House Speaker John Boehner has promised that GOP will tackle entitlement reform in the near future, despite the political perils of doing so. "I think it's incumbent on us, if we are serious about dealing with the big challenges, that we go out and help Americans understand how big the problem is that faces us," he told the Wall Street Journal. In the meantime, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) has also been banging the drum on the issue once again, vowing to pursue his plan to "voucherize" Medicare and privatize the system. 

But will the GOP really follow through on its pledge to go after Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, given the widespread popularity of such programs? Despite talking up the issue on Thursday, Boehner has also privately pushed President Obama to go first in putting a reform proposal forward. Boehner assured the White House that he'll stop House Republicans from attacking any Obama entitlement reform proposal—and that "he will stand-by-side with him to weather the strong political backlash," according to The Hill. While the words may seem welcoming, Boehner is also pressuring Obama to go first on entitlement reform. But since the White House has promised not to touch Social Security or gut Medicare, Boehner's remarks could also be a political ploy to make it seem like the GOP is serious about entitlement reform—without having to commit to a serious proposal.

That being said, there's one entitlement program that's far more vulnerable than the others: Medicaid. While Social Security and Medicare have long been untouchable, given the political perils of going after older Americans' benefits, Republicans have already indicated that they're eager to undermine the government's health care program for the poor. As I reported this week, Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-Wash.)—the fourth-ranking House Republican—is already working on a proposal to make it easier for states to slash Medicaid spending. 

Politically speaking, it's easier for the GOP, especially, to go after Medicaid, as the program predominantly serves poor, minority voters, as opposed to senior citizens, a key demographic for Republicans. What's more, Republicans have a chorus of governors from both parties to back them up, given the widespread complaints about Medicaid's burden on strapped state budgets. And while the public opposes entitlement cuts overall, Medicaid is the least popular of the big three. While 70 to 25 percent oppose cutting Social Security and 72 to 25 percent oppose cutting Medicare, a smaller 59 to 37 percent oppose cutting Medicaid, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll

Bottom line: while the GOP may hold off going after Social Security and Medicare, they have a real opportunity to go after Medicaid—and they've already placed the program in their sights.

Courtesy of the Texas Nationalist MovementCourtesy of the Texas Nationalist MovementIf you can't make it to SXSW, here's the next best thing: The Texas Nationalist Movement, which is exactly what it sounds like, will be holding a rally tomorrow in front of the state capitiol in Austin to push for a referendum on secession from the United States.

As with any half-decent declaration of independence, the group's resolution has a list of grievances: Specifically, the federal government has failed the protect its borders, and "implemented thousands of laws, mandates and agencies in violation of the United States Constitution that have invaded the sovereignty of the State of Texas."

But wait: This story actually gets stranger. As the Houston Press reported, the Texas Nationalist Movement's secession rally is being sponsored by none other than state Rep. Leo Berman. You may remember Berman as the man who introduced a bill to force the President of the United States to prove his citizenship (again), and, when asked for proof, cited YouTube videos he'd seen because, "YouTubes are infallible." He's also sponsoring a bill to save state courts from the scourge of Islamic Sharia law.

So why is a state legislator promoting a secession rally? The Press caught up with Berman, who explained that while he "very strongly" does not support secession (statehouse rallies need a legislative sponsor), he doesn't think it's such a terrible idea either:

He says he has "no qualms" about supporting a secession rally. Is there any group out there whose message is so far out, so radical and dangerous that he would refuse to be a legislative sponsor for them?

"I'm very, very, very strongly pro-life," he says. "So I would not support an abortion-type rally."

Man's got to stand for something.

Support for secession has a long and rich history in the Lone Star State. According to a 2009 poll, 48 percent of Texas Republicans agreed that the state "would be better off as an independent nation." That came after GOP Governor Rick Perry told reporters at a tea party in Austin that if the federal government didn't change its ways, secession might be an option. And in 2009, a Kerr County resident was arrested for claiming to be a sheriff's deputy for the "Republic of Texas." For more, check out our interactive map on US secession movements.

Also of note: Although the group's poster features a severely mutton-chopped Sam Houston calling for Texas independence, the real Sam Houston famously took an unpopular stand against Texas secession on the eve of the Civil War. As he put it: "The Union is worth more than Mr. Lincoln. I was denounced then. I am denounced now. Be it so!"

U.S. Army Sgt. Cullen Wurzer scans a nearby mountain range during a search of the Qual-e Jala village, in Afghanistan, Feb. 21, 2011. Wurzer is assigned to the 34th Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Squadron, 113th Cavalry Regiment, Task Force Redhorse. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Ashlee Lolkus

Earlier today, Siddhartha Mahanta and I broke the story that the Monitor Group, a Harvard-tied consulting firm in Boston, recruited (and on some occasions) paid prominent academics to visit Libya in 2006 and 2007 and meet with dictator Muammar Qaddafi as part of a campaign to rehabilitate the autocrat's image. (At the time, Qaddafi was signaling he might be interested in reforming his rogue-ish ways.) The Monitor's $3 million project, as we reported, yielded pro-Qaddafi stories in The New Republic, The Guardian, Newsweek International, The Washington Post, and other publications. (The firm also proposed writing a pro-Qaddafi book for a $1.65 million fee.)

We also reported several days ago that Monitor conducted research for a PhD dissetation written for the London School of Economics by Saif Qaddafi, a son of the Libyan autocrat. Initially, Monitor would not discuss the specifics of its work for Libya, and it released a brief statement saying, "Our work was focused on helping the Libyan people work towards an improved economy and more open governmental institutions."

After our latest Monitor story was published this morning, the firm sent out a more elaborate statement:

Our work was aimed at two primary outcomes—substantive improvement of the country's economic performance in the global economy, and therefore the prosperity of its citizens; and accelerated modernization and increased openness of government institutions and governance models.

The vast majority of our paid work related to the provision of two main services. First, a detailed and comprehensive analysis of the Libyan economy and identification of and plans for potential sources of competitive and comparative advantage for the country's future. Second, in-depth training in management and leadershp for several hundred high-potential leaders, drawn from many sectors. We undertook these efforts in good conscience within the then climate of optimisim for the country's future, and firmly believe that this was responsible and appropriate activity at that time.

During the same period Monitor also accessed its extensive network of political and social thought leaders representing a broad array of perspectives (some of them well known figures whose names have been mentioned in multiple media sources recently) and oversaw their introduction to the leaders of Libya, including Muammar Gaddafi.

The purpose of these visits and conversations was to facilitate, inform and speed up the processes of reform and modernization which were so clearly required—and, we believed at the time, possible. We also believed that these visits could boost global receptivity for Mr. Gaddafi's stated intention to move the country more towards the West and open up to the rest of the world. Sadly, it is now clear that we, along with many others, misjudged that possibility.

In the course of our work in Libya, and in the spirit of enabling the country's reintegration with the global community, we at one point proposed to help write a book representing the views of Mr. Gaddafi. During subsequent discussions regarding this proposal it became clear to us that it was a serious mistake on our part, and the work did not proceed. We sincerely regret having initiated this suggestion, and readily acknowledge it was a poor decision.

As acknowledged in his final thesis, Monitor also provided research support to Saif Gaddafi in the production of his London School of Economics PhD dissertation. We now regret our involvement in this work which we acknowledge was ill-considered.

The statement does contain what appears to be genuine regret. But it sidesteps a key part of the story: the group's PR campaign for Qaddafi. The consulting firm may well have devoted much time to economic-related projects in Libya, but it also mounted projects specifically designed to clean up Qaddafi's image. As we reported, the firm's goal, according to its own internal documents, was

to produce a makeover for Libya and to introduce Qaddafi "as a thinker and intellectual, independent of his more widely-known and very public persona as the Leader of the Revolution in Libya." In a July 3, 2006, letter to its contact in the Libyan government, Mark Fuller, the CEO of Monitor, and Rajeev Singh-Molares, a director of the firm, wrote,

Libya has suffered from a deficit of positive public relations and adequate contact with a wide range of opnion-leaders and contemporary thinkers. This program aims to redress the balance in Libya's favor.

The key strategy for achieving these aims, the operation summary said, "involves introducing to Libya important international figures that will influence other nations' policies towards the country."...[O]ne primary outcome of Monitor's pro-Qaddafi endeavors, the operation summary said, was an increase in media coverage "broadly positive and increasingly sensitive to the Libyan point of view."

Monitor's mea culpa is limited, with the group trying to depict its Libyan endeavor as geared toward economic development and reform. Its latest statement says, "Monitor believes that the vast majority of our work in and for Libya was appropriate and responsible; but we did make mistakes." Perhaps another one is not fully acknowledging that it pocketed millions of dollars for selling Qaddafi to the West.

The White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy is no more. Carol Browner, who served as the special adviser to President Obama on the subject, has officially departed a little more than a month after announcing her resignation. And on Wednesday, the White House announced that the climate and energy work would move under the umbrella of the Domestic Policy Council.

Melody Barnes, the director of the Domestic Policy Council, will officially oversee Browner's former team.

Heather Zichal, who served as Browner's deputy in the climate office, will continue as deputy assistant to the president and take the lead on climate and energy policy work. Zichal was Obama's top campaign adviser on climate and energy and has a background of working as an adviser to key congressional leaders on this issue, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

All this news answers the lingering question about what would happen after Browner's departure. It's not really a huge shift. Including the climate office in the larger domestic portfolio makes substantive sense—particularly when a comprehensive climate and energy bill isn't going to happen in the next two years, anyway. Republicans maligned Browner as an unappointed "czar" and attempted to defund her position. Merging the climate office into the DPC should shield Zichal and the rest of the climate policy team from some of that type of criticism.

What really matters is the degree to which climate issues remain a priority for the administration. It doesn't necessarily require a separate office to make that happen—and overcoming the Senate's reluctance to address the issue proved impossible even when the climate folks had their own turf. Verdict: not great news for climate hawks, but far from the end of the world.

Flickr/ dsb nola

The big 2012 news this week (well, other than this) is that former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer is forming a presidential exploratory committee. So who the heck is Buddy Roemer? Politico's Jonathan Martin had a must-read take this morning, but here's a closer look:

A former Democrat: Roemer was a four-term Democratic congressman from Shreveport, but switched parties midway through his first and only term as governor. Although he supported President Reagan's economic policies in Washington, Roemer said the party's lingering racism was holding it back: "The only thing that is keeping me from being a Republican is the Republicans." He finally made the switch in 1991 in the hopes that it would help his re-election chances (it didn't). For his switch, Roemer's critics took to calling him a "transvestocrat."

A New-Age Mystic: As part of a very public mid-life crisis, Gov. Roemer began wearing blue jeans and adopted the slogan, "Goodbye to me, hello to we." Here we'll quote from Charlie Trueheart's 1991 Washington Post story:

"[H]e and his erstwhile Roemeristas (so called because of the much-touted but since-wilted "Roemer revolution") have been reduced to mouthing the ridiculous platitudes of Robert Fulghum and other New Age shamans. Cook reports, "He packed himself and his staff off to motivational treats dubbed 'Adventures in Attitudes,' where they learned to banish negative thoughts by snapping a rubber band against their wrists while uttering 'Cancel, cancel.'"

Not a culture warrior: Roemer's no lefty: He supported chain gangs and presided over the execution of a mentally handicapped man who had murdered a state trooper at the age of 17. But in one of the signature showdowns of his political career, Roemer opposed his base: As governor in 1991, he vetoed a GOP proposal that would have banned all abortions, except in the case of rape or incest—and even then, abortions could only be performed in the first 13 weeks of a pregnancy, and the rape or incest victims had just five days to report the crime. The bill passed into law over his veto, but was later blocked by a federal judge. The National Right to Life Committee called Roemer's veto "a betrayal." Roemer also signed a law legalizing medicinal marijuana in Louisiana, and vetoed a bill that would have restricted the sale of profane music like 2 Live Crew.

Over the past six months, Mother Jones has published a series of articles investigating one of the nation's largest tea party organizations, the Tea Party Patriots. The stories have not gone over very well with at least one of the group's leaders, Mark Meckler, who ignored repeated requests to be interviewed for the stories.

While he's dodged speaking to me, Meckler has given a couple of comments lately to extremely sympathetic and unquestioning interviewers bashing Mother Jones and accusing me personally of spreading lies and falsehoods about his organization. The most recent appeared in a NewsReal blog post by Walter Hudson, the founder of Minnesota's North Star Tea Party Patriots. Hudson asked Meckler whether he planned to respond to my stories on the group's startling lack of transparency—issues no other news outlet has covered. Here's his reply:

No. I don’t want to give them credence. That’s not journalism. I respect journalists who criticize us. That’s fine. Feel free. And plenty of them do. The only journalist in the world who I won’t speak to is Stephanie Mencimer [the author of the Mother Jones series]. I mean literally. I talk to Dave Weigel, of JournoList fame, who came across as hating conservatives. We still speak, because why? He’s always covered us fairly. He doesn’t agree with us, I don’t think, philosophically. But he’s never lied about us. He’s never mischaracterized anything about us. He’s just critical of us sometimes. I don’t care. Criticize us. That’s absolutely fair. That’s fair game. If we choose to be out there in the public, then people can criticize us. But when you step over the line, when you fabricate, when you accept lies without doing the research, that’s not journalism and I just don’t participate in it.

As Meckler hasn't identified a single specific inaccuracy in any of our coverage of him or Tea Party Patriots, and now that he's called me a liar, here is a follow up question Hudson and others might want to ask him: What exactly were the lies in those stories?

  • Meckler was once a top distributor for Herbalife, a company accused of running a pyramid scheme and sued successfully for injuring people with products loaded with the now-banned herbal stimulant ephedra?
  • Two years after its founding, Tea Party Patriots has failed to file tax returns that would reveal information about how it's spending all its donated money?
  • The group has cozied up with people implicated in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, including former Oklahoma congressman Ernest Istook and Christian Coalition founder Ralph Reed?
  • Several former TPP employees report having been offered (donated) money to sign confidentiality agreements to prevent them from ever criticizing TPP or disclosing information about the group's finances? And that people who have asked questions about its finances have been drummed out of the organization?
  • TPP has put a man who owes the IRS more than $500,000 in charge of managing its money as the assistant treasurer? Or that he happens to be married to Meckler's co-coordinator Jenny Beth Martin?
  • TPP hired two GOP-connected telemarketing firms that are harassing tea party activists with fundraising calls, from which the firms will keep 75 percent of any money raised?
  • Meckler and Martin accepted the use of a private jet from a wealthy Montana businessman without disclosing the name of the donor?
  • TPP was spreading false Internet rumors that Sarah Palin would be attending the group's policy summit in Phoenix last month to announce her presidential candidacy?

If there are any errors in these stories Mark, please let us know. We'd be happy to correct them.

Though Congress managed to avert a government shutdown for the next two weeks by passing a temporary budget extension, a big political showdown on spending still looms over Washington. House Republicans passed a bill that would slash $61 billion in spending cuts, and some liberal Democrats now fear that the party will end up ceding too much ground to the GOP. Bloomberg reports:

During the March 1 private lunch session, some senators complained that Obama and his aides had offered no concrete plan to counter the Republican budget bill, creating the potential that more short-term funding extensions would be needed that could come at a steep price for programs Democrats care about…

Some Democrats said the president has so far taken too passive an approach in the larger debate on spending, allowing Republicans to set the agenda for slashing federal expenditures and position themselves to gain credit for such moves.

"I would hope that they would ratchet it up big-time," Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

Citing such concerns, a handful of liberal Senators voted against the short-term budget extension on Wednesday, including Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). "One way or another, federal spending both for the rest of 2011 and for 2012 is going to decline," concludes The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn, who believes that the GOP has already succeeded in pushing both parties to the right on spending. "This is what happens when a party, and its political leaders, spend a generation rhetorically embracing the idea that the government spends too much money. Eventually deeds have to match the words."

And though some Democratic legislators are pointing fingers at the White House, Obama isn't the only one to set the party's parameters for the budget debate. Senate Democrats have already promised to slash some $41 billion from 2011 spending—and there are reports that they're willing to go even further, making cuts to education, innovation, and infrastructure. With 58 percent of the public disapproving of the way that Obama is handling the budget—and only 36 percent approving, according to a Quinnipiac poll—it seems clear that the GOP already has the upper hand, and that the Democrats may be reluctant to face them down.

Spc. Joshua Hutchins and Spc. Ryan Frye thread a Bangalore torpedo through a barrier of concertina wire during a training exercise for combat engineers with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team Feb. 23, 2011, at Fort Bragg, N.C. The explosive devices are used to clear a path through the “C-wire” for advancing troops. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod)

"Arabs tend to perceive events as isolated incidents...[they] do not generally subscribe to the Western concept of cause and effect...These thought processes could cause Arabs and Arab rhetoric to seem illogical or irrational to Westerners who look for a unifying concept."

"Many Arabs perceive the world in extremes, perhaps due to the harsh, desert environment that Arabs have lived in for thousands of years."

"Arabs appear paranoid by Western standards. Many perceive problems as part of a plot to foil their attempts to make life more pleasant."

"Kurds are distrustful by nature."

Is this a back-of-a-napkin revelation from some 19th-century anthropologist raised in the British imperial womb? A deleted passage from Lawrence of Arabia's memoirs? Nope, it's the modern training manual offered to US servicemembers and military contractors on their way to duty in Iraq. I know this, because I scrounged one in 2008.