Arkansas is the latest state to advance legislation that would significantly limit the time period in which women can legally obtain an abortion. On Wednesday, the state Senate's Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee approved a bill that would outlaw an abortion if a doctor can detect a fetal heartbeat—which can occur as early as six weeks into gestation.

Senate Bill 134 amounts to a near-total ban on abortion, as it often takes women six weeks to realize they are pregnant at all (especially when the pregnancy is unplanned). It would also cut off access to abortion well before fetal abnormalities or other conditions are apparent. More to the point, even finding a heartbeat that early in a pregnancy requires sticking a probe inside the woman's vagina. This is basically Transvaginal Ultrasounds: The Sequel, except far worse, since it would deny a woman the right to have an abortion after having a plastic wand shoved inside her.

While the bill states that it would not subject women seeking an abortion to criminal charges, it would be a felony offense for any doctor to perform an abortion when a heartbeat is detectable. Sen. Jason Rapert, a Republican, says the bill is necessary because "[w]hen there is a heartbeat there, you have a living human being."

Ohio lawmakers drafted a "heartbeat bill" back in 2011, but it did not pass. This time, Arkansas lawmakers have taken the added step of declaring the bill an "emergency measure," which would give it the force of law on the date the governor signs it. It stands a decent chance of passing, as Republicans took control of both the House and Senate this year. The Democratic governor, Mike Beebe, has a mixed review from abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Mark Kelly and Wayne LaPierre agree on something. At Wednesday's much-anticipated Senate judiciary committee hearing on gun violence—featuring former astronaut Mark Kelly, Baltimore police chief John Johnson, NRA head Wayne LaPierre, and others—the fireworks, such as they were, erupted over background checks and high-capacity magazines. But on mental health, a significant element of President Barack Obama's gun control package, there appeared to be some agreement. Here's Kelly on the Tucson shooter who tried to kill his wife, Gabby Giffords: "He had never been legally adjudicated as mentally ill, and, even if he had, Arizona at the time had over 121,000 records of disqualifying mental illness it had not submitted to the background check system." And here's Wayne LaPierre: "We need to look at the full range of mental health issues, from early detection and treatment, to civil commitment laws, to privacy laws that needlessly prevent mental health records from being included in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System."

Republican Texas Sen. John Cornyn (among others) lamented the failure of state agencies to turn over mental health records to the NICBS, and suggested it might be worth examining the ease with which the outpatient mentally ill can obtain weapons. Still, it was unclear how far LaPierre would go to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, given that he generally opposed more expansive and effective background checks.

When Gabby Giffords speaks, you should listen. The former Arizona congresswoman paused for seven seconds before reading a statement that was only 62 words. Here it is:

Chuck Grassley is okay with the CDC studying guns after all. Maybe. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) used his opening statement to challenge the president's complaint that Congress had prohibited the Centers for Disease Control from researching gun deaths. "Contrary to what you may have heard, Congress has never prohibited CDC from researching gun violence," Grassley said. "Rather, Congress prevented federal research to 'advocate or promote gun control,' which some government researchers had been doing under the guise of taxpayer supported science. Had Congress actually prohibited gun violence research, the president could not legally have directed CDC to conduct that research."

But that's not what Grassley has been saying for the last two weeks. On January 15, when President Obama announced his plans to direct the CDC to renew its research into gun violence, the senator's spokesman noted that funding restrictions enacted by Congress "effectively keeps [the CDC] from conducting any research or analysis related to gun violence." On Tuesday, Grassley took to the floor of the Senate to hammer Obama's CDC directive, arguing that "gun violence is not a disease, and lawful gun ownership is not a disease."

So is this a new position? I've reached out to Grassley's office for a response and will update if I hear back.

Lindsey Graham thinks the AR-15 will replace cops. The South Carolina GOPer—who originally planned on bringing unloaded guns to the hearing—lamented the fact that state budget cuts have forced municipalities to downsize their police departments. But according to Graham, that doesn't mean the federal government should pick up the tab or communities should shift their priorities. Instead, it means, for Graham, that the AR-15 rifle (the kind used by Newtown shooter Adam Lanza) has become a more viable alternative for self-defense. Graham also asserted that semi-automatic weapons could come in quite handy in the event that one's neighborhood is taken over by "marauding gangs" following a natural disaster. (LaPierre referred to the need to survive a "riot.") "I own an AR-15," Graham told the panel. And so should you.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives may as well not exist. In the first three hours of the hearing, the word "ATF" came up only once, even as Republican senators and key witnesses (LaPierre most frequently) griped about the failure of the federal government to enforce existing gun laws. What they didn't mention was the role they'd played in making that impossible—by curbing funding for the ATF and handicapping enforcement.

Ladies love the AR-15! The women with yellow-and-black "Stop Gun Violence Now" stickers snickered when Gayle Trotter, a senior fellow at the conservative Independent Women's Forum, reported, "Young women are speaking out as to why AR-15's are their weapons of choice!" They laughed a bit louder when Trotter asserted, "I speak on behalf of millions of American women." At a hearing where even the normally bombastic LaPierre seemed to have missed his morning coffee, Trotter's call to put more assault weapons in the hands of young mothers with babies may have been as close as the hearing came to pyrotechnics. Here's the video, via TPM:



Other people that love the AR-15: bros, small children, and people who hunt pigs.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.)

With Democratic Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick appointing his former chief of staff William "Mo" Cowan to fill the Senate seat vacated by incoming Secretary of State John Kerry, the United States' upper legislative chamber will make history by boasting more black members than ever before: two.

This will be the first time the Senate has had more than one black member at once. Last December, Republican South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley appointed Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) to fill the Senate seat vacated by Jim DeMint, who left to run the conservative Heritage Foundation. The Senate's high-watermark of two black members may not last long, though: Cowan's seat will be permanently filled by the winner of a special election in Massachusetts in June, and Scott's seat will be up for grabs next year.

Throughout American history, there have only been eight black senators in total; in addition to Scott and Cowan, they include: Hiram Rhodes Revels (R-Miss.), Blanche Kelso Bruce (R-Miss.), Edward Brooke (R-Mass.), Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.), Barack Obama (D-Ill.), and Roland Burris (D-Ill.). Of these, only Brooke, Braun, and Obama were directly elected by popular vote; Revels and Bruce were appointed by their state legislatures, and Burris was appointed by embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Eighty-five years separated the tenures of Bruce and Brooke, who served as the first black senator since Reconstruction. Before Scott, there hadn't been a black senator from the South in over 130 years. 

The Senate, in other words, has historically been a very difficult plateau for blacks to reach, and getting there hasn't grown much easier since the Civil War. 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)

Utah may be best known for its clean-living, teetotaling Mormon culture, but the state has long had a reputation as the home for less savory activity: financial fraud. Long known as the "scam capital" of the world, Utah has the dubious distinction of producing large numbers of con artists, penny stock scammers and other charlatans—so many that the Securities and Exchange Commission has an office in Salt Lake City (which is unusual for the agency). Yet another one of these sordid stories is underway in the state right now, and this time, an accused scammer has said he tried to bribe a big name: the highest ranking Democrat in the US Senate, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), himself a Mormon with many ties to Utah. 

The tale is a convoluted one. But it starts with Jeremy Johnson, a St. George businessman and high-profile political donor in the state who has been indicted on a variety of fraud charges stemming from his running of an internet marketing company. In 2010, the Federal Trade Commission sued Johnson's company, iWorks, alleging it had engaged in a far-reaching scam to defraud consumers through bogus money-making offers online. The company was the source of lots of those ads promising free money from government grants after the 2009 stimulus bill passed. Instead of making money, the FTC has alleged, consumers who responded to the ads ended up with unwanted charges on their credit cards that netted iWorks and its principals more than $275 million in ill-gotten gains. (The case is still ongoing.)

After he was indicted on bank fraud and money laundering charges, Johnson came to the Salt Lake Tribune with a bizarre allegation: He claimed that in 2010, when the FTC was investigating iWorks, he tried to bribe Reid, whom he thought could make the FTC investigation go away.

Johnson said the scheme was the idea of John Swallow, a Republican and Utah's newly elected attorney general. Johnson had sought Swallow's help fending off the FTC, and according to Johnson, Swallow, a former lobbyist for a Provo-based payday loan operation, persuaded him that his best chance was a well-placed bribe. Swallow, Johnson said, initially wanted $2 million but settled for $600,000 for Reid.

Swallow put Johnson in touch with Richard Rawle, a Reid donor who owned the payday loan company for which Swallow had lobbied. Rawle, now deceased, supposedly bragged to Johnson that Reid had helped him successfully beat back payday loan regulations. Johnson claimed he paid about $300,000 to a shell company set up by Rawle, with the understanding that it would be used to enlist Reid's help in squashing the FTC investigation. Not long afterward, the FTC sued Johnson. His assets were frozen and he was arrested in the Phoenix airport en route to Costa Rica, and charged with mail fraud.

Clearly unhappy with the turn of events, Johnson said he demanded that Swallow return his bribe money. When the money wasn't forthcoming, Johnson went public with his allegations—shortly after Swallow took office this year. Johnson provided the Salt Lake Tribune with a host of financial records and emails allegedly documenting his exchanges with Swallow.

Everyone Johnson has implicated denies doing anything wrong. Swallow has claimed that the money Johnson gave him was for lobbying, not a bribe. Reid has denied receiving any money from Johnson or any other involvement in the mess. After the audio of a meeting between Swallow and Johnson was released Monday, Reid's office released a new statement to the Tribune:

The allegations of bribery by Mr. Johnson, a man with a background of fraud, deception and corruption, are absurd and utterly false. Bribery is a crime for which Senator Reid has personally put people behind bars. Senator Reid will not have his integrity questioned by a man of Mr. Johnson’s low record and character, and his outrageous allegations will not go unanswered. Clearly, a desperate man is making things up.

The story gets weirder. The Tribune tracked Johnson's money trail to a law firm associated with Jay Brown, a Las Vegas lawyer and payday loan industry lobbyist whose name has repeatedly surfaced in organized crime investigations. Brown is an old friend of Reid's, and in 2006, Reid offered to amend his financial disclosure forms after failing to fully disclose the details of his involvement in a land deal with Brown that netted Reid around $700,000. Meanwhile, the US Attorney's office in Utah announced Friday that the Department of Justice and the FBI are both investigating Swallow.

Soldiers and sailors assigned to Provincial Reconstruction Team Farah and leadership from the Farah directorate of agriculture, irrigation and livestock file onto a CH-47 Chinook helicopter after a key leader engagement in Lash-e Juwayn, Jan. 24. U.S. Navy photo by HMC Josh Ives.

President Obama rolled out a plan for immigration reform today, but immigration is a tough sell in the US, where it's both an economic and a cultural issue. Watch DC bureau chief David Corn discuss how immigration reform will fare in Congress with Rep. Tony Cardenas (D. Calif.) on MSNBC's Martin Bashir:

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

President Barack Obama following remarks on immigration reform in 2011

Speaking to an audience in Las Vegas, President Barack Obama made his case for immigration reform Tuesday, invoking the idea of America as a nation of immigrants and saying he believed Republicans were truly committed to getting reform done.

"It's easy for the discussion to take on a feeling of 'us' versus 'them,'" Obama said. "A lot of folks forget that most of 'us' used to be 'them.'"

Obama's proposal resembles, to a large degree, the one put forth by the bipartisan Senate "Gang of Eight" Monday. It proposes adding more resources for immigration enforcement and border security, a mandatory employment verification system, and a path to citizenship—what critics will call "amnesty," but that the White House has referred to as "earned citizenship." Like the Senate bill, undocumented immigrants on temporary legal status while they are "going to the back of the line" to apply for citizenship would not be eligible for federal benefits.

On these broad principles, the Senate and the White House are in agreement; but, of course, the details matter, and there are key differences:

  • No security requirement for the path to citizenship: While the Senate plan describes border security requirements that may have to be met before undocumented immigrants already in the US can complete the legalization process, the White House plan has no such requirement. The dispute over what, if any, border security requirements must be met could endanger the passage of any bill. (To be eligible for legal status or citizenship under both plans, undocumented immigrants still have to pay fines and pass background checks).
  • Nothing resembling a guest worker program: While the Senate proposal calls for a "humane and effective system" for "immigrant workers to enter the country and find employment without seeking the aid of human traffickers or drug cartels," the White House fact sheet provided to reporters does not address this issue. That's a problem, because some kind of system for foreign workers is necessary to deter illegal immigration in the future.
  • Families headed by same-sex couples are treated as other families: The White House's proposal "treats same-sex families as families by giving U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents the ability to seek a visa on the basis of a permanent relationship with a same-sex partner." Republicans on the Gang of Eight have treated this issue as unimportant. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said same-sex couples are "not of paramount importance," while Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked sarcastically, "Why don't we just put legalized abortion in there and round it all out?"
  • DREAMers get an expedited citizenship process, but agricultural workers do not: The Senate proposal exempted not just DREAM Act undocumented immigrants, who were brought here as children and are poised to go to college or join the military, but agricultural workers "because of the role they play in ensuring that Americans have safe and secure agricultural products to sell and consume." The White House plan only expedites "earned citizenship" for DREAM Act-eligible undocumented immigrants, presumably because they're slightly less fond of Big Ag than the upper chamber of Congress.

The two variables that are likeliest to cause friction between the White House and Congress are security requirements on the path to citizenship and the length of the path to citizenship itself. This afternoon on the Senate floor, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), one of the Republican members of the "Gang of Eight," warned Obama: "If this endeavor becomes a bidding war to see who can come up with the easiest, quickest, and cheapest pathway to a green card possible, this thing is not going to go well." The clear implication is that despite bipartisan agreement on a path to citizenship, Rubio—and by extension, other Republicans currently supporting a reform pushcould easily withdraw their support, based on how that path is paved. 

Obama made it clear that if the Senate bill fails, he won't simply be giving up. "If Congress is unable to move forward in a timely fashion," Obama said. "I will send up a bill based on my proposal and insist that they vote on it right away."

Here's the speech:


Chuck Hagel

Like pundits in search of an apocryphal Barack Obama skeet-shooting photograph, Capitol Hill conservatives have been scampering for a reason to oppose former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel's nomination as defense secretary. Last week, they deemed Hagel too conservative for Obama supporters: He's an anti-Semite! He's not cool with the gays! But now that those ad hominems have failed to inspire much chattering beyond the Beltway, Republicans are attacking Hagel from the right: He's a dirty hippie peacenik who wants to steal our atomic security!

The New York Times' Charlie Savage reported Monday that Daniel Fried, the man President Barack Obama charged with closing the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, is stepping down. 

The State Department on Monday reassigned Daniel Fried, the special envoy for closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and will not replace him, according to an internal personnel announcement. Mr. Fried’s office is being closed, and his former responsibilities will be "assumed" by the office of the department's legal adviser, the notice said.

The announcement that no senior official in President Obama's second term will succeed Mr. Fried in working primarily on diplomatic issues pertaining to repatriating or resettling detainees appeared to signal that the administration does not currently see the closing of the prison as a realistic priority, despite repeated statements that it still intends to do so.

The Obama administration bungled its effort to close Gitmo early in the president's first term, and a bipartisan revolt in Congress over the possibility of bringing detainees to US soil, even for trial or imprisonment, led to extremely tight restrictions that slowed the rate of detainees leaving the prison to a crawl. Although closing Gitmo was likely impossible already, the fact that Fried's position is not being filled is an acknowledgement by the White House that one of Obama's key campaign promises is now out of reach. At least fifty-five of the remaining 166 detainees at Gitmo have been cleared for transfer.

For more on Gitmo you can check out my appearance on last Sunday's episode of MSNBC's Up with Chris Hayes.

A protester at a 2010 immigration reform rally in Washington DC.

As President Barack Obama prepared to deliver his speech on immigration reform Tuesday, key points of tension were already emerging between what the White House wants and what the bipartisan Senate "Gang of Eight" proposed Monday. The most important difference between the two plans may be on the Southwest border commission, a panel of regional leaders described in the Senate plan, and whether or not it will have to assert that the border is secure before undocumented immigrants can begin acquiring citizenship.

Obama reportedly opposes the idea that border security conditions would have to be met before immigrants can seek citizenship. Even within the "Gang of Eight" itself, as the Washington Post's Greg Sargent reported Tuesday, it's unclear what security conditions must be met and if the Southwest border commission would have the final say on when the citizenship process can begin. 

If he's serious about immigration enforcement, why does Obama oppose security conditions? Because for the past four years, the Obama administration has broken deportation records for four years running, deporting around 400,000 people a year for a total of about 1.5 million deportations since the president's first day in office. (The administration says that 55 percent of these deported immigrants had been convicted of crimes. But the vast majority of those crimes were minor.) President George W. Bush deported 2 million undocumented immigrants over the course of eight years, and Obama has reached nearly that number in his first term. As far as the Southwest border is concerned, net migration from Mexico in 2012 was zero, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. The United States "allocates more funding for border enforcement than all of its other immigration enforcement and benefit programs combined," according to the Migration Policy Institute.

In other words, it's actually very difficult, given the record numbers of deportations and the massive amount of money already being spent on the border, to see what more can be done by enforcement alone to stop illegal immigration. 

The problem is that Republicans don't trust Obama to enforce the law, and they don't believe the data that suggests he is already doing so. There are also those who simply won't be satisfied until every unauthorized immigrant is purged or "self-deported" from American soil. A completely secure border is impossible outside of the realm of science fiction, but the Obama administration's early efforts to win Republican trust by strictly enforcing immigration law didn't work. All that money and all those deportations were supposed to to lay the ground for a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Instead, the administration's efforts only led to louder shrieks of "amnesty."

The White House and immigration reform advocates want a feasible path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the US. If Republicans make final status for undocumented immigrants dependent on the whims of anti-Obama governors in border states, it's possible those immigrants might not ever get a path to citizenship at all.