Mojo - February 2011

GOP Floats New Version of "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion" Bill

| Mon Feb. 28, 2011 5:10 PM EST

House Republicans have dropped some controversial provisions from a bill that would permanently bar federal funding for abortions, but still plan to extend the reach of existing bans to cover tax credits and some deductions, according to a GOP memo [PDF] obtained by Mother Jones on Monday.

The "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act," sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), is designed to ensure that tax dollars do not "pay for, subsidize, encourage, or facilitate abortions," say the sponsors. But abortion rights groups have argued that the law, also known as H.R. 3, would effectively eliminate private insurance coverage for abortions by creating a strong disincentive for employers and individuals to select plans that cover those services. In turn, they argue, many insurers would likely stop offering abortion services in order to avoid losing customers.

The latest version of the Smith bill drops the attempt to redefine rape that drew considerable criticism last month. But it still makes permanent and government-wide the Hyde Amendment, a provision that has been renewed each year since 1976 that prohibits federal funding of abortions through Medicaid. It also extends that prohibition into the tax code, meaning that employers and individuals could not make use of tax credits for private insurance plans that offer abortion coverage.

H.R. 3 would also bar the use of pre-tax health accounts—like health savings accounts or medical savings accounts—for abortion services. In other words, women would not be able to make use of their own money set aside for medical purposes to obtain an abortion. And self-employed individuals, who can normally deduct medical expenses exceeding 7.5 percent of their adjusted gross income, would no longer be able to deduct the cost of health insurance that covered abortion—even if they never used that coverage.

The bill also bars the tax breaks for small businesses that were made available under last year's new health care law from being used for any health care plan that covers abortions.

The measure also codifies the so-called "conscience clause," which bars federal agencies, state or local governments, or any program funded directly or indirectly by the federal government from "discrimination on the basis that the health care entity does not provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions." It also includes a permanent prohibition on funding for abortion in international aid.

The new version of the bill does, at least, strike references to the "pregnant female" in favor of "woman." It's just a language shift, but the latter certainly gives more respect and agency to the woman rather than merely referring to her as a vessel for an unborn child. The new version also clarifies that federal funds can be used for services related to "any infection, injury, disease, or disorder that has been caused by or exacerbated by the performance of an abortion," after criticism of the previous version raised concerns that it could bar health care providers from covering any and all conditions possibly related to an abortion.

The bill is scheduled for mark-up in the House Committee on the Judiciary at 10:15 a.m. on Wednesday, March 2. (UPDATE: It was moved to 10:00 a.m. on Thursday, March 3.)

This post has been edited since it was first posted.

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Ron Paul and Herman Cain: Tea Party 2012 Dream Team

| Mon Feb. 28, 2011 1:42 PM EST

Over the weekend, the Tea Party Patriots held its first national "policy summit" in Phoenix, Arizona. The nation's largest tea party umbrella organization managed to get about 1,600 activists to show up at the Phoenix convention center to hear from a line up of B-list pundits (Dick Morris), no-name right wing pseudo-academics, and a handful of Congress's most out-there members (Rep. Louie "terror babies" Gohmert (R-Texas)). At the last minute, TPP managed to snag presidential contender and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who, according to Politico, gave a firey speech calling on tea partiers to "rise up" against the union-coddling Obama administration.

But Pawlenty's speech wasn't enough to put him over the top in the event's two straw polls, one held in person and the other online. As with so many of these conservative straw polls, the winner of the online vote was Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who also spoke at the event. But winning the in-person balloting was former Godfather pizza founder Herman Cain, who has become a regular on the tea party circuit. Tea partiers have long insisted that they aren't, as some in the media have suggested, a bunch of racists, so perhaps Cain offered them a chance to prove that there is a black man in politics they could vote for. (He got an enthusiastic response from the audience when he told stories of other African-Americans criticizing him for criticizing Obama: "Some black people can think for themselves," he declared.)

But more likely, Cain won their hearts with his tremendously funny political delivery, if not with his policy prescriptions. Cain, most recently working as a motivational speaker, riled up the crowd with talk of American exceptionalism and Gipper references. But his solutions for the nation's most urgent problems were vague, thin, and hardly original. They were essentially the fantasy of any corporate executive. He called for lowering the tax rate from 35 to 25 percent and for reducing capital gains taxes to zero. "These are not rocket science ideas," he noted.

Still, even with that thin gruel, Cain cleanly trounced both Pawlenty and Sarah Palin (who endorsed the summit but didn't attend), suggesting that tea partiers would prefer an outsider in the White House to any of the current contenders. But given that their leading preferences are Cain and Paul (a candidate whose prospects were roundly dissed by none other than Donald Trump last month), you do have to wonder how much impact the tea party may ultimately have on the 2012 election. A Cain/Paul ticket has about as much chance of winning the election as a Democratic one headed by Michael Moore and Alan Grayson. Anyway, check out Cain's speech to see the man for yourself:

 

Obama Wants to Relax Medicaid Rules—But Not Too Much

| Mon Feb. 28, 2011 1:21 PM EST

Trying to outflank a potential GOP push to gut Medicaid, President Obama announced Monday that he'll throw his weight behind a change to federal health reform that would make it easier for states to opt out of some of the new rules. Obama embraced an amendment first proposed by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.) that would allow states to petition the federal government to exempt them from some of the Medicaid requirements beginning in 2014, rather than 2017. The New York Times explains:

The legislation would allow states to opt out earlier…if they could demonstrate that other methods would allow them to cover as many people, with insurance that is as comprehensive and affordable, as provided by the new law. The changes also must not increase the federal deficit. 

If states can meet those standards, they can ask to circumvent minimum benefit levels, structural requirements for insurance exchanges and the mandates that most individuals obtain coverage and that employers provide it. 

As the Times points out, it's the first significant change to federal health reform that Obama has supported. The move is meant to address complaints from state officials that expansion of Medicaid under federal health reform and rising health care costs are killing state budgets. But it's unlikely to quell objections from both Republican governors and members of Congress, who are proposING far more radical changes to the federal health program for the country's poorest. 

While he's been pushing to curb union benefits and collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker also wants to take a buzzsaw to Medicaid—permanently. At the National Governors Association's winter meeting this weekend, Walker—the new chair of the group's health committee—said that he wanted to push for a "block grant" system for Medicaid. As I reported recently, the radical proposal would likely slash both federal and state spending on the program drastically. Other Republican governors at the meeting echoed Walker's call. And it's likely to embolden congressional Republicans who've been quietly preparing to gut the program by making it far easier for states to pare benefits and kick beneficiaries off the rolls.

Obama's proposed change, by contrast, would prohibit states from providing less comprehensive care or covering fewer people—a constraint that the GOP will certainly resist. Democrats, anticipating such objections, are already calling out the GOP for wanting to ambush the program. Asked about the GOP block grant proposal this weekend, Gov. Dan Malloy (D-Conn.) told Politico: "Look at who is asking? People who are against the program. Who is saying don't do block grants? People who support the program. The reason people who don't support the program want block grants is they want to kill the program."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 28, 2011

Mon Feb. 28, 2011 6:30 AM EST

A Paratrooper from 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, returns fire on the opposing force during the Joint Operation Access Exercise, Feb. 15. Photo via US Army
 

Corn on "Hardball": More Gunplay From the GOP

Fri Feb. 25, 2011 8:40 PM EST

David Corn and Brian Levin joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss Rep. Paul Broun's non-condemnation of a constituent's question about shooting President Obama and the GOP's continued use of gunplay in their political rhetoric even after the Giffords shooting.

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

Gov. Walker Played Political Chicken With Public Jobs

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 5:13 PM EST
Flickr/WisPolitics.com

For the past week, Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker has wielded the threat of statewide layoffs if his controversial "budget repair bill" isn't passed immediately. He's said that as many as 1,500 state workers—teachers, nurses, janitors, bureaucrats, and more—could lose their jobs by July if the 14 Senate Democrats in hiding didn't return so the Senate could vote on the bill. But while Walker casts the current layoffs as a purely fiscal issue, he's used the threat of job losses before as political leverage, playing chicken with the livelihoods of public workers.

In the fall of 2009, Milwaukee County's budget was in bad shape. Facing a $3 million deficit, Walker, then the county executive, went looking for places to cut. In late October, he announced plans to axe 180 county workers by Thanksgiving as a way to balance the budget. With the year drawing to a close, Walker argued, the only way to solve Milwaukee County's financial headache was layoffs.

Not long after, though, county department chiefs returned to Walker with promises to save up to a million dollars through non-employee cuts of their own. Just as soon as he'd announced that pink slips were going out, Walker backed off. No one was getting laid off, he announced.

But here's the kicker: In an interview a few days after backing down, Walker told a Madison radio station that the layoff threat was merely a ploy. "I needed to get their attention to show how serious we were about having a balanced budget," Walker said on the "Sly in the Morning" show on WTDY radio.

Graeme Zielinski, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said Walker has played political games like this for "his entire career."

"He's played games with people's livelihoods, oftentimes with zero reason," Zielinski says. "He kicks around the less fortunate, and this time he's kicking aorund the working people in this state."

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The Week in Sharia: Obama's Extremely Covert Plan

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 4:26 PM EST

One thing led to another:

  • New Hampshire heard arguments from citizens about a bill to ban gay marriage. Concerned citizen Howard Kaufman took to the floor of the state house to float the second-wackiest conspiracy theory of the week: Gay marriage is a secret gateway to Islamic law.
  • The wackiest conspiracy of the week? That belongs Avi Lipkin, an American-born Israeli who revealed (scoop!) that President Obama is pushing for amnesty for undocumented residents as part of a secret plot to flood the nation with 100 million Muslims. As MoJo's David Corn explains, the plan is to "turn this country into an Islamic nation by the end of his second term." And the United Nations is in on it!
  • The American Bar Association is in on it, too.
  • At a town hall meeting in Pompano Beach, Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) was asked by the director of CAIR's South Florida chapter why he thinks Islam is so horrible. West, who's been floated as a vice presidential candidate, responded: "I've been on the battlefield, my friend. Don't try to blow sunshine up my butt and tell me it's warm and fuzzy." Which is gross.
  • West appeared on Fox and Friends to explain what he meant on Wednesday, and, after first labeling Muslims "an enemy,"warned that he would not tolerate being portrayed as an "enemy of Islam." Because seriously, where did anyone get that idea?
  • A Texas man who set fire to the playground of an Arlington Islamic center last July pled guilty to federal hate crime charges.
  • Tennessee has already banned Islamic law. But just in case they missed something the first time around, Volunteer State lawmakers are going to try to do it again. A proposed bill before the state legislature would make "material support" for Islamic law punishable by 15 years in prison. Per the bill, "The knowing adherence to sharia and to foreign sharia authorities is prima facie evidence of an act in support of the overthrow of the United States government." Among the ways you can show adherence to Sharia: getting married, not robbing banks.

What’s Happening With China’s Jasmine Revolution?

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 3:30 PM EST

Since an anonymous tweet called for peaceful public gatherings in more than a dozen cities across China on February 20, many in and outside the country are offering their two cents about what to make of last Sunday's events, dubbing them the Jasmine Revolution or Jasmine Rallies. The so-called protests didn't escalate beyond the large roaming crowd that formed in front of a McDonald's in Beijing's Wangfujing, a major retail shopping district. But whatever started on Sunday isn't over yet. So, if you've been preoccupied with the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and even Wisconsin, read on to get up to speed about what's happening in China. And stay tuned for further updates.

Why is it called the Jasmine Revolution/Rallies? The term borrows from the pro-democracy protests that broke out in Tunisia last month, which some called the Jasmine Revolution, a play on the "color revolutions" that took hold in Eastern Europe in the early 2000s.

How did it begin? The first tweet calling for protests in China seems to have been posted around February 15. According to the Beijing-based technology blogger Jason Ng, the tweet came from the username Shudong, and said that at 2:00 p.m. CET on February 20, "every large city in China would be conducting a Jasmine Revolution, the details of which would later be posted on a certain website." (This anonymous account has since been deleted. China Digital Times has the full post translated into English.) Early Saturday morning, the US-based Chinese news portal Boxun.com received an anonymous report detailing where the protests would take place the next day and published the information. By 9:00 a.m., the site was attacked. Later that night in China tweets with the hashtag #cn220 reposted the Boxun report, alerting journalists and policemen alike.

What actually happened on Sunday in China? Was there a protest? It's hard to say. In Beijing, by most accounts, many people who showed up for the protest were foreign journalists along with uniformed and plainclothes Chinese police. If protesters were present, it was almost impossible to discern them from the usual throng of pedestrians strolling through Wangfujing. (See photos taken from the scene here and here.) Blogger Charles Custer of ChinaGeeks, who arrived at the scene around 1:40 p.m. to see what was happening, noted the ambiguous "revolutionary" atmosphere because even though a dense crowd formed, no one seemed to actually be protesting. Peter Foster's account in The Telegraph largely agrees with this. The crowd grew denser after busloads of police showed up. One video shows Jon Huntsman, the soon-to-resign US ambassador to China, in the masses donning sunglasses. Wall Street Journal reporters at the scene recounted his cameo. (An embassy spokesman later stated that his family happened to be strolling through the area at the time.) Sinocentric and Transpacifica (h/t Alex Pasternack) translated two different accounts by two young Chinese witnesses: In the first account it's clear that some were there to protest but pretended otherwise, and that some even had prepared banners but did not unfurl them; the second one is less explicit. Still, as the New York Times and Time reported over the weekend, a handful of protesters were in fact present, albeit quiet. One person who tried to place a jasmine flower in front of McDonald's was immediately stopped by the police. In the end, at least four suspected protesters were arrested, but there wasn't any violence besides some shoving and pushing. Media also cited heavy police presence in the southern coastal cities of Shanghai, Hangzhou, and other cities, in which smaller crowds gathered.

Gov. Scott Walker's Flip-Flops on Late-Night Votes

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 12:33 PM EST
Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker. Andy Kroll.

It took a sneak attack in the early morning hours on Friday for Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly to pass Gov. Scott Walker's controversial budget bill, the one that would eliminate collective bargaining rights for most public-sector unions. Assembly Democrats savaged their counterparts for ramming the bill through at just past 1 a.m., screaming "shame!" and branding them "cowards." But if anyone asks Walker about the GOP's late-night tactic, he'll find himself in a tough spot: he's blatantly flip-flopped on the issue throughout his career.

On the campaign trail in 2010, Walker, then a gubernatorial candidate, disavowed late-night votes by Wisconsin lawmakers. At the time, the Assembly was pulling all-nighters in order to finish its two-year legislative session, a common occurrence that's angered government watchdogs who don't approve of state business conducted when most people are asleep. In April 2010, Walker pledged to outlaw any votes in the legislature after 10 p.m. and before 9 a.m. "I have two teenagers and I tell them that nothing good happens after midnight. That’s even more true in politics," he said in a statement. "The people of Wisconsin deserve to know what their elected leaders are voting on."

A decade or so earlier, however, Walker took the exact opposite position. As an Assembly member representing Wauwatosa, a suburb of Milwaukee, Walker voted to eliminate an 8 p.m. legislative cutoff for the Assembly's 1997 session, the Associated Press reported. He also opposed an amendment offered by Democrats to reinstate the 8 p.m. cutoff.

What Will the Senate Dems Cut?

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 11:14 AM EST

Faced with the looming prospect of a government shutdown, Senate Democrats are scrambling to put together their own spending plan for the remaining seven months of the year. Republicans only need four Democratic Senators to defect for them to pass the House GOP's budget bill, which includes a whopping $61 billion in cuts. Senate Dems, however, are trying to outflank them by putting together their own budget to fund the government for the remainder of 2011.  

Senate Dems are aiming to craft a short-term budget bill to satisfy moderates without enraging liberals—legislation that must be passed before March 4, when the government runs out of money. Democrats are reportedly going to propose some $41 billion in cuts "to avoid the blame if the government shuts down, showing that they are willing to compromise—unlike their adversaries," Politico's Manu Raju reports

The bulk of the cuts—$33 billion in total—will follow recommendations that Obama had put in the 2012 budget, with an addition $8.5 billion in earmark spending. But it's unclear exactly which programs the Senate Democrats will choose to target, as Obama's own budget contained some proposals unpopular with his own party, Raju explains. Will the Senate follow Obama's cut to low-income heating assistance, risking liberal rage? Or risk pushback from coal-heavy state legislators by cutting subsidies to the industry? 

One thing's for sure, though: Senate Democrats aren't going to touch funding for health-care reform. According to Senate aides, "that means no defunding of the health care law, and no defunding of Planned Parenthood either."