Political MoJo

Congress Just Voted to Defund Planned Parenthood for an Eighth Time

| Thu Jan. 7, 2016 5:18 AM EST
House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) departs the chamber on January 6 after voting to defund Planned Parenthood.

On Wednesday afternoon, the House voted to approve a bill that would pull about $450 million in federal funding from Planned Parenthood. The bill—passed by the Senate late in 2015—will now head to President Obama's desk. This will mark the first time a bill defunding Planned Parenthood has made it to the president's desk in more than 40 years. This is the eighth time Congress has voted to defund Planned Parenthood in the last year.

Wednesday's vote reflected the deep partisan divide on these issues: All but three Republicans voted in favor of the bill, and all but one Democrat voted against it. Federal law already prohibits using Medicaid or other federal funds for almost all abortions, so this bill would prevent patients from using their Medicaid coverage at Planned Parenthood for other healthcare services—like cervical cancer screenings, tests for sexually transmitted diseases, or contraceptive services.

Obama has already vowed to veto any legislation that would defund Planned Parenthood, but congressional Republicans are encouraged by the symbolism of sending this bill to the White House. They're also already planning a veto override vote for later in January. To successfully override a presidential veto, both the Senate and the House would need a two-thirds majority.

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The Texas Trooper Who Pulled Over Sandra Bland Was Just Indicted

| Wed Jan. 6, 2016 6:41 PM EST

On Wednesday, nearly five months after Sandra Bland was found dead in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas, a grand jury has charged the state trooper who initially arrested the 28-year-old black woman with perjury.

Trooper Brian Encinia pulled over Bland in Prairie View on July 20, citing an improper lane change. Dash cam footage later released by county officials showed that the encounter quickly escalated after Encinia ordered Bland out of her car. In the video, Encinia can be heard saying, "I'm going to drag you out of here," as he reached into Bland's vehicle. He then pulled out what appeared to be a Taser, yelling, "I will light you up!" Encinia eventually forced Bland to the ground as she protested the arrest. Encinia arrested Bland for "assault on a public servant" and booked her into the Waller County jail, where she was found dead three days later.

The video raised questions about how a woman who was on her way to start a new job wound up dying in custody. An autopsy determined that Bland died of "suicide by hanging," but Bland's family countered that suicide seemed "unfathomable" and asked the US Department of Justice to investigate the incident. County officials said Bland had asked to use the phone about an hour before she was found hanging in her cell. Bland's family said they had been trying to help her post bail.

Encinia's class A misdemeanor perjury charge, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine, relates to a statement he made in the incident report following Bland's arrest. It comes a few weeks after the Waller County grand jury concluded that no felony had been committed in Bland's death by the county sheriff or jail staff.

Rubio Slams Obama on Guns—But He Once Backed "Reasonable Restrictions" on Firearms

| Wed Jan. 6, 2016 2:43 PM EST

On Tuesday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) slammed President Barack Obama's new executive actions aimed at enhancing gun safety—but the GOP candidate was attacking an approach to guns that he once supported as a candidate in Florida, when he endorsed "reasonable restrictions" on firearms.

After Obama announced the series of new gun-control steps, Rubio exclaimed, "Barack Obama is obsessed with undermining the Second Amendment…Now this executive order is just one more way to make it harder for law-abiding people to buy weapons or to be able to protect their families." And in a campaign ad, Rubio went further in assailing the president: "His plan after the attack in San Bernardino: take away our guns."

Obama's new measures would not take away guns; the most prominent executive action is aimed at limiting the number of gun sales that occur without background checks by requiring more gun sellers to register as dealers and vet their customers. And background checks is a policy that Rubio has supported in the past.

When Rubio first ran for the Florida state House in 2000, he told the Miami Herald that he supported "reasonable restrictions" on guns, including background checks and waiting periods for gun purchases. Ten years later, this comment was used against Rubio during his Senate primary campaign against then-Republican Charlie Crist. The Crist camp, pointing to Rubio's 2010 statement, accused him of supporting gun limits. Rubio's spokesman dismissed the significance of Rubio's earlier statement, saying, "It's basically a restatement of his support for the current law."

During his eight years in the Florida legislature, Rubio backed much of the National Rifle Association's agenda. He co-sponsored the state's Stand Your Ground law, which became the subject of a nationwide debate following the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. And, as a senator, Rubio recently received an A rating from the NRA. But Rubio has a few times wavered from the NRA's hardline. In the Florida legislature, he drew the organization's ire when he took a tepid approach to supporting a bill allowing Floridians to bring firearms to work if they leave them in their cars. (He ultimately voted for the measure). And after the Sandy Hook shooting in December 2012, he flirted with supporting measures to prevent convicted felons and the mentally ill from obtaining firearms—actions the NRA opposed. He voted against the background-check bill that ultimately came to the Senate floor the following spring.

As a presidential candidate, Rubio has positioned himself as an ardent champion of gun rights and does not talk about the need to preserve or enhance "reasonable restrictions" on guns. His campaign website states that "[n]ew gun laws will do nothing to deter criminals from obtaining firearms." Asked whether he still supports "reasonable restrictions," Rubio's campaign did not respond.

The Supreme Court Just Got Deluged With Arguments Against Texas' Stupid Anti-Abortion Law

| Tue Jan. 5, 2016 5:33 PM EST

On Tuesday, a wide-ranging group of organizations and individuals asked the Supreme Court to overturn the Texas anti-abortion law that threatens to close the majority of clinics in the state. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments for the case in March and make a decision this summer.

The groups, which included medical professionals, legal experts, economists, religious organizations, the Obama administration, and more than 160 members of Congress, filed 45 briefs explaining their opposition to HB 2, the sweeping 2013 anti-abortion law that has been caught up in legal battles ever since it was passed. More than half of the state's 41 clinics have closed as a result of the law. If the Supreme Court does not overturn HB 2, the number of clinics in the state could drop to just 10.

"For many women in Texas, [HB 2] would create a legal regime in which a real choice about whether to carry a pregnancy to full term 'exists in theory but not in fact," argued attorneys at the Department of Justice in a brief, adding that the restrictions imposed by the law "do not serve—in fact, they disserve—the government's interest in protecting women's health."

Both abortion rights opponents and advocates say the case will affect existing restrictions on abortion across the country and will also determine to what extent states can restrict abortion. The case, Whole Women's Health v. Cole focuses on two aspects of HB 2: one that requires abortion facilities to meet hospital-like architectural standards, and another requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges with a nearby hospital.

"There is incontrovertible evidence that imposing these unjustified burdens on abortion providers is impeding women's access to quality, evidence-based medicine," wrote a number of the leading physician's organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, in their brief. "HB 2 has delayed, and in some cases blocked, women's access to legal abortion. Both outcomes jeopardize women's health."

The 45 briefs filed on Tuesday were an unprecedented demonstration of opposition to anti-abortion laws, according to Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

"Never before has such a diverse array of organizations and leaders from the fields of medicine, government, law, business, and religion stepped forward to condemn abortion restrictions at the US Supreme Court," Northup told reporters. "These briefs present a thorough record of the undeniable damage Texas' sham law has and will continue to cause, and an indisputable legal argument for why it must be struck down. This deceptive law is an affront to science-based medicine, an insult to women's dignity, and reflects a total disregard for the rule of law and the rights of millions."

This Was the Most Powerful Moment From Obama's Tearful Plea for Gun Control

| Tue Jan. 5, 2016 1:02 PM EST

Surrounded by victims and family members of those who have suffered from gun violence, President Barack Obama on Tuesday made a passionate plea for Americans to support a new suite of executive actions aimed at curbing gun crime, including expanded background checks on gun sales.

Toward the end of the speech, as he spoke about students around the country who have been killed by guns, the president grew visibly emotional. He paused and then began to tear up. Watch the clip above.

"From high schoolers at Columbine and from first graders at Newtown," Obama said, wiping away tears. "First graders. And from every family who never imagined that their loved one would be taken from our lives by a bullet from a gun. Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad. And by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day."

You can watch the press conference in its entirety here.

Obama Announces New Plan to Strengthen Gun Control Legislation Without Congress

| Tue Jan. 5, 2016 12:01 PM EST

President Barack Obama formally unveiled new executive actions on Tuesday aimed at expanding background checks and strengthening existing federal gun control laws in America.

"I want to be absolutely clear at the start, I believe in the second amendment," he said. "It's there written on the paper—it guarantees the right to bear arms. No matter how many times people try to twist my words around—I taught constitutional law, I know a little about this. But I also believe we can find ways to reduce violence consistent with the second amendment."

"I'm not on the ballot again," Obama added. "I'm not looking to score some points."

The president made the announcement flanked by Vice President Joe Biden as well as victims and family members affected by gun violence. Gabby Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who was shot during a political event outside a supermarket in 2011, was also in the room.

The press conference comes a day after the White House released a memo outlining the president's proposal to reduce gun violence without Congress—a move that has prompted swift backlash from Republican presidential candidates:

"Let's be specific: the president is not circumventing Congress," White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said on Tuesday, ahead of Obama's press conference. "They have made it very clear they are not going to act and the president is doing what is well within his executive authority to do so."

The president also met with Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Monday to confirm his plan was constitutionally legal.

In the aftermath of the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, the president's initiative to pass a gun reform package was ultimately blocked by a Democratic-controlled Senate. Obama has previously called Congress' failure to act on the issue the "biggest frustration" of his presidency.

"Every time I think about those kids, it makes me mad," Obama said on Tuesday, wiping away tears.

For a detailed look at the president's plan, head to our explainer here.

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Jeb Bush May Seek a Campaign Boost From His "Very Popular" Brother

| Tue Jan. 5, 2016 11:53 AM EST

With Hillary Clinton bringing her husband (and 42nd US president) Bill Clinton on the campaign trail with her in New Hampshire, Jeb Bush may soon follow suit with his presidential kin. The former Florida governor appeared on Fox & Friends Tuesday morning, and host Brian Kilmeade asked whether he would follow Clinton's lead and recruit his brother, former president George W. Bush, to boost his struggling campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

"Yeah," Bush replied, "it is something to consider. 'Cause he is very popular."

At the time of his departure from office, George W. Bush held an approval rating of 22 percent. But as the economic and foreign policy travails of his presidency have faded in the national memory, the elder Bush brother has gained in popularity, with a slim majority of Americans holding a favorable opinion of him as of last summer.

Here’s Obama’s New Plan to Tighten Gun Laws

| Mon Jan. 4, 2016 8:32 PM EST
President Barack Obama meets with law enforcement officials, including Attorney General Loretta Lynch, on Monday.

As expected, President Barack Obama will announce a series of gun-related executive actions Tuesday meant to expand background checks on firearm purchases and step up federal enforcement of existing gun laws.

One executive action would clarify existing law that anyone "engaged in the business of selling firearms"—including at gun shows and online—must be licensed and conduct background checks on gun purchasers. The White House's fact sheet explains:

…it doesn't matter where you conduct your business—from a store, at gun shows, or over the Internet: If you're in the business of selling firearms, you must get a license and conduct background checks. Background checks have been shown to keep guns out of the wrong hands, but too many gun sales—particularly online and at gun shows—occur without basic background checks.

But as my colleague Mark Follman wrote Monday, that clarification won't be enough: "Expanding background checks through a broader interpretation of current federal law still won't close the so-called gun show loophole; hundreds of thousands of firearms will continue to be bought and sold with minimal regulation, both online and in person. Only an act of Congress could change that comprehensively."

Other executive actions include:

  • A $500 million investment in mental-health services.
  • The Bureau of Alcohol, Tabacco, Firearms, and Explosives will announce a rule requiring background checks for people who purchase weapons through a trust or corporation. (The White House's earlier efforts to close this loophole through executive action hit a roadblock nearly two years ago, when ATF officials delayed publishing the rule after facing opposition from industry groups, including the National Rifle Association.)
  • The White House will request funding for 200 new ATF agents and investigators to enforce existing gun laws.
  • The ATF will require licensed dealers who ship guns to notify law enforcement if their guns are lost or stolen.
  • The FBI will hire more than 230 examiners to process background checks in an overhauled system.

Obama's announcement comes days before he hosts a town hall meeting on guns Thursday night. The move is expected to garner pushback from opponents, especially those in a divided Congress who blocked legislation three years ago to close the so-called gun show loophole. House Speaker Paul Ryan has already warned that the president's actions was a "dangerous level of executive overreach."

"This is not going to solve every violent crime in this country. It's not going to prevent every mass shooting. It's not going to keep every gun out of the hands of a criminal," Obama told reporters on Monday. "It will potentially save lives in this country and spare families the pain of these extraordinary loss."

Hillary Clinton Pledges to "Get to the Bottom" of UFOs and Aliens

| Mon Jan. 4, 2016 3:51 PM EST

The truth is out there for Hillary Clinton.

When Daymond Steer from the Conway Daily Sun recently asked her to weigh in on UFOs—a topic Steer says he broached with Clinton in 2007—the Democratic presidential candidate reportedly promised to "get to the bottom of it" if she were elected to the White House.

"I think we may have been [visited already]," she added. "We don't know for sure."

Clinton's comments are among the rare public statements she's made on UFOs and possible government cover-ups—a familiar subject for both Hillary and Bill Clinton. As Mother Jones has reported, the couple's interest in extraterrestrial activity reaches as far back as the 1990s, when Laurence Rockefeller began lobbying the Clinton administration for the release of government documents relating to UFOs—documents that many say reveal the extent of government research into the phenomena.

Additionally, Clinton's current campaign chairman, John Podesta, a former chief of staff to Bill Clinton and an X-Files fan, has long expressed interest in the topic.

But these statements are Clinton's first remarks on the subject during this campaign. They will likely strengthen her support among voters who happen to be UFO enthusiasts and are not supporting any extraterrestrial candidates in the Republican field.

Why the Heck Is Ben Carson Campaigning in Staten Island?

| Mon Jan. 4, 2016 12:51 PM EST

The New York Republican presidential primary is in 106 days, on April 19. It is the 37th nominating contest, coming more than three months after the first votes are cast in Iowa on February 1. So naturally Ben Carson is campaigning there on Monday night.

This is kind of strange. Carson's campaign is a mess right now. When three of his top aides quit before the New Year, Armstrong Williams, Carson's top advisor, found out about it on Twitter. Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, once was at the top of the polls, but his numbers have plummeted in Iowa and elsewhere. Still, he insists he's plowing ahead and remains a contender. If so, what's he doing in Staten Island, while the other candidates rightly focus on Iowa and New Hampshire in the pre-voting homestretch? Some possibilities:

  • The ferry offers a great view of the harbor at a low price.
  • Carson wants to run for mayor of New York and is learning from Harold Ford's mistake.
  • Fresh Kills is a cool name for one of the world's largest garbage dumps.
  • Great pizza.
  • ???

There's no real explanation for this stop. (Has Carson sold every book he can possibly sell in Iowa?) It's the latest sign his campaign—though it collected $23 million in the most recent quarter—cannot be considered a serious effort.