked for a conservative advocacy group, the National Right to Work Committee. His stint included guiding the group's campaign against "card check" legislation favored by unions, Benton said.

"Senator Paul wants principled people on his staff that actually care about the ideas that he's going to fight for in the U.S. Senate, and that's what Doug has done," Benton said.

"Principled" isn't generally the first word voters associate with K Street. And delving into "sense of the word" semantics isn't going to fly with tea partiers who expect Paul and others swept into to power by the movement to help clean up Washington.

But this isn't just a tea party problem. Hal "Bring Home the Bacon" Rogers (R-Ky.), the incoming chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and a notorious earmarker, is considering hiring Bill Inglee, a Lockheed Martin VP and lobbyist, as staff director for the committee. Maybe the Tea Party will give Paul and Lee a free pass this time and assume they're just following the example set by the old dogs like Rogers.

As Eggen points out, "these cases illustrate the endurance of Washington's traditional power structure, even in the wake of an election dominated by insurgent rhetoric." Looks like it's back to business as usual.

Which GOPers Backed the DREAM?

| Thu Dec. 9, 2010 11:01 AM EST

The DREAM Act passed the House last night on a 216 to 198 vote, and the bill moves on Thursday morning to the Senate, where chances look dim. More than three dozen Democrats voted against the immigrant legalization bill, but only eight Republicans voted for it—and nearly all of them were either voted out of office or are retiring. Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.), Charles Djou (R-Hawaii.), Mike Castle (R-Del.), and Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) all lost their re-election bids. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and Vern Ehlers (R-Mich.) are retiring. The only GOP members to vote for the bill who will be in the next Congress are Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, both from Florida.

The vote is just the latest indication of how much the GOP has shifted to the right, shrinking the ranks of moderate Republicans. Cao and Djou lost their seats to Democrats in the midterms, and Castle's House seat was taken over by a Democrat. Inglis, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and Ehlers all lost to right-wing tea party-backed Republicans—some of whom have even vowed to pursue a crackdown on illegal immigrants.

To be sure, there will be a few moderate Republicans in the new House, including some—like Rep.-elect Raul Labrador (R-Idaho)—who have more centrist views on immigration policy. But last night's vote makes it clear where the most of the GOP stands on the issue. And the party will have the likes of Rep. Lamar Smith, Steve King, and immigration hawk Lou Barletta to lead the charge against illegal immigration in the next Congress.

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Bloggingheads.tv: Corn Goes Soft on Tax Cuts Deal

| Thu Dec. 9, 2010 9:37 AM EST

The headline is true—sort of. After talking to senior administration officials, I gained a better perspective on how President Barack Obama came to decide in favor of the tax cuts deal that will temporarily extend the Bush breaks for the wealthy. And I note that I'm somewhat sympathetic to how he confronted that dilemma (spin works!), though I still believe his miscalculations led him (and us) to this difficult point. I explain that in my latest Bloggingheads.tv exchange with conservative Jim Pinkerton, who tries to persuade me that Republicans don't just care about tax cuts for the rich. They also want to "starve the beast," he says.) We also discuss WikiLeaks and its implications for journalism and governance.

 

Will Your Tax Cut End Up in China?

| Thu Dec. 9, 2010 7:31 AM EST

Yesterday, the US dollar rose sharply against the euro and the yen—evidence, for some, that investors believe the Obama tax deal will help revive the economy. But there are problems with that idea. The change in currency valuation was driven by a sell-off of US treasury bonds, which could also be rooted in darker fears about tax-cut-induced inflation and government debt.

Whatever's going on, one thing is clear: The tax cuts won't stop the bleeding from the US economy. The artificially low value of the yen against the dollar is already a major cause of America's $290 billion trade deficit, which is what got us into this economic mess to begin with. Writing the New York Times in September, Alan Tonelson and Kevin Kearns point out that the trade deficit:

. . .is actually a central reason why American growth has lagged and President Obama’s stimulus hasn’t led to a robust recovery: since February 2009, the government has injected $512 billion into the American economy, but during roughly the same period, the trade deficit leaked about $602 billion out of it and into foreign markets.

Consequently, a successful recovery strategy will require aggressive measures to reduce the trade deficit — including new and expanded tariffs to encourage the sale of domestic goods over imports and a serious reindustrialization policy to create the manufacturing strength to exploit these new opportunities.

Do any of those ideas have a chance in this Congress? All I know is, the price of the Chinese-made Dora the Explorer isn't going up before Christmas.

The End of Abortion Insurance?

| Thu Dec. 9, 2010 6:37 AM EST

Remember the nasty fight over federal funding of abortion that nearly derailed the health care package? It's not over.

The issue is sure to flare up again early in the next Congress in the form of a bill floated by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act." The proposal—which has the support of 185 cosponsors and incoming House Speaker John Boehner—has a stated aim of making the Hyde Amendment (a rule that has to be renewed every year that prohibits federal funding of abortions through Medicaid) into permanent, government-wide law. But abortion-rights advocates fear Smith's bill could have even broader consequences. They view it as a Trojan horse for the elimination of private insurance coverage for abortion. If they're right, tens of millions of Americans could see their health insurers stop covering abortions.

Susan Cohen, the director of governmental affairs for the pro-abortion-rights Guttmacher Foundation, argued in a policy brief this fall that "the Smith bill would go...into uncharted territory" by preventing employers from taking a tax deduction for offering an insurance plan that covered abortion. (Like most other benefits, health insurance costs are generally tax-deductible for employers.) Analysts at NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood, the leading abortion rights advocacy groups, agree. According to abortion-rights advocates, Smith's bill would create a huge incentive for employers to only offer health insurance that doesn't cover abortion. Insurers would respond to what their customers wanted, and the percentage of health plans offering abortion coverage—currently 86 percent—would undoubtedly plummet.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 9, 2010

Thu Dec. 9, 2010 5:30 AM EST

U.S. Army Cpl. Matthew Andrews, left, with the 307th Psychological Operations Company, talks with Afghan children as he walks down a street in Pul-e-Alam, Logar province, Afghanistan, Dec. 2, 2010. (U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Donald Watkins/Released)