Mojo - January 2011

Corn on "Hardball": Birthers Touch Down in Arizona

Mon Jan. 31, 2011 7:24 PM EST

David Corn and Howard Fineman joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss the latest birther tactics, this time a birther bill in the Arizona State House of Representatives that would require "an original long form birth certificate that includes the date and place of birth, the names of the hospital and the attending physician and signatures of the witnesses in attendance."

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

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Should Health Reform Supporters Worry about the Vinson Ruling?

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 6:40 PM EST

Florida Federal Judge Roger Vinson has ruled that the federal health reform law is unconstitutional, as many observers had expected. The Ronald Reagan appointee ruled that the law's individual mandate violated the Constitution's commerce clause, much as Virginia Federal Judge Henry Hudson argued in December. But Vinson went significantly farther than Hudson by saying striking down the entire law—not just the individual mandate—arguing that the provision couldn't be "severed" from the rest of the law. (Talking Points Memo's Brian Beutler explains why a legal omission on the Democrats' part opened the way for this "severability" argument, potentially imperiling the entire law by way of the mandate.)

What does this really mean for the fate of reform? I'll leave the legal intricacies of Vinson's ruling to others, but I'd sum it up by saying: it's not a great development for the supporters of reform and could render the entire law more vulnerable, but it doesn't really do much to change the state of play. Vinson didn't stop the implementation of reform, which will continue to proceed as planned. As The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn points out, the score is now even in terms of rulings on the federal law—with two federal judges ruling against it and two other judges ruling in favor of it—"while about a dozen more have dismissed lawsuits without even hearing it."

The final word still lies with the Supreme Court, just as before. Vinson's ruling could convince the court to take up the case sooner than later, but it could still be well after 2012 before the Justices do so. The Republican attorneys general who brought the lawsuit wanted an unabashedly right-wing judge to rule on the case, so they deliberately filed in a very conservative jurisdiction of the state. Vinson delivered. In his ruling, he embraced tea party-style arguments that the mandate could create a slippery slope that would allow Congress to "require that people buy and consume broccoli at regular intervals," and he even cited the Boston Tea Party in his ruling.

Such a legal precedent could give the conservative justices more motivation to tear down the entire law, not just the individual mandate, using the same "severability" argument. But in the end, the fate of reform still lies in the hands of Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court's key swing vote, who hasn't given many hints about which way he might be leaning. And the Florida ruling hasn't done much to change that equation.

African Refugees in Egypt Sit Out the Protests

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 6:38 PM EST

As millions of protesters from diverse political and socio-economic backgrounds take to the Egyptian streets, African migrants from Sudan and elsewhere are holing up inside their homes. I called a few of them to find out why.

"I don't know any Sudanese who are participating," said Abdel Raheem, a 28-year-old Sudanese Cairo resident. "I saw on the news that people are being arrested. For someone who's not Egyptian, this would be really bad."

S.H., a Somali refugee in Cairo who asked that only his initials be used, agreed. "I'm not in a position to speak for the whole Somali community, but I have called some of my close friends, and everyone is staying home and watching the situation closely," he told me. "They wouldn't be safe."

An estimated 2-3 million migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers now live in Egypt—and they have good reason to fear the Egyptian authorities. The last time they banded together to gain greater freedoms, they were rewarded with lethal suppression.

In late September 2005, approximately 3,000 mostly Sudanese migrants and their supporters set up a makeshift tent camp outside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees building in Cairo. For three months, they called on the UNHCR to resettle them in other countries. They also protested their frequent harassment and imprisonment by the Egyptian police, and demanded access to public schools and health care, as well as the right to work legally in Egypt.

On December 30, 2005, the Mubarak government crushed this peaceful sit-in demonstration. About 4,000 Egyptian police encircled the camp, fired water cannons into the crowd, dragged women by their hair, and beat people indiscriminately, according to media reports. More than 2,000 protesters were arrested and at least 27 migrants, including one toddler, were killed in what the Egyptian Interior Ministry alleged was a "stampede." Only after the aggressive intervention of the UNHCR and human rights organizations did the Mubarak government rescind its plans to deport 645 of the detained people as "illegal immigrants."

The Mubarak government's repression of African migrants has escalated ever since. According to a 2008 Human Rights Watch report, Egyptian border authorities implemented a policy of "shoot-to-stop" in the remote border zones. In a two-year period, thirty-three Israel-bound migrants—including young children—were shot and killed by Egyptian security forces.

In addition to their well-founded fears of being killed, arrested, or deported, migrants are also avoiding participation in this week's pro-democracy demonstrations because they feel no sense of "Egyptian" identity.  Egyptian civilians have ostracized them with racist names like "samara" meaning black, "funga monga" meaning monkey, or "abit" meaning slave.

"The protests are a sacrifice for the Egyptian people—it's not for us. It's not our nation." Abdel Raheem said.

While refugees hope that the protests will bring a new government that is more sympathetic to their plight, they harbor grave concerns that, in the short term, Egypt will descend into chaos.

"I think the refugees are not excited about the protests," said S.H., a Somali refugee who cautiously ventured outside on Sunday to watch the demonstrations from a safe distance. "Refugees are running from turmoil and unrest. They came here for protection."

He added sadly, "[Refugees] know what can happen when things get out of control."

House Dems' Plan: Play Hardball!

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 11:58 AM EST

Now that they're in the minority, House Democrats are trying to devise the best ways to force tough votes on their Republican colleagues. Even before the start of the new Congress, liberal House members promised to be aggressive in the minority, as Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) told me directly after the Democrats' shellacking in November. House Democrats tell Roll Call about one strategy they're particularly keen on using—a procedural maneuver called the "motion to recommit," which essentially allows them to tack on an amendment-like provision to each piece of legislation before final passage. While Republicans have frequently used such tactics when they've been in the minority, Democrats haven't always seized upon such opportunities. Now party leaders like Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) say it's time to play tough:

So far, Democrats have offered four such motions this Congress: a proposal to require Members to publicly disclose whether they will accept government health insurance, a measure barring a health care repeal bill from taking effect unless a majority of lawmakers forfeit their government-sponsored health insurance, a proposal to bar companies that outsource jobs from obtaining government contracts and a proposal to require disclosure of foreign campaign contributors….

Israel acknowledged that Democrats are attempting to mimic the strategy that Republicans used when they were in the minority for the past four years…."The Republican playbook when they were in the minority had three chapters: Chapter 1, go on offense; Chapter 2, just say no; and Chapter 3, don’t lift a finger to help,” Israel said. The only chapter in their playbook that I will use is Chapter 1. We will be aggressive, and we will be on offense."

The hope is that the tactics will force Republicans to take politically tough votes, giving the Democrats more ammunition when it comes to 2012. But it's unclear how effective the tactic will be, as even some Republicans say it may have limited long-term political traction—and point out that more conservative Dems, like Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) have voted against three of the four Motions to Recommit that the Dems have offered up so far.

What's more, Republicans are also promising to turn the tables on the Democrats by forcing tough, largely symbolic votes. On the health care front, for example, they've countered the Democrats' effort to push for votes on the most popular provisions of reform by vowing to force tough votes for more conservative Dems—like on health reform's taxes on device manufacturers, for example. While the predominantly liberal caucus of House Democrats won't bat an eye at such votes, they may leave the moderates in the Senate—many of whom are up for re-election in 2012—in the hot seat. So while House Democrats may be eager to play hardball in the minority, the game is not without its risks.

Lamar Smith Nixes Gun Safety Hearings

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 11:22 AM EST

For gun rights advocates, plans to push for new gun control laws in the wake of the Tucson shootings smack of political opportunism. A top House Republican, meanwhile, has spiked the idea of even holding hearings on gun safety issues, claiming they could unfairly bias the jury in the trial of alleged shooter Jared Loughner.

Politico reports that Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and the 15 other Democrats on the House Judiciary committee sent a letter on Friday to committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) requesting hearings on gun-safety issues related to the tragedy that killed six and wounded 14 others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).

Democrats like Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), who's introduced a gun safety bill, want to see the ban on high-capacity clips restored (supposedly a priority for the Obama administration). If still in place, the ban might have lessened the scale of the tragedy in Tucson. Democrats have also suggested that the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which includes records for felons, the mentally ill, and drug users, is missing some 1.6 million names, and needs a serious overhaul.

In the letter, the Democrats write:

We fully recognize and appreciate the sensitivity of the subjects raised by the recent tragedy in Tucson in which our colleague, Gabrielle Giffords, was shot and eighteen other were wounded or killed, including members of her staff, a Federal judge, and several other citizens. However, we also believe it is not only possible, but imperative that Congress review the relevant issues in a civil and objective [manner].

Loughner is widely assumed to suffer from mental problems. Smith told Politico that that holding hearings before his trial could have the "unintended effect of prejudicing the ongoing criminal proceedings," and points out that Loughner hasn't yet been found to be mentally ill. Holding hearings on the NICS "that presume otherwise," he says, is inappropriate.

Pawlenty: Yes, Bachmann Can!

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 10:27 AM EST

Did Republican presidential aspirant Tim Pawlenty just nudge Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) one step closer to the 2012 presidential election? During a visit to Iowa on Sunday, Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, sung the praises of Bachmann, the far-right congresswoman who heads the tea party caucus in Congress. Fielding questions as he signed copies of his new book, Courage to Stand, at a Family Christian bookstore, Pawlenty said, "Congresswoman Bachmann is someone I have a cordial and positive relationship with. I don't know if she's going to run for president. If she does run, she’ll be a strong candidate."

Bachmann appears to agree with Pawlenty's assessment. After all, she recently headlined a 300-person reception in Des Moines hosted by Iowans for Tax Relief. And on that same trip Bachmann met with powerful Iowa Republicans, including Governor Terry Branstad and Kraig Paulsen, the Iowa state House Speaker. These kinds of meetings strongly suggest Bachmann is developing a strategy for the 2012 Iowa caucuses, the opening battle in every presidential race.

Pawlenty's praise for Bachmann comes as no surprise. While Pawlenty appeals to a broader, more moderate Republican base, he doesn't have the kind of support in tea party circles that Bachmann or Sarah Palin do, the latter being a potential 2012 candidate Pawlenty has previously lauded. The former Minnesota governor could just be currying favor, trying to lock up Bachmann's support should she decide not to run or drop out of the race. He also could be making a play at landing Bachmann as a potential running mate, which would expand his pool of supporters. Either way, Pawlenty knows that, heading in the 2012 campaign, his odds at winning the White House only improve if he's got Michele Bachmann on his side.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 31, 2011

Mon Jan. 31, 2011 6:30 AM EST

An Iraqi Army tanker with the 9th Armored Division drives an M1A1 Abrams tank under the instruction of Soldiers with Company C, 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Advise and Assist Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, United States Division-Center Jan. 16 at Camp Taji, Iraq. The IA tankers are preparing for a 45-day New Equipment Operator’s Course this spring at the Besmaya Combat Training Center, Iraq. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Chad Menegay, 196th MPAD, 25th Inf. Div., USD-C

Egypt: "I Saw an Old Woman Shot in the Face"

| Sun Jan. 30, 2011 2:43 PM EST

EDITOR'S NOTE: For more on the situation in Egypt, check out our up-to-the-minute coverage.

"Can you imagine what it feels like to have a black cloak drawn over the country and everything is cut off?" Laura* asks me. She's stuck in her apartment in Cairo, and finally cell phones are working again, for now. I got through to her twice on Saturday, and she's been filling me in on what it's like to be a foreigner in the city. She's grateful to have phone service again, because on Friday, that means of communication had effectively vanished. "You couldn't call anyone. You couldn't access the internet; everything was just shut off."

Laura, one of my best friends, has been in Egypt for less than a month. After spending nearly two years traveling around West Africa, she was looking forward to a calmer existence in cosmopolitan Cairo, where she'd be working with refugees. Then, shortly after she moved there, the protests began and chaos erupted. When I spoke with her on Saturday, she described the scene on the ground: "I'm looking out my balcony and it's gotten to this point where police are basically gone, the military is guarding the square and certain ministries, but there are just thugs and bandits in the streets with guns, and a lot of looting is happening."

"I have a bag at the door with a passport and some water in it in case we have to run. I don't want to be alarmist, but things are deteriorating very quickly.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's attempts to suppress protesters by cutting off internet and cell phone service only seems to be making the situation worse. Thousands continue to defy the police, ignore the imposed curfew, and rally to demand that the current regime step down. And sadly, in some cases the protestors have been met with brutality. "I saw an old woman shot in the face yesterday," Laura tells me.

 Even worse, police seem to be shooting people and then beating them afterwards.

We were walking along the Kornish next to the Nile, and we saw these people on the bridge, not even protesting, just looking at what's going on. Police trucks—not military, but police, there's a distinction because they're not necessarily working together—went across the bridge and opened fire on people standing there. Then there were these plain-clothed police—that's the scariest thing, is that they've hired thugs who are dressed in normal clothes and carry canes to beat people—going up onto the bridge and taking them down off the bridge and beating them. Because if you've been shot, that's evidence you're a protester, so therefore you need to be beaten.

Laura and her friend saw a young woman who'd been grazed by a bullet caught amidst a frenzy of canes. They grabbed her and dragged her away from the mob. "We had to link arms with her and walk her through these checkpoints so she would stop being beaten," Laura explains. "It's so fucking unreal. I don't know what's going on."

On Friday afternoon, Laura and her friend made a trip to the American Embassy, just blocks away from Laura's apartment, to register in case anything happened to them. When they got there, a curfew had just been declared and they were forced to spend the night. During their stay, the Embassy came under attack, and it was rumored that a group of looters stole armored Embassy vehicles. 

Now back at her apartment in the relatively calm Garden City neighborhood, Laura can do little but peer out from her balcony at an apocalyptic city echoing with gunshots. "We keep looking outside and seeing these men walking around with sticks, and we assume they're defending the neighborhood. But no one knows who anyone is."

I talked to Laura again a little later, around 3 AM on Sunday morning, and she sounded like herself again; sense of humor intact. She said the men wandering the streets below were her neighbors on a make-shift patrol, trying to maintain order since the police had fled. "The men downstairs have swords, but they're eating yogurt," she tells me, laughing a little. "One guy on the corner has an AK-47."

Every so often, she hears tanks rambling down the Kornish, a street running parallel to the Nile about a block away. Her neighbors have moved big flowerpots in a maze-like pattern on her street so that cars won't be able to zoom through very quickly. And even though tension is high and drama continues to unfold around them, life for those not directly involved in the protests is, for now, a waiting game. The American Embassy has encouraged those with "their own means of transportation" to leave the city, but so far have ordered no emergency evacuations for US citizens.

"I have a bag at the door with a passport and some water in it in case we have to run,"  Laura tells me. "I don't want to be alarmist, but things are deteriorating very quickly. It's probably fine, probably nothing's going to happen to me. But at the same time, no one expected any of this to happen."

*Name has been changed for safety reasons. 

Interview: Two Israelis on Joining the Protests in Egypt

| Sat Jan. 29, 2011 1:50 PM EST

As pro-democracy protests erupt across Egypt and threaten to end the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak, two Israeli women are following the news with particularly personal zeal: After all, they participated in this week's demonstrations against the autocrat.

Hagar Sheizaf and Bar Rose were touring Egypt on their way to "see some mummies" at the Egyptian Museum when the first protests broke out. As they joined the ever-growing crowd—and later fled in terror from rubber bullets and water cannons— they felt "envy" for the courage, diversity, and unity they witnessed.

"For me, it was one of the scariest moments of my life," Sheizaf, 20, said in a phone interview from Israel, where she and Rose returned on Thursday. "But I felt very, very proud—if I may feel proud for the Egyptian people….It's so courageous to stand up like this. I can only hope that, in Israel, people will do the same one day." (Sheizaf and Rose are Palestinian solidarity activists.)

Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, and President Hosni Mubarak has collaborated closely with Israel and the United States on security issues. However, sympathy for the Palestinians, and rage at Israel's 43-year occupation of the Palestinian territories, runs deep in Egypt. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs issues frequent travel warnings that militant Islamists seek to kidnap Israeli tourists in the Sinai peninsula.

Many Israelis would consequently think Sheizaf and Rose were reckless to go to Egypt in the first place—and especially to share their Israeli nationality with the demonstrators. Yet Sheizaf and Rose dismiss these fears. Rose says, "We just said to people, 'Ok, so we are Israelis. We are from the people and our government is not representing our personal opinions.'"

One conversation about Israeli politics with three Egyptian medical students left a particularly strong impression on Sheizaf. The medical students earned about 300 Egyptian pounds per month ($51), and came to the demonstrations to protest the economic crisis and Mubarak's repressive government. When the students asked about democracy in Israel, Sheizaf told them about the Israeli parliament's decision to investigate the funding sources of Israeli human rights organizations—to which one of the students replied, "'Ah, Lieberman's law!'" (Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister, is the main backer of the legislation.)

"I was really surprised that they actually know and read about the situation in Israel, and that they know the names of our politicians," Sheizaf recalls. "My experience of telling people I'm from Israel was very positive…I told lots of people I'm Israeli. I didn't get one negative response."

Since returning to Israel, Sheizaf and Rose have fretted about the safety of their Egyptian friends, co-authored a 972 Magazine article about their experiences in Egypt, and fielded skeptical questions from the Israeli media. A journalist from Israeli Army Radio opened her interview with Rose by stating matter-of-factly that it's hard to be an Israeli in Egypt.

"I just answered her that it's hard to be a human being in these demonstrations, regardless of your nationality," Rose says. "I felt real solidarity with the Egyptian people, and [the Israeli Army radio reporter] described it like I should be scared of them."

She wasn't.

The Week in Sharia: Mama Grizzly Edition

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 8:34 PM EST

Before it's too late:

  • Legislators in Wyoming, South Carolina, and Arkansas introduced proposals to ban Islamic Law from state courts, bringing the total number of states that have moved on the issue to 11. Of note: State rep. Gerald Gay, who introduced the Wyoming measure, ran for office last fall on a platform of shooting abstract theories with high-powered weaponry; the Arkansas bill, meanwhile, was sponsored by state senator Cecile Bledsoe, who you may remember as one of Sarah Palin's "Mama Grizzlies."
  • Could you be eating meat sacrificed to idols and not even know it? Our friends at WorldNetDaily raise that exact concern in an article about halal foods that reprises last year's freakout over Campbell's Soup: "It could be on your pizza without you knowing it, or at your favorite restaurant. People don't realize they could be eating meat sacrificed to idols!" Also on your pizza: Lots and lots of bugs.
  • Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), who has stated previously that Islam is not a religion, told a South Florida talk show that Muslim Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) "really does represent the antithesis of the principles upon which this country was established"—but he won't back down. "You've got to be able to defeat them intellectually in debate and discourse, and you just have to be able to challenge each and every one of their assertions very wisely and very forthright." You can't blink, Charlie!
  • The Temecula, California, city council gave a unanimous thumbs-up to a proposed Islamic community center in the city. Last summer, mosque opponents protested the project with dogs, because Muslims "hate dogs."
  • and finally...we missed this last week, but Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, "terror baby" whistleblower, says he wants his House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security to hold hearings on the impending threat of Sharia law. Perhaps Steve Emerson, the anti-Islam activist spurned by Rep. Peter King's radicalization hearings, will have his moment in the spotlight after all?