Thursday, April 30, 2009

BREAKING Strike: Justice Souter Retires

I had to discuss this before I went to bed. Justice David Souter, who has been on the Supreme Court since 1990, announced today that he will be leaving the court at the end of the current term in June. President Obama will thus be making his first Supreme Court nomination in the next couple of months. This will not significantly affect the balance of power on the court. Although Souter was appointed by George H.W. Bush, he has shifted significantly to the left over the years. He has long been a defender of Roe v. Wade, and almost always sides with the other liberal justices. We'll have much more coverage on this tomorrow, including suggestions for who President Obama might pick.

The Daily Strike-4/30/09-Pressers and Gaffes

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike on another packed day in Washington. I apologize for not offering my analysis of the press conference yesterday, but don't worry, because here I go!

PRESS CONFERENCE: I think Obama's press conference yesterday was solid. I especially liked his tone. The President was serious, resolved and confident as he addressed the numerous challenges he has to face. There were some definite weak spots. For one, I agree with Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow that he seemed to imply that torture has worked in some circumstances. His point was that even if it does work, we can't do it because it's against our values. I don't think that's a smart argument to make. Nor do I believe, based on numerous interviews with former interrogators, that torture helped protect the country.

The most disappointing effort last night came from the media. The questions were largely about "sexy" issues like torture, Arlen Specter, and state secrets. There were some questions on more pressing topics, like the collapse of the auto industry, the situation in Pakistan and unemployment in the African American community. There were not, however, any questions about economic recovery, jobs, health care, education or energy. Not only are each of these the cornerstones of the President's agenda, but they are far and away the concerns of the American public. For his part, Obama could have geared his answers more towards these themes, so that people knew exactly what progress he intended to make in his next 100 days.

LOOSE LIPS BIDEN: I had to mention the absurdity of Joe Biden this morning saying that he wouldn't want his family on a plane or the subway in light of the swine flu. The administration was forced to quickly "clarify" the statement (read: retract it without saying Biden was wrong). The last thing you want to do during an epidemic is get people to start panicking unnecessarily. The Vice President had done a good job recently keeping his mouth shut, but I guess all good things come to an end.

CHRYSLER: The President announced today that he supported Chrysler's decision to enter a structured bankruptcy. The car company will still be making a deal with European automaker Fiat, which will allow Chrysler to stay in business temporarily. The Associated Press says that "according to the bankruptcy filing, a new company will be formed that will buy the assets of Chrysler - its plants, brands, land, equipment, as well as its contracts with the union, dealers and suppliers, from the bankruptcy court. " Part of the reason Chrysler went into bankruptcy, the President noted, is that creditors working in hedge funds and investment firms weren't willing to accept a deal negotiated with lenders. Apparently, these creditors were counting on getting a better deal if the government decided to step in with another bailout. Obama was right to chastise these speculators. I'm happy to see Obama strike a balance between calling out ridiculous business practices, while coming up with solutions that will (at least in the short term) keep companies afloat.

THE SENATE: The Senate today took up a broad housing bill designed to prevent foreclosures and enhance mortgage credit availability. This is a the twin of the bill passed earlier this week that ramps up enforcement against mortgage fraud. The House passed a similar bill last month with a controversial provision called "cramdown" which allows bankruptcy judges to renegotiate the terms of mortgages. This provision was offered today as an amendment from Senator Durbin. Durbin argued that cramdown was the most important vehicle for limiting the number of foreclosures, because it is the only way to renegotiate mortgages for people who have been screwed over by dishonest lenders (these weren't his exact words). He also argued that too may Senators were cronies of the banking and lending industries. Apparently, he's right. His amendment failed by a vote of 45-51, 15 votes shy of the 60 votes needed to advance the amendment. 12 Democrats voted against the amendment: Baucus (MT), Bennet (CO), Byrd (WV), Carper (DE), Dorgan (ND), Johnson (SD), Landrieu (LA), Lincoln (AR), Nelson (NE), Pryor (AR), Specter (PA) and Tester (MT). You'd think that Specter might actually vote with his new party once in awhile. What a shameful display by these "moderate" Democrats, who caved to pressure from corrupt lenders.

The other Senate vote today was the confirmation of Strickland to be the Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife. Somehow his nomination was controversial (they really care about THIS position that much?), so 60 votes were required to advance his nomination. Strickland was confirmed by a vote of 89-2. Your defectors were Republicans Bunning (KY) and Wicker (MS).

THE HOUSE: The House of Representatives spent all day today considering the Credit Card Bill of Rights. Among other provisions, the bill prohibits creditors from increasing interest rates on existing balances without meeting certain strict criteria. It also requires creditors to notify consumers 45 days in advance of a change in credit card rates. The bill also prohibits companies from giving credit cards to people under 18 years old unless they have been emancipated from their parents or they are using their parents' or guardian's account. (Thank GOD I've passed that age!). Despite some vocal Republican opposition, the bill passed by a large 357-70 vote. All no votes were from Republicans except for Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a Democrat from South Dakota. Does it have anything to do with the fact that my credit card bills come form an office in South Dakota? Just asking.

In the course of the debate, 15 amendments were agreed to or rejected by voice vote. I'll spare you the details, but you can find descriptions of them here (if you scroll down a bit). Two amendments required recorded votes. The first was offered by Rep. Slaughter (D-NY), which would "set underwriting standards for students' credit cards, including limiting credit lines to the greater of 20 percent of a student's annual income or $500, without a co-signer and requiring creditors to obtain a proof of income, income history, and credit history from college students before approving credit applications. " In other words, it will now be harder for your little brother or sister to go on a reckless shopping spree. The amendment was agreed to 276-154. The vote was not quite along party lines. 46 Republicans voted for it, while 25 Democrats voted against it.

The second amendment voted upon came from Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), the sponsor of the bill. The amendment would require credit card holders to opt-into receiving over-the-limit spending protection in order for the credit card company to charge an over-the-limit fee. The amendment passed 284-149. 43 Republicans voted with yes with the Democratic majority, while 16 Democrats voted in opposition.

The House was also forced to vote on a motion to recommit, offered by Rep. Roskam (R-IL) that would have required a number of conditions to be met before the bill was triggered into law (aka, a trigger mechanism.) I'm not exactly sure what the conditions were, but it failed anyway by a vote of 164-263. 5 Democrats voted for it, while 16 Republicans voted against it.

Today, I also heard a discussion in both the House and Senate on the agenda for the remaining 3 weeks of the legislative session. Both chambers will take up a supplemental spending bill funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The House will work next week on a version of the Senate-passed mortgage fraud bill. The Senate will consider the credit card bill next week, followed by a bill addressing military procurement reform. More details to come when they are available.

That's it for tonight. You have one more day to offer comments if you want them in tomorrow's Daily Strike! Also, look out for a new feature this weekend.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Daily Strike-4/29/09-Your Congress at Work

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike on this very busy Wednesday. The President is scheduled to give a press conference at 8pm EDT to talk about his first 100 days in office, as well as the administration's efforts to combat the spread of the swine flu. We will bring you full coverage of that speech in a Late Night Strike. If you want our analysis of the President's first 100 days, see the entry below. AND PLEASE LEAVE SOME COMMENTS!

THE BUDGET RESOLUTION: Congress today approved the annual budget resolution today, giving President Obama a very important victory. The $3.4 trillion budget blueprint largely mirrors the President's February request. It also includes reconciliation instructions which will allow for Obama's ambitious health care plan to pass the Senate with only 51 votes. The budget is typically a new President's earliest chance to significantly change federal policy and national priorities. Obama already did that with the stimulus package, but today passage of the budget was the next key step in enacting Obama's agenda.

The House voted on the conference report accompanying the resolution this morning. The final vote was 233-193. 17 Democrats joined all Republicans in opposition. The delinquent Democrats were Barrow (GA), Boren (OK), Bright (AL), Childers (MS), Foster (IL), Griffith (AL), Kratovil (MD), Kucinich (OH), Markey (CO), Marshall (GA), Matheson (UT), McIntyre (NC), Minnick (ID), Mitchell (AZ), Nye (VA), Taylor (MS) and Teague (NM). This is your usual Blue Dog cast, with the exception of Kucinich, who will never vote for money that could possibly be used to fund wars.

The Senate agreed to the conference report by a vote of 53-43 this afternoon. The most interesting part of the Senate vote was that Arlen Specter (PA), a Democrat as of yesterday, voted against his new party's signature budget proposal. Not exactly the best way to acclimate yourself to your newfound political co-patriots. Specter joined Bayh (IN), Byrd (WV), and Nelson (NE) as Democrats in opposition. Nelson and Bayh voted against it because of their "fiscal conservatism." Byrd almost certainly voted against it because he is a Senate institutionalist who doesn't like using reconciliation procedures. It almost goes without saying that every Republican voted no.

The resolution does not have to be signed by the President. The next step is for House and Senate committees to draft 13 separate appropriations bills that reflect the parameters of the budget outline.

The House also passed a bill today changing the definition of Hate Crimes to include those involving gender or sexual orientation (note the difference here between "sex" and "gender"). The bill has been pending since the death of Matthew Shepard (a gay student murdered because of his sexual orientation) in Wyoming almost ten years ago. In fact, Shepard's mother was on hand for the debate and vote. I'm just sorry she had to listen to this drivel from Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC).

This wasn't even the most absurd commentary today from House Republicans. The infamous Steve King (R-IA) sarcastically suggested that the bill should protect pedophiles, as if they are morally equivalent to homosexuals. Other Republicans repeatedly claimed that the bill is punishing "thought" and would prevent religious groups from exercising free speech. Of course, it does no such thing. In fact, the bill specifically says that it does not apply to any one's first amendment right to free speech. Meghan McCain would be cringing watching old, Southern House Republicans defending bigotry for three hours.

The House first had to vote on a Republican motion to recommit, which would have applied a death penalty punishment for hate crimes, and expanded the definition of hate crimes to include members of the armed forces and police officers. Of course, this motion was a cynical ploy to try and kill the bill. Now they can say that Democrats don't want to protect the military. The motion to recommit failed 185-241. 25 Democrats voted yes, while 16 Republicans voted no.

The bill itself passed 249-175. Interestingly, the vote wasn't completely along party lines. There are still a bunch of southern Democrats who aren't quite there yet on the whole gay rights thing. 17 Democrats voted no. Conversely, there are 18 reasonable Republicans who don't think homosexuality is tearing down this country.

The most interesting no vote on the Democratic side came from Artur Davis of Alabama, an African American running for governor of conservative Alabama. Talking about selling your soul to get elected.

THE WHITE HOUSE: The President's biggest event today (before the press conference) was a town hall meeting in Missouri, in which he discussed his first 100 days in office. The best part of the meeting was when he criticized those conservative tea parties on Tax Day, saying they were organized by a "cable channel that doesn't like me very much." He said that if they want to have a serious conversation about fiscal responsibility, fine, but don't disingenuously say that this reckless spending started with the President's stimulus package. I certainly enjoyed seeing the President take a slap at the anti-tax tea parties, but I tend to think he shouldn't stoop to their level. Obama also said that he is not a miracle worker. The coming months will require hard choices and sacrifice. Of course, the President also used the event to highlight his accomplishments.

That's it for us today. Join us later tonight (or tomorrow morning) to talk about the President's press conference.

The Big Picture and the Strike: 100 Days

The Big Picture: My basic standard for evaluating any politician and especially a President is by how far, and how sustainably, he or she has moved the country toward the broadest possible happiness, security, and opportunity. For me this means something along the lines of social democracy or democratic socialism. I measure how far the President has pushed the country to the left, both in the substance of what has actually happened and in the impressions among the electorate, considering a) how close his actions are to my desires, b) how effective I expect them to be, and c) how likely they are to be sustained for the long term.

Compared with almost all of his predecessors, Barack Obama's First 100 Days has been extraordinarily impressive by my standards. That enthusiasm is tempered, however, because most of President Obama's predecessors were mediocre to poor by my standards. To be sure, I do not take for granted the great fortune that Barack Obama is now our President - it's the best thing to happen in this country for a long, long time. But because his predecessors were on the whole so inadequate, the country has stagnated or moved in the wrong direction for a long time, and there is so much urgent work to do to clean up the devastation wreaked by the Reagan Era a.k.a the Lost Period. At the same time, these conditions have provided Barack Obama with an extraordinary opportunity to move the country toward social democracy in a far-reaching and sustainable way, because people had become so dissatisfied with the Lost Period, and so fed up with the figures and ideologies who represent Obama's opposition. So I am holding and will continue to hold Barack Obama to the standard set by all he needs to achieve, and can achieve, due to the current environment in the country. I am also holding Barack Obama to the standard of his own potential: he is the most powerful man in the world, and his capabilities are at such an extraordinarily high level to sustainably shift the country in a far better direction - due to his political astuteness, his communication skills, the inspiration of his speeches and his life, his deep intelligence and farsightedness and sense of perspective, and his ability to get things done as a leader, personnel manager, decision-maker, and superb competence and persistence. In short, the standard is very high.

Given that standard, I am evaluating Obama on three different elements of the Presidency, or three different planes. One is the short-term plane: the day-to-day work as a decision-maker, a communicator, and a leader, with competence and effectiveness being paramount. I'm evaluating the planning of each day and each week, how the President is spending his time, seeing whether it's the proper balance, if he's paying attention to the important things and not getting distracted or off-track. I'm measuring how he handles the news cycle but more importantly how he manages public opinion. Most importantly, it's how the President keeps his head and make the right decisions and stay on track amidst the insane confluence of urgent crises the President has to handle. In this, Obama has exceeded even my expectations and has been truly exemplary - it's hard to say how he could have improved on his day-to-day management. He has done an excellent job as a politician, connecting with the American people, maintaining, deepening, and broadening his support. He has been almost superhuman in his ability to keep his cool and maintain the proper focus on all the crises that have popped up, to neither under-react nor over-react. To sum it up, he just really seems to "get it", somehow able to consistently do both what should be done and what the public wants him to do, which often seem to be mutually exclusive. He unmistakably knows what he's doing. He gets an A in this day-to-day plane.

The more disappointing element is Obama's performance in a medium-term plane, of choosing policies and personnel. This means the personnel and stated policies of the President in different fields, calibrated to their current level of importance. Right now, the most important people and policies relate to the economy - economic recovery, jobs, finance, and housing. Also significant are our war policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are what the President is currently working on, the policies currently being enacted (or not being enacted). In all these areas, Obama has been a vast improvement from George W. Bush, but still pretty far where he needs to be. His shifts have not only been inadequately small, but I believe the Three Big Truths mean that the shifts are also unnecessarily small. In previous posts I have stated my concerns that the stimulus package wasn't nearly big enough, that his plan to save and create jobs is really inadequate to the massive demand of people in the country, that the banking plan is far too generous to the Wall Street fat cats, and that the housing plan isn't doing nearly enough to stem foreclosures. These inadequacies are related to my concerns about the makeup of the advisers and policies, both who they are and their relative importance. Larry Summers and Tim Geithner are clearly the most important drivers of policy, and their policies have not only been way out of whack in helping bankers far more than struggling people, but their bankers first advice has drowned out the (inadequately few) voices calling for far more focus on jobs and a bolder approach to finance and stimulating recovery. While the stimulus had some advances toward education, health care, and energy, by itself nothing major has been accomplished given the potential and the urgency - that is not Obama's fault because it's only been 100 days, but at this point they are not balancing out his Summers-induced disappointments with the economy. Meanwhile, Obama's policies in Iraq and especially Afghanistan are improvements but, as I have already discussed, still greatly concern me. The caveat is that I think the inadequacy of the shift from Bush on Iraq and Afghanistan is, unfortunately, more necessary due to the reality of the situation and the political situation. It is also balanced out by Obama's other strong foreign policy decisions, emphases, and symbolism which amount to a policy of their own. He gets a B-/B for this plane.

Obama has matched my expectations on the long-term plane, the overall direction of the country. And those expectations were extremely high. The symbolism of who Obama is - his race, his background, his emphasis on consensus and persuasion not bluster and posturing, his farsightedness, his completely different approach to the world, his completely different image in the world due to his background, his temperament, and his opposition to the Iraq War - all of this makes an enormous, if harder-to-measure, difference. His very existence as our President, setting aside any questions of policies or even over-arching ideology, is both consequence and cause of a truly momentous, earth-shattering shift in American history in a better direction. The inspiring example he sets for children and really for all Americans and all people in the world - as a role model, as someone who gives an entirely different conception of what's possible in our own lives and with our nation and world - will I think prove to have broad and deep effects. The generally admirable way Obama approaches politics - with much more emphasis on 1) what makes sense rather than labels and ideologies, 2) what will prove most effective and sustainable in the long run and not what's popular in the moment, and 3) bringing people in through hope rather than fear, appealing to the best in people through rational persuasion rather than the worst in people through demagoguery - all this is slowly but I believe significantly changing politics, which after all is how we make our important national decisions. Finally, Obama has begun laying the groundwork to take long-term advantage of the Three Big Truths, as his budget especially represents a decisive shift from the Reagan Era. His vision of our future, shifting from an economy built on sand to one built on rock, is exactly right, substantively and politically. His vision of where we need to go and why we need to go there comes almost unprecedentedly close to reaching my goal of a sustainable shift toward social democracy. This is especially true because he is, with great effectiveness despite the challenge, selling this major ideological shift as pragmatic and necessary, and not making ideological arguments. That is exactly the right way to create popular sustainable change. As the Strike and I have discussed, the best approach for getting the country where we want it to go is through the analogy of the frog in boiling water - don't just drop it in because the frog will scream, but instead imperceptibly but steadily increase the heat so the frog doesn't notice. At every stage, Obama should explain his policies as pragmatic and necessary, not ideological, but after 8 years we can step back and realize we've boiled the frog: i.e. shifted the country far toward a social democracy. Obama's performance on the long-term plane has matched my high hopes in his First 100 Days, and he gets a solid A for this element.

On the whole, then, evaluated against the standards I've set for him, Obama has had a very good, but not great, 100 Days. He gets a B+/A- in my book.

The Strike: A lot of the news media has come up with curious way to judge the Obama presidency. They always want to talk about whether he has been bipartisan, whether he has “shown good leadership” qualities, and whether he’s won the majority of news cycles etc. I have decided to go about things a bit differently. In judging the Obama Presidency, I will use three important criteria:

1. Have his policies made the average American’s life better and increased his or her opportunity to fulfill the American dream?

2. In his overall performance, has he improved his popularity and political capital enough that he has more room to enact bold policy change and he has he permanently shifted the views of the electorate?

3. Have his policies been bold and progressive enough to tackle the deep challenges facing our country given the current political climate?

On the first quality, I would give him very high marks. The stimulus package is directly impacting millions of Americans. Those who are unemployed have had their benefits extended. Those on Medicaid are seeing the effects of increased funding. A lot of jobs are being saved and created through infrastructure and clean energy projects. Middle-class Americans have a little extra money in their pay check these days, and can use it to help spur the economy. An additional 4 million children now have health insurance because President Obama signed the State Children’s Health Insurance bill. Thousands of young Americans will now have the opportunity to join Americorps, which will benefit the lives of millions around the country. This is the result of President Obama signing the Edward Kennedy Public Service Act. These are tangible things that affect the vast majority of Americans. All of this took place in 100 days. Could he have done more? Probably. I wish he could have created more jobs, and that his stimulus proposal was bigger. But this metric is about whether the average American, who pays no attention to what’s going on in Washington, has seen their lives improve in the last 100 days. I don’t see how you could argue against that progress. On this front, Obama receives an A-.

On the second criterion, Obama has also done enormously well. A remarkable 81% of Americans like the President personally. He has won over the American people with his candor, honesty and ambitiousness. A lot has been made in the mainstream media about how Obama’s personal popularity exceeds the popularity of his policies, as if this were some ominous sign. To me, this means that Obama has earned the public trust. Even if people haven’t agreed with liberal policies in the past, their trust in and like for Obama might allow them to give this President’s policies a chance. He has kept above the fray of petty Congressional fights without giving up any of his core policies or convictions. He has also created enormous goodwill around the world, which will undoubtedly make our country more secure. This quality may seem more symbolic than specific legislation, but this political capital could YIELD legislative progress in the future. I would give him an A, but since this goodwill’s fruit hasn’t quite born out yet, I’ll give him an A- on this as well.

The third criterion is where Obama has had the most trouble, in my view. Obama is very politically cautious, which may temporarily save him some scorn of self-proclaimed “moderates” and the media elite. It is not, however, good for the country. By hiring Wall Street hands like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, he has implicitly defended the very status quo his policies are trying to undo. Not coincidentally, his banking and financial policies have been underwhelming, to say the least. His penchant for caution has also caused him to water down proposals to appease his political opponents. I’m all for trying to build bipartisan consensus if you can. But if the other party’s sole intent is to tear you down, you should never yield one inch to them. Unfortunately, Obama has done that on numerous occasions, like when he took out stimulus money to refurbish the national mall because immature House Republicans were whining about it. It would be one thing if the American people were torn between Obama’s philosophy and the Republican alternative, but they’re not. The public is deeply distrustful of the Republican Party and Republican policies. Before giving him too low of a grade on this, we have to remember that everything he’s done is a 200% improvement over President Bush, and far better than any President in the last 40 years. Therefore, on this score, Obama receives a B.

I can’t just judge Obama objectively on these terms though. He has given me personally enormous hope and faith in our country. He has made me proud to be an American, and has restored my belief in the American dream. It wasn’t any particular policy or moment that gave me these feelings. It’s based on who he is and what he stands for. For that reason, in spite of a lot of the actions he has taken in the first 100 days, he is still an exceptional President in my book.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Daily Strike-4/28/09-Specter Bolts

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. Huge news today in the world of politics: Arlen Specter, a 28 year Senate Republican from Pennsylvania, has switched parties. Let's give you the rundown.

REPUBLICAN BETRAYAL: In a crushing blow to the Republican party, Arlen Specter has decided to switch political parties and run for reelection in 2010 as a Democrat. The first question we must ask is why he did it. There is one reason and one reason only: reelection. He was being challenged in the Republican primary by arch-conservative Pat Toomey, who he barely edged in 2004. Toomey was leading by 20 points in a poll released last week. Specter had raised the ire of state Republicans for voting in favor of the economic stimulus. He was pretty much toast in the primary. According to Pennsylvania law, if you lose the primary, you're done. No Lieberman-ing, in other words. Now that he's running as a Democrat, he probably has the primary field all to himself. With the votes of independents and Democrats, he would crush Toomey in a general election. Specter might say that he now agrees more with the Democratic party than the Republican party, and that he doesn't want to be beholden to a party. I don't buy it. Why would he have gone on a diatribe against Eric Holder if he knew he was leaning towards joining the Democratic party? Why would he have abandoned the Employee Free Choice Act? Having said that, Democrats should embrace him with open arms, as they have. President Obama was very welcoming. He told Specter that he's happy to have him on the team. Democratic Senators went over the top in lauding their new caucus-mate.

The next question is what does this all mean. Most analysis of this in the media highlights that if Al Franken is seated, Democrats will have a filibuster-proof majority. I think that's a bit misleading. Specter may not be the most reliable Democratic vote on a whole host of issues. However, as Ezra Klein (I hope you're reading this Ezra! I sent you a link!) wisely points out, Specter now has an incentive to see the Democratic party succeed. As a member of the Republican minority, the Democrats' failure was his gain. Now that he's in the majority, his electoral success depends partially on how much of Obama's agenda is signed into law. That should encourage him to vote more along party lines. He would especially be motivated to turn leftward if he got a good primary challenge, which the Big Picture will talk about later in this post.

The final question is what this means for the Republican party. This is pretty devastating for them. I think they still haven't learned the lessons of their crushing losses in 2006 and 2008. The party has applied such a strict litmus test on their candidate's because they're so rigid in their ideology. The problem is, most Americans don't agree with their ideology. As a result, they are driving the moderates out of their party. Quite frankly, Specter was well aware of these dynamics, and he realized that it would be much more politically beneficial to him to associate with a big-tent, reasonable Democratic Party than a far-right bizzarro Republican party.

What will be interesting to see in the next few days is how quickly Specter tries to earn good favor with his new political party. He can start by voting for the conference report on the Democratic budget resolution. He says he's currently undecided on the matter.

MEANWHILE: The Specter news swamped the other important events going on at the Capitol. The Senate today passed a bill to make it easier to hold mortgage companies reliable for fraudulent behavior. This bill had been debated for over a week. The final vote was an overwhelming 92-4. The no votes came from usual suspects Republicans Coburn (OK), DeMint (SC), Inhofe (OK) and Kyl (AZ). This vote will probably be one of the last where we see this on the Senate website:

Casey (D-PA), Yea
Specter (R-PA), Yea (bolding is mine).

The Senate also voted today (finally) to confirm HHS nominee Kathleen Sebelius. Her nomination had been stalled due to Republican objections to her positions on abortion. The final vote was 65-31. All Republicans voted no except for Bond (MO), Brownback (KS), Collins (ME), Gregg (NH-one small ounce of loyalty to the man he almost called boss), Lugar (IN), Roberts (KS) and Snowe (ME). All Democrats voted yes, including the newest one, Arlen Specter. Her confirmation at long last ends President Obama's arduous cabinet search. She will be sworn in later this week.

The House of Representatives voted on same remaining suspension bills this morning. The House then voted this afternoon on a "same day rule," that will allow the conference report on the budget resolution to be voted on tomorrow morning. The important procedural vote passed 233-191. 17 Democrats voted no (pretty much your standard Blue Dog list). The only "yes" vote from the GOP came surprisingly from Maryland's Roscoe Bartlett. I wonder if the old man pressed the wrong button or something.

The vote on the rule providing consideration of the conference report 234-185, with 11 Democrats joining all Republicans in dissent. The rule allows for one hour of debate prior to a final vote.

We will have full results of this important vote in tomorrow's entry. I estimate that it will pass with around 230 votes, with all Republicans joining about 20 Democrats in opposition. The Senate will presumably vote on the conference report at some point tomorrow as well, to give the President a big victory on his 100th day in office.

That's it for us today. This Specter thing prevented me from talking about Obama's trip to the FBI and his Rose Garden celebration honoring our nation's best teachers. I think you'll survive, especially with this "Big Picture Corner" on the Specter news.

It is CRITICAL that, after a couple month honeymoon, a serious Democratannounces a primary challenge to Specter. There shouldn't be any personalattacks that will piss him off, but just a "we need a REAL Democrat" challenge.Either it unseats Specter, or it does the very important work of holding his feet to the fire, make him vote like a Democrat to appeal to the Democratic primary electorate. That is of the utmost importance.

One odd element of this that I can see becoming "important" down the road is that Specter was one of the very few Republicans to occasionally vote with Obama, and therefore by the standard of the Looks, show that Obama's bipartisan. So ironically this will lead to less Republicans voting with Obama, therefore providing "evidence" for the Jay Costs and Michael Barones to say that Obama is so "polarizing" and not living up to his promise.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Daily Strike-4/27/09-Science

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. Let's run down the day in Washington. As always, please leave us some comments! And make sure you caught this morning's Weekly Strike!

THE WHITE HOUSE: President Obama gave a speech today at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC. His speech highlighted the administration's commitment to "sound science." He mentioned his stem-cell research decision, and his proposed legislation to combat global climate change. He also used the event to talk about the swine flu outbreak, telling attendees that the disease is cause for concern, but not cause for alarm. The President must be worried about not only the 20 or so cases of mild swine flu in the US, but his own health after visiting Mexico City two weeks ago. There were even rumors that a man who sat next to the President during a meeting passed away because of the virus. This turned out not to be true. The White House insists that the President is fine.

During the speech, Obama lost his place on the teleprompter, causing an awkward delay. Republicans have tried to use Obama's teleprompter dependency as some sort of criticism (?), so they must be having a field day over at the Drudge Report. Seriously, this is the best they've got.

The President had only one additional public event, during which he recognized the UCONN Huskies women's basketball team's NCAA championship. He mentioned his appreciation of women's sports, and the inspiration female athletes have had on his daughters.

The White House was also forced to apologize today for a seriously botched photo-shoot. Apparently, the FAA wanted to take pictures of Air Force One above New York City. Well, New York residents didn't get the message, and they understandably were uneasy with a plane flying 1000 above downtown Manhattan. Hundreds of New Yorkers called 911 and voluntarily evacuated their buildings. Someone really screwed up on that one.

THE SENATE: The Senate voted to cut off debate on the mortgage fraud bill, setting up a final vote tomorrow. The bill increases protection against mortgage fraud. The cloture vote passed 84-4, with only Republicans DeMint (SC), Coburn (OK), Kyl (AZ) and Inhofe (OK) objecting. The bill is the first of several financial regulation measures to come up in both chambers over the next month. Perhaps Congress is implementing the first of the five pillars (financial regulation) that Obama talked about in his economic speech a couple of weeks ago at Georgetown. Hopefully the other pillars (health care, energy, education and deficit reduction) will be addressed soon as well.

Besides a final vote on this bill, the Senate tomorrow will begin debate on the nomination of Kathleen Sebelius to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. I'm not exactly sure when the vote on her nomination will occur, but it will be subject to a 60 vote threshold. As I mentioned this morning, her nomination is more urgent now that the Department of Health and Human Services is dealing with a possible pandemic.

The House voted today on a few suspension bills today. They'll do the same tomorrow, with serious legislative business on hold probably until Wednesday. I talked about their busy schedule in this morning's Weekly Strike.

That's it for today, see you tomorrow!

The Weekly Strike-4/27-5/3

Good Monday morning and welcome to the Weekly Strike, where we preview the upcoming week in Washington. A very busy week on Capitol Hill especially, so let's get to it.

THE HOUSE: The House of Representatives has one of its busiest weeks of the year. Today and tomorrow, the House will vote on some suspension bills. Starting Tuesday, and continuing through Thursday, the House will consider three important measures.

First, the House will take up the "Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act." This bill passed the House last Congress, but died under Republican filibuster in the Senate. The bill most notably expands the definition of hate crimes to those motivated by the victim's sexual orientation. The measure also expands enforcement mechanisms and funding to prevent hate crimes. The bill explicitly states that nothing in this measure will be used to prohibit constitutionally-protected free speech. I expect House Republicans to have a gay-bashing field day. Their usual objections to measures like this is that they pose restrictions on the free exercise of religious institutions to discriminate as they choose. I don't really see how that has to relate to hate crimes, but oh well. This could be a good chance for the right wing to score some culture war points with their base. More importantly, the House will pass a long-overdue measure acknowledging that crime committed against LGBT Americans constitutes hate and should be prosecuted as such. I expect the bill to pass with over 300 votes. Republican moderates like Rep. Castle (DE) and Ros-Lehtinen (FL) are co-sponsoring the bill.

Next, the House considers an Obama-backed Credit Card Bill of Rights. This important bill will increase consumer protection against aggressive credit card companies. Among other things, the bill amends the Truth in Lending Act to prohibit increases in annual interest rates on a current balance unless specific conditions are met. It also requires a 45 day notice of credit card rate increases. A good summary of this comprehensive bill can be found here. This bill will almost certainly pass, but not without major objection from free-market enthusiasts. I haven't yet found the talking points against this bill yet, but I expect it to be a Rick Santelli-like diatribe against "protecting the losers" and "expanding the size and scope of government." No Republicans have signed on to sponsor the bill, and I would be surprised if more than a few of them vote for it.

Finally, the House will vote on the conference report accompanying the annual budget resolution. The final version of the bill was apparently agreed upon by House-Senate negotiators on Friday, but the final meeting to hash out the details will be held today or tomorrow. The resolution sets spending targets for each area of discretionary spending, largely reflecting President Obama's budget proposal. The resolution also contains reconciliation instructions that will allow health care reform and education legislation to pass the Senate with 51 votes, instead of the usual 60 needed to cut off debate. Especially because of the reconciliation instructions, this is one of the most important votes of the year. If the budget resolution passes, it's a good bet that we'll have a comprehensive health care bill by the end of the year. I expect the final version to pass with the same margin as the original version. No Republican will vote for it (almost certainly), and 20 or so Democrats will vote against it.

THE SENATE: Not to be outdone, the deliberative chamber also has a busy week. Tonight, the Senate votes to invoke cloture on a bill to protect consumers against mortgage fraud. The bill was debated last week, and a number of amendments were adopted. I expect cloture to be invoked with about 65 votes or so. The ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, Chuck Grassley, is a cosponsor of the bill. If cloture is invoked, a final passage vote will occur at noon tomorrow. Also tomorrow, the Senate considers the nomination of HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Her appointment carries more urgency due to the outbreak of the swine flu. The agency needs leadership to oversee this public health emergency. Sebelius' nomination has been held up by Republicans mostly due to her association with a Kansas abortion doctor. Per an agreement between the two leaders, her nomination will require 60 votes. I expect her to be confirmed with 65-70 votes, and take office later this week. If she is confirmed, Obama's cabinet will finally be filled.

The Senate will most likely take up the conference report on the budget resolution Wednesday or Thursday.

THE WHITE HOUSE: The President has a busy week, and he'll have to keep a close eye on what's happening with the swine flu outbreak. The President starts his week with a speech at the National Science Academy in Washington DC. He has an otherwise quiet day today, with a series of meetings and a White House event with the NCAA Women's Basketball Champion UCONN Huskies. Tomorrow, the President presents the "Teacher of the Year" award. How cool would it be to be that teacher right now?

Obama's busiest day is Wednesday, when he marks the 100th day of his Presidency. He will hold a town hall meeting in Missouri that morning to discuss the economy. He has thrived in the town hall setting both on the campaign trail and during his Presidency. He then will hold his 3rd prime time press conference at the White House on Wednesday night. I expect most of the questions will center around the President's first 100 days, but I expect a few on the torture memos controversy, the economy, health care etc. Let's hope the press corps can do a better job of asking relevant questions than they've done in the past.

That's pretty much it for this week. We will give you comprehensive coverage of events as they happen. Please leave us your comments! Our best one will be featured in Friday's Daily Strike.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Daily Strike-4/26/09-Back from the Battlefields

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. I hope you all had as good of a weekend as I did. The Big Picture and I took a jaunt to Harper's Ferry and Antietam to learn the American history that enabled last year's election of Barack Obama. We also were surprised with a visit from Small Town Roots. It was a Strike convention! Please leave us some comments. We'll back back tomorrow morning with a full preview of the week in our Weekly Strike.

SUNDAY TALK SHOWS: The most notable guest on the Sunday circuit was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad. He spoke with ABC's George Stephanopolous about Iran's relationship with the United States. The Iranian President criticized President Obama for not answering his letter, and said that he would not talk with the United States without preconditions, which he did not specify. This is sure to embolden hawkish conservatives, who have criticized Obama for being willing to talk with Iran'a rogue leader. It's pretty clear that this guy is going to be a huge problem for President Obama. After causing a walkout of delegates at this past week's UN racism conference, he now wants to play hardball with the most popular leader on the planet. In what could be a significant shift, however, he did say that he could support a two-state solution in the middle east. Was that a tacit admission of Israel's existence?

The other talk shows devoted time to the release of the Bush-era interrogation memos. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs argued that the interrogation tactics increased recruitment for Al Qaeda and endangered our troops. Republican Senator Kit Bond argued that the real danger came from the Obama administration releasing the memo, saying that it will embolden our enemies. Democratic Senator Carl Levin disagreed, and argued that, starting at Abu Ghraib, the abandonment of our country's core principles is what endangered the troops and our country. There are two important questions right now in the court of public opinion on this issue. One, did the tactics work? Dick Cheney says that they did, but he's the biggest liar in the history of American government. Former CIA chief Michael Hayden, Karl Rove and other Bushies would concur. But many former CIA officials said that the tactics did NOT work, because detainees would give out false information to stop the torture. It's pretty clear to me that the blowback and unreliability of information gleaned during waterboarding outweighs any potential benefit. The second, and perhaps more important, question is whether the potential ends justify the means. I'll leave that judgement to my favorite Fox News reporter, Mr. Shepard Smith.

NY20: After we published on Friday, Republican Jim Tedisco conceded the 20th Congressional District race in New York to Democrat Scott Murphy. Murphy will be sworn in some time this week. The race took a few weeks to be decided after a recount, and the addition of absentee ballots. The result is pretty big blow to the Republican party. Republicans from Michael Steele to John Boehner believed that the more well-known Tedisco was pretty much a shoo-in, so they framed the race as a "referendum on the Obama agenda." I don't blame them for taking this strategy. A February poll showed Tedisco leading by 20 points. As the race became nationalized, Murphy came back, and ended up winning by 401 votes. This swing district in the northeast is exactly the type of place Republicans need to compete in to have any remote chance of being a relevant political party. I think we can tell from this race, as well as every major recent poll, that any talk of a potential Republican comeback should be pretty quickly discarded.

That's it for tonight. Please join us tomorrow morning. Also, let us know what you think by leaving some comments. And if this swine flu (which prompted the government to declare a public health emergency) becomes a big

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Daily Strike-4/24/09-Finishing Yesterday's Business

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. Friday was mostly a quiet day in politics. President Obama made a speech on education reform in which he reiterated his support for ending government subsidies to student loan companies.

A lot happened in the United States Senate after press time yesterday, so we will mostly cover that today. Enjoy.

Posting will be light this weekend. None other than the Big Picture himself is visiting, and we will be doing some major sight-seeing.

IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT: House-Senate staffers stayed up mighty late last night, but they were able to reach an agreement on a final version of the budget resolution. Notably, the conferees have agreed to include reconciliation language in the bill, making it easier for President Obama's health care and education proposals to get through Congress. For you newbies, U=under expedited reconciliation procedures, only 51 votes are required for passage in the Senate (not the usual 60). The total budget blueprint contains about $3.5 trillion worth of spending. This is a huge victory for the Obama administration. The reconciliation language means that even if we lose 7 Senate Democrats, we will still have health care reform passed by the end of this year. Liberals around the country should rejoice! The formal House-Senate conference will come next week, with a final vote in each chamber happening either Tuesday or Wednesday. More on the final agreement when we get more details this weekend.

THE SENATE: Contrary to what I believed, the Senate did NOT vote on the remaining amendments to the mortgage fraud bill last night. Instead, they voted on various "motions to instruct conferees," non-binding "instructions" to Senators who will sit on the budget resolution conference committee. Because such motions are non-binding, they are a good opportunity for political grandstanding. We saw a great deal of the last night. In total, 7 such motions were voted on, and another 3 were approved by voice votes.

1. The first was offered by Senator Conrad (D-ND) on behalf of Senator Stabenow (D-MI). It would instruct conferees to include a deficit neutral reserve fund for clean energy programs in the final version of the bill. This is more noteworthy for what it does NOT say. In other words, it does not instruct the conferees to use reconciliation language. The motion passed 57-37, mostly along party lines, with Democrats in strong support. Crossovers: Republicans Collins (ME), Lugar (IN) and Snowe/Democrats Landrieu (LA/Oil rigs).

2. Next was an motion offered by Senator Johanns (R-NE). This one said that if conferees include the deficit neutral fund for energy programs, there must be a clause in there making it harder to raise energy taxes. It passed 66-28. All no votes were from smart Democrats who realize that preventing tax increases on energy could be a slippery slope to preventing tax increases on carbon emissions.

3. Third, we have a motion from Senator Ensign (R-NV) that instructs conferees to insist that the final legislation contain a point of order against any measure that raises taxes for couples making under $250,00o. In other words, if you WERE going to raise their taxes, you'd need 60 votes. Senators didn't want to touch this with a ten foot poll. The amendment passed by voice vote.

4. Next, we have a motion dealing with Senator Gregg's (R-NH) clever little language that the public debt level in 2019 must be lower than the total public debt accumulated between 1789 and 2009. We talked previously about the stupidity of this idea, mostly because it completely ignores that whole "inflation" thing. Luckily, his motion was defeated 40-54. The only Democrat stupid enough to join Mr. Gregg was Ben Nelson (NE). Zero Republicans voted against it.

5. Then came a motion from Senator Sessions (R-AL) that instructs conferees to include a freeze on non-defense discretionary spending. I've talked about the lunacy of this idea numerous times. Thankfully the motion was defeated 38-56. Self-appointed centrist Bayh (IN) joined Republicans in voting for it. ZERO Republicans were smart enough to realize that freezing discretionary spending when we have a huge lull in consumer demand is a horrible idea.

6. Next was a motion by Senator Cornyn (R-TX) that instructs conferees to include language that creates a point of order against tax increases for small businesses. It passed 84-9. To me, this would have to depend on their definition of "small business," which is not specified in the motion. All no votes were from Democrats, the most surprising perhaps was pro-business freshman Mark Warner (D-VA).

7. Next was a motion offered by Senator Alexander (R-TN) that instructs conferees to include language encouraging a "competitive student loan choice" for college students. This somehow passed unanimously. Doesn't it seem like it's geared towards President Obama's plan to do away with wasteful private student loan companies?

8. Senator Coburn (R-OK) instructed conferees to insist that the final legislation include a reserve fund to go through the budget "line by line" to find and eliminate wasteful, duplicative or inefficient spending. It passed by voice vote.

9. The next one totally baffles me. Offered by Senator DeMint (R-SC), it instructs conferees to include in the final legislation "include a point of order against legislation that eliminates the ability of Americans to keep their health plan and eliminates the ability of Americans to choose their doctor, as contained in section 316 of the concurrent resolution, as passed by the Senate, and insist further that an additional condition be added providing such legislation shall not decrease the number of Americans enrolled in private health insurance, while increasing the number of Americans enrolled in government-managed, rationed health care." Obviously this is a political statement disguised as a parliamentary instruction. This makes it all the more worrisome that the motion passed 79-14. All dissenting votes were from Democrats. It is DEEPLY disturbing to me that Democrats fell for this political trick and put themselves on record against decreasing the number of people enrolled in private health insurance. If Obama's plan includes a public option, it's inevitable that some people will opt for the cheaper, more effective government plan.

10. The final motion was offered by Senator Clown (R-LA) (some people pronounce it VITT-er). This motion would instruct conferees to include language that prohibits bills being considered that raise energy prices on American consumers, or raises the cost of drilling for oil and gas. It passed 63-30. The spineless, oil-loving Democrats were Baucus (MT), Bayh (IN), Begich (AK), Bennet (CO), Byrd (WV), Carper (DE), Conrad (ND), Dorgan (ND), Feingold (WI), Hagan (NC), Johnson (SD), Klobuchar (MN), Kohl (WI), Landrieu (LA), Lincoln (AR), McCaskill (MO), Nelson (FL), Nelson (NE), Pryor (AR), Reid (NV), Stabenow (MI), Udall (CO) and Webb (VA).

The Senate will be voting on cloture of the mortgage fraud bill on Monday. I expect that they can muster 60 votes to shut off debate. If so, all of the pending amendments will be disposed with. Democratic leaders probably got tired of dealing with endless Republican amendments. Vote on final passage of the bill, as amended, will come on Tuesday. Also Tuesday, the Senate will vote on the nomination of Kathleen Sebelius to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. Republicans have agreed to hold a vote if it is subject to a 60 vote threshold. I expect Sebelius to be confirmed with about 65 votes or so. Republicans have raised a ruckus on her nomination because of her association with an abortion doctor in Kansas.

NY20: It looks like Democrat Scott Murphy has won that House seat in upstate New York. He now leads the race by over 400 votes, with about 1,000 ballots in question. A majority of those ballots come from registered Democrats, making a victory by Republican Jim Tedisco virtually impossible. Word is he might concede in the next few days.

COMMENT OF THE WEEK: Tonight, as promised, a comment of the week. This one comes from our good friend Small Town Roots, who also wrote a GREAT post on the torture debate. Please read it below.

Small Town Roots said...
Over under on days until the
Chavez/Obama photo is used in a Republican Ad: 8.5
18, 2009 11:34 PM

Town Roots
Secondly, thank you to the strike for realistically
criticizing our great president. Just because Obama represents a historic step
forward for the progressive movement can we forget to be critical and skeptical
of our leaders at times. Obama is after all a politician, whose driving motive
still comes down to re-election in many situations. Remaining optimistic about
our times while still holding Obama accountable is the advisable way

Thursday, April 23, 2009

View from the roots: Torture Test

This is in response to the insightful back-and-forth between the Strike and the Big Picture on the issue of torture. I can actually bring a certain perspective to the way that the American people are generally reacting to the releasing of the CIA torture memos. The grassroots outreach office that I am directing in Berkeley has been running an on the ground campaign for the ACLU for about 1-2 month now. Our function is to get out into the community every day with a certain message and topic as the primary discussion point, and then do membership and small donor fundraising to build long term political support.

Up until early this week, our primary message on behalf of the ACLU has been the work they are doing to overturn proposition 8 here in California. The ACLU launched the CA Supreme Court challenge to Prop 8 the day after it passed and has made the issue one of its primary campaigns, including a statewide field organizing campaign to prepare for a 2010 revote. This issue was resonated very deeply in the very progressive primary areas that my office contacts (Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond etc...), but also even in areas out East ay Area where the prop 8 vote was much more split (ex. Walnut Creek, Concord, Castro Valley). This campaign is specific to California, but also takes on a new heightened level of attention and relevancy with the recent ruling to allow marriage equality in Iowa.

With the release of the torture memos, myself and a few other leaders in my office began testing some messaging around the work the ACLU did over 5 hears to release these messages and how we must hold accountable those who are responsible. Our goal was to see if this was something that was resonating more soundly with people, to be able to determine whether or not we should shift all of our California offices onto this messaging.

My biggest comparative personal experiences were:
- a lower percentage of people were passionate about this issue than both prop 8 or the long term historical work of ACLU
- the people that were passionate about this issue were VERY PASSIONATE (leading to some very long and insightful conversations about this topic)
- the thing that had these people fired up was that Obama is not doing enough and prosecuting Cheney, Yoo and others, but also just as a microcosm for not holding the previous adminsration accountable for everything they did (one conversation actually included a large Jewish man saying we need another Nuremberg and equating Bush to Hitler)
- that passion came from a place of anger and backlash rather than the hope/change positive ideas Obama has thrown out so often
- a strikingly large number of generally progressive/liberal people (some of these areas voted as high as 80-90% in favor of Obama) do not see dwelling on torture and demanding accountability as the right court of action
- our overall membership numbers and fundraising totals were generally lower than the prop 8 messaging
- The biggest statistical drop was in terms of the percentage of people contributing and to a lesser extent in average contribution size (a couple really passionate people gave larger than normal contributions)

* I understand that the use of prop 8 adds in another variable into this "experiment" that does not apply nationally and may obscure the results, but I still thought the the dedicated readers of the Strike could benefit from the test data that I could provide.

My personal conclusion on this issue remain very complicated. I generally side with the Strike on the points raised in the discussion and I think that Obama has probably politically picked the correct place to put himself. While I absolutely think that heads should roll for Iraq and the constitutional abuses of the the previous administration, Obama delivering on the issues that truly impact people lives right now will be the issue that determines his success. I also see that the people (and the Strike's readers and writers have to be included) who are more passionate about prosecuting on torture are an extremely far-left section of the American political landscape. While we all should continue to drive the political perspective to the left, I do not know if this is the issue for Obama and other to do it around. Redefining the economic structure of a society and building a democratic coalition that can guide us through the coming decades and the great challenges they will entail (moving away from fossil fuels and curibing global warming, providing health care and education to our citizien, dealing with the rise of the China and India, repairing our foreign image) needs to be Obama's almost sole obsession.

The Daily Strike-4/23/09-On All Fronts

The President and Congress were both extremely busy today dealing with problems and political controversies on all fronts. Welcome to the Daily Strike and good Thursday afternoon. This is your last chance to leave comments if you want them included in tomorrow's entry! Also, please read a GREAT entry below from Small Town Roots. So happy to have him writing!

THE WHITE HOUSE: The President spent his day in a variety of interesting venues. After receiving his daily briefings, he left for a commemoration ceremony at the Capitol of the Holocaust. The President gave a nice talk, building on the "never again" theme so frequently used in commemoration of the Holocaust. He said that we have to make sure that this is not just a slogan, but a call to action. The first step, he said, is bearing witness. The President's remarks were preceded by a slew of speakers who gave implicit warnings to Obama about the dangers of Iran. Israeli ambassador Sallai Meridor alluded to the Iranian regime by saying “When a regime is again ... terrorizing its neighbors, threatening to destroy the Jewish people, how will we meet this challenge before it’s too late?” Joel Geiderman, the vice chairman of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, directly compared the Nazis to the current regime in Iran. The great Elie Wiesel, holocaust survivor and nobel laureate, praised Obama's decision to boycott the UN conference on racism, during which Iranian President Ahmadenijad made disparaging comments toward Israel. I certainly agree that Iran is a threat, but I hope these warnings don't in any way sway the Obama administration away from using strong diplomacy. There's a difference between appeasing an enemy (like Chamberlain did by giving the Nazi's half of Czechoslovakia) and talking to them. Too bad some people just can't see that.

Then Obama came back to the White House to hold a meeting with credit card executives. He got his populism groove on big time. According to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, the company executives told Obama that current Federal Reserve regulatory policies are sufficient. Obama disagreed, and said that new restrictions need to be put in place to help consumers. I expect some sort of credit card bill of rights to be part of the regulatory measures considered by Congress in the coming weeks. Apparently, the meeting wasn't interesting to all of those who attended.

Gibbs also announced that the President will give a prime time press conference next week to commemorate his first 100 days in office. We'll evaluate these 100 days more this weekend, but a Pew poll released to today shows that after 100 days, Americans still approve of the President's performance by over a two-to-one margin. His favorability ratings are even higher. Perhaps more encouraging for the President was an AP poll out today that showed America's feeling more positive about the direction of the country than they have since 2004. That, to me, is pretty amazing given the dire economic conditions.

THE HOUSE: The House dealt today with a bill to, among other things, direct the President to implement a National Water Research and Development initiative to "improve the federal government's role in designing and implementing federal water research, development, demonstration, data collection and dissemination, education, and technology transfer activities to address changes in U.S. water use, supply, and demand; and (2) establish or designate an interagency committee to implement the Initiative. " Water use and distribution is one of those incredibly important issues that's never talked about. It is certainly a finite resource that we should be concerned about as much, if not moreso, than oil. The bill passed overwhelmingly by a vote of 413-10. The no votes were from Republicans Broun (GA), Culberson (TX), Flake (AZ), Foxx (NC), Franks (AZ), Garrett (NJ), Hensarling (TX), Miller (MI), Poe (TX) and Shaddegg (AZ). Besides Miller, this is a very good list of the most extreme fiscal conservatives in Congress. Ron Paul surely would have been on that list had he not been absent today.

Prior to a vote on final passage, the House voted on five amendments and a Republican motion to recommit. The House also approved several amendments by voice vote. Here's a quick run-down on the ones that were voted on:

-The first amendment, offered by freshman Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-FL) would direct the appropriate agencies to assess the impact of natural disasters on water resources. It passed 424-0. I guess she can brag about it to her most likely hurricane-scarred constituents!

-Next was an amendment by Rep. Harry Teague of New Mexico that would require "that the plan's analysis of the energy required to provide reliable water supplies and the water required for the production of alternative and renewable energy resources. " Fair enough. It passed 423-1. Screw you Rep. McClintock (R-CA)!

-Third was an amendment by Rep. Roskam (R-IL) that would require the Government Accountabiliy Office to determine whether any program authorized by the bill is duplicative of other programs. The Democrats were opposed to the amendment because it could result in the elmination of some of the bill's important new programs. The amendment failed 194-236. 19 Democrats joined all Republicans in voting for it.

-Fourth was a simillar amendment offered by Rep. Shaddegg (R-AZ). The difference is that his amendment would direct the new interagency organization authorized under the bill (not the GAO) to identify duplicative programs. The amendment failed 271-160. 19 Republicans joined all but 6 Democrats in opposition.

The motion to recommit was offered by Rep. Nunes of California. It required the bill to include some funding related to the water shortage in the San Joaquin Valley in California (where Nunes is from). The motion passed 392-28, with almost all opposition from liberal Democrats (not sure why). Nunes must have been quite pleased. Motions to recommit are rarely agreed to, since they are almost always offered by the minority.

The House is done for the week. No word yet as to what's on tap for next week. My guess is that they'll vote on a conference report on the budget resolution.

THE SENATE: The Senate had another marathon day today. Is it just me or do they always procrastinate in the world's most deliberative body? The Senate was slated to vote on a slew of amendments to the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act (a bill to increase liability for mortgage companies who commit fraud). The only amendment voted on during the day was offered by Senator Kyl (R-AZ) that would limit compensation for whistleblowers to $50,000,000 or 300 percent of their costs. This sounds like a lot of money to me, but I assume since they are assuming high risk by exposing fraud, they should get compensated well. There might be some other problem with this cap that I don't know about. The amendment failed 31-61. All yes votes were from Republicans.

The rest of the amendments had not been voted on at "press" time. I'll make sure to give you a full run-down tomorrow. I'm not sure whether the vote on final passage will be this evening or tomorrow morning.

That's it for us today. You know the drill: COMMENTS, BABY, COMMENTS!

The Big Picture and the Strike: On Torture

The Big Picture: Really strange that this wasn't covered in the New York Times, but the stuff Olbermann covered about how they did this relentless torturing in order to extract false confessions to gin up the case for invading Iraq is both nightmarish conspiracy theory and the only thing that makes sense. I had always found it way too kind to the Bush Administration that they were torturing simply out of too much zeal to defend the country. Everything else they did showed how they didn't care at all about defending the country and were always motivated by extreme ideological and/or corrupt enriching big business goals. Now we see that the torture program tied in with the criminal and treasonous conspiracy to go to war under false pretenses.

It's been a great week in that Dick Cheney, David Addington, and John Yoo drastically increased their likelihood of imprisonment ... for starters.

It's an interesting question over whether this week has been counterproductive for Obama because it's taken him off message, or it's really been a positive because it's a) focused on the most unpopular practices and unpopular personalities of the Bush regime, and the basis of his support is that he's the anti-Bush, the anti-Cheney, b) it forces the Republican Party to defend these practices and these people, which is horrible for them and furthers positive polarization (it could even split the GOP if members are forced to say whether they support Cheney or oppose him), and c) it buys him a little time, allows him to make some economic policy, look over the stimulus, etc. etc. without the glare of gotcha scrutiny. But on the other hand, he needs to keep building support for his economic agenda, he needs to keep showing that his top concern is people's jobs.

The Strike: My gut reaction would be to say it’s a very good thing for Obama. I think it's good to highlight the extreme excesses of your predecessors, force them to get on the record defending torture, and to get Cheney (one of the least popular people in America) to be the main face of the opposition. There are a number of reasons though, after rethinking it a bit, that I think it’s not good for him. First, his primary goal HAS to be delivering for people (aka creating jobs). If he doesn’t do that, the country suffers and he loses his political capital. Any time taken away from that effort is bad, especially considering the pace of how quickly things are going in the tank. 640,000 people lost their jobs last month.

I get that people care about this, at least the most liberal academic types. But imagine if Bush after 9/11 had spent a week implying an investigation into Monica. Obviously it’s not the same, and morally, these people have to be held accountable. But politically, I think the majority of people care about this tangentially, but would rather move on. I think Obama gets that, and that’s why he was reluctant to release the CIA memos. The ultimate question: Is the moral necessity to hold these people accountable worth not accomplishing even the littlest thing on Obama’s agenda?

The Big Picture: I agree that you don't want any backward-looking investigations to impede his agenda. But here are three counter-arguments that tell me this will be a good thing.

1. For the long-term future of the country, it IS of high importance to publicly expose what happened and why, humiliate, and hopefully punish the people responsible. When the Iran-Contra criminals were pardoned, those very same people re-appeared to wreak havoc, and their successors learned the lesson that there is no downside to pursuing these horrendous unconstitutional immoral policies. You've got to have accountability. We do trust Obama to never do things like this, but down the road there will be Presidents who we don't inherently trust, and who are going to need the fear of serious personal consequences if they pursue these immoral unconstitutional policies. And, as you wrote the other day, a key function of the Presidency is to set the tone of the country, define what's acceptable and what's not, and provide an example to impressionable people, especially children. Public expose, public humiliation of these traitors will set a powerful example of right and wrong, and create a culture of decency and morality and sound long-term thinking rather than the anything goes, ruthless, ends justify the means culture of the Reagan-Bush era. I feel much more strongly about this now that it's clear that torture wasn't just being overzealous in interrogating top Al Qaeda people in order to stop a terrorist attack - which I disagree with strategically but I have to admit I'm not too personally troubled by bad treatment of Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his ilk - but instead was an element of the criminal conspiracy to invade Iraq. We REALLY need to establish, legally and culturally, that there will be zero tolerance and massive consequences for any future attempts to use torture and lies to build up support for future invasions.

2. I think it is very helpful for the success of the Obama agenda to have Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, torture, and Iraq front and center. In the last two elections we saw how effective it was to have these demons to run against, to define ourselves against. The Republicans are in better position when they take advantage of being in the minority: pick out unpopular parts of Obama's agenda, demagogue them, and not take any responsibility for anything bad that happens, instead pinning it all on Obama. And they are in much better position when they make a clean break from the past, from the figures and the policies that destroyed their party's popularity. The last thing they need is to defend extraordinarily unpopular people and policies: instead of extricating these albatrosses from their brand, the albatrosses continue to drag them down. Republicans want opposition to Obama to be seen as fresh, different, not what Obama ran against; deepening this link with the albatrosses discredits Obama's opposition as the very policies and people who people just resoundingly rejected in favor of him.

3. I don't think it's such a bad thing for Obama and his team to have a little bit of breathing room to formulate and evaluate economic policies. These people are under tremendous pressure and some of their errors or shortcomings are clearly due to fatigue and overwork, as well as being forced to respond to blown out of proportion media and Congressional sensations. I'm sure that Obama and his team are still focusing on the economy - they're not forgetting about it. Give all those people a chance to breathe, some time to think. I think that if they get a breather they will be more likely to consider the bolder plans out there, to talk to the Robert Reichs and hopefully Paul Krugmans, and to have their people take the lay of the land out in the country, see what people are most concerned about, what should be the top priorities.

The Strike: On each of your points:

1. I can’t disagree with this. Especially with the Iraq angle, we need to make sure this does not happen again, so we need to know absolutely everything that happened.

2. This point I disagree with a little more. I think we’ve gotten about as much as we can from demonizing the previous administration. That can build up some general goodwill, but to truly have the American people behind you, you need to create positive change. You also need to create the impression that you’re agenda isn’t to repudiate the previous administration. You need to show that you’re not going to stoop that low. You need to rise above the fray.

3. I’m not sure I necessarily agree with this. You think big if your base pushes you to think big. Don’t you want the left wing’s main concern to be the most ambitious economic plans instead of Bush administration investigations? Don’t you want them investing all of their energy and resources to applying intense pressure on the administration and Congress? If you’re focusing on torture, it’s far more likely that you’ll leave economic policy to the “experts” like Larry Summers.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Daily Strike-4/22/09-Earth Day

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. Happy Earth Day! A new feature today is that when we talk about a random parliamentary term, we will provide a link to the definition, so you are all up to speed!

THE WHITE HOUSE: The President today ventured to Des Moines, Iowa. It must have given him memories of January 3rd, 2008, when his meteoric rise to the Presidency. He toured a plant that makes wind turbines to highlight his administration's commitment to clean energy. The President emphasized the duel benefit of clean energy: it helps grow the economy and it helps save the planet. It's a mantra the President will have to repeat numerous times to counter conservative criticism of his cap-and-trade proposal. The President returned to Washington this afternoon.

The real action today was on Capitol Hill. There were two very important hearings on the House side today. The first was in the House Foreign Affairs committee, where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave her first Congressional testimony. Clinton surely intended to talk about Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, war funding, Venezuela, human rights, North Korea, Israel etc...but instead she was asked questions about abortion and Dick Cheney. New Jersey Rep. Christopher Smith, a Republican, asked Clinton how she could have praised the head of NARAL when she has caused the death of millions of unborn children. Clinton dismissed the question by saying that they had a fundamental disagreement, and that Clinton had worked as First Lady to minimize abortion. The next absurd question was from California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who fulfills his role as Bush administration apologist. I'll let you watch their entertaining exchange here.

There was also an interesting hearing on climate change legislation in the House Energy and Commerce Committee. EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Energy Secretary Stephen Chu were the witnesses. The most interesting thing about this hearing was a bit of bickering between LaHood (a former Republican Congressman) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX). Barton asked LaHood if he intended to continue aiding auto companies, and the two of them went back and forth on the merits of the administration's bailout plans. LaHood was quite the Obama loyalist. It's amazing how LaHood can just transform himself into a liberal as soon as he joins the Obama cabinet. I wonder if the same thing would have happened to Judd Gregg. Barton also asked Secretary Chu why there is natural gas in Alaska. (Barton was trying to make the point that Alaska wasn't always a frozen tundra, meaning that somehow global warming doesn't exist). Chu talked about the shifting tectonic plates and the like. Barton responded by acting shocked that Alaska just "slid up there." Actually, Barton, that's exactly what happened.

THE HOUSE: A mostly low-key day in the House. Members mostly considered a slew of suspension bills. The one very important vote was on a non-binding motion to instruct the conferees that will help negotiate a final version of the recently-passed budget resolution. The motion "instructs" conferees not to use reconciliation instructions in the final version of the bill. Democrats want to include reconciliation language so that they can pass health care reform and education policy under expedited procedures that only require 51 votes in the Senate (instead of the usual 60). Even though a motion to instruct conferees is non-binding, the vote was a good bellwether to see if the House would support a final bill that had reconciliation instructions in it. The result was decidedly positive. The motion was defeated 227-196. All Republicans voted for it, as did 23 Democrats. These Democrats almost exactly match those who voted against the House version of the budget resolution. The good sign is that if a majority of the House of Representatives would want to use expedited procedures to get health care reform passed, you can bet that they would vote for a pretty ambitious bill.

THE SENATE: The Senate today resumed consideration of a bill to enacts new mortgage fraud regulations. The measure, among other things, increases liability for companies who make false or fraudulent claims. Senators voted on two amendments to the bill. The first, offered by Senator Kyl (R-AZ) modifies the definition of the word "obligation" under the False Claims Act. Your guess is as good as mine as to what that means. The amendment was approved 94-1, with the only dissenting vote coming from avowed socialist Bernie Sanders (VT). The second amendment, offered by Senator Isakson (R-GA) would establish a new advisory board on mortgage policy called the "Financial Markets Commission." The amendment was approved 92-4. The only no votes came from fiscal conservatives Bunning (KY), Grassley (IA), Kyl (AZ) and McCain (AZ). I guess these Republicans don't want to spend the money necessary to set up such a commission. More amendments (a lot of them) coming tomorrow.

That's it for today! Leave your comments and tell me what you think about including links to those definitions!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Daily Strike-4/21/09-National Service

Good Tuesday evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. Life is so much more fun when Congress is in session, isn't it? An extremely busy day in Washington, so let's get started.

THE WHITE HOUSE: This morning, Jordan's King Abdullah II met with President Obama at the White House. The news out of this meeting had pretty much nothing to do with the meeting itself, but with Obama's answer to a question about those recently released torture memos. The President said the decision to prosecute administration officials who authorized torture would be left to the Attorney General. This was a pretty significant statement from a President who said he doesn't want to "look back." He has left open the door for prosecutions of those who broke the law by ordering CIA agents to waterboard and put suspects in boxes with caterpillars. The President also said, as a caveat, that he is worried that a Congressional investigation into the matter could become politicized. It most certainly would. I'm not sure if that's a fight the administration wants to pick while it pursues an ambitious legislative agenda. A successful prosecution won't get many Americans back to work (except maybe a couple new prison guards). Eventually, you need to hold these people accountable for breaking the law.

Obama is still facing intense criticism for releasing the memos. One such criticism came from Joe Lieberman, who said Obama's decision was "aiding our foes." I think the Big Picture put it best:

"Don't you think that calling our President weak and soft and stating that he's
undermining our ability to defend ourselves does a great deal to embolden our
enemies, to encourage them to test the United States? It's as if you lived in a
house with a bunch of roommates. The roommates voted and chose one alarm system.

You lost the vote, and now you're putting up signs and yelling through a
bullhorn that the house's alarm system is weak. Don't you think that emboldens

The other big news from the Abdullah meeting is that Obama has invited leaders from Israel, The Palestinian territories and Egypt to the White House for peace talks. It will be increasingly difficult to achieve a lasting piece with the more hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back at the helm, but we hope and pray it can be done.

EDWARD M. KENNEDY SERVE AMERICA ACT: This bill was signed into law today by President Obama at a school in Washington DC. The bill, authored by Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) expands public service programs and adds 75,000 jobs to Americorps. This is a truly great piece of legislation. It is perfect for an economic downturn. The government is creating thousands of jobs putting Americans to work to make their communities better.

The event itself was very touching. Ted Kennedy, ailing from brain cancer, hailed the bill's passage in a speech introducing the President. An impressive cast of political characters attended the event, including former President Clinton, Vice President Biden, First Lady Michelle Obama, Senators Michael Enzi (R-WY), Chris Dodd (D-CT), Harry Reid (D-NV) and Durbin (IL) as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Reps. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), George Miller (D-CA) and Gwen Moore (D-WI). The President said in his short remarks that he wouldn't be standing there if it weren't for national service and he invited others to share their service stories on the White House website. Obama also honored Kennedy by saying, "There are very few people who have touched the life of this nation with the same breadth..the same order of magnitude." He also mentioned that the First Lady had worked at an Americorps program in Chicago. The President left the event to participate in some public service of his own, planting trees with Joe Biden and Bill Clinton.

One of the chief roles of the President, in my view, is to be a role model for America's children. I can't think of a better way to fulfill that role than championing the cause of national service. It will not only make the servant's life better and more fulfilling, but it will provide enormous benefit to our country. Of course, someone had to be a party pooper. I just read this on

Conservative messaging on public service: "The answer to our challenges cannot come from government alone." (4:07 p.m.)

THE SENATE: The Senate had a very busy day today. This morning, the Senate Finance Committee voted to send Health and Human Services Nominee Kathleen Sebelius to the full Senate. The vote was 15-8. Only two Republicans supported her nomination, Senators Snowe (ME) and Roberts (KS). Other Republican Senators have raised questions about tax issues and campaign contributions from a late-term abortion doctor. No word yet on when the final vote will be on her nomination, but my guess is later this week.

The Senate voted (finally!) to confirm Christopher Hill to be ambassador of Iraq. The vote was 73-23, with all no votes coming from the GOP. Republicans had stalled the nomination because of Hill's tenure as ambassador to North Korea. The chief opponent, Kansas Republican Sam Brownback, had accused Hill of lying to him in committee about something or other.

The Senate will begin consideration of a bill to improve the enforcement of mortgage fraud. I expect the Senate to consider the bill for the remainder of the week, and deal with a slew of Republican amendments. Ten bucks says they'll force a vote on ACORN or guns just to stir up a culture-war pot. Any takers?

That's it for tonight. Please leave us some comments! See you tomorrow!!

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Daily Strike-4/20/09-Faux Spending Cuts/CIA Visits/Senate Returns

Good Monday evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. A busy day in Washington, let's get to it. Make sure you're fully informed on the upcoming week in politics by reading The Weekly Strike below. Also, don't forget to post your comments! The best comment will be featured in Friday's Daily Strike!!

THE WHITE HOUSE: President Obama had his first full cabinet meeting this morning at the White House. The only missing member, as we noted earlier, was HHS nominee Kathleen Sebelius who is expected to be confirmed some time in the next week. Obama touted the $100 million in spending cuts he's instructed agencies to take in the coming weeks. Republicans mocked the President (and rightly so) for touting cuts that amount to a minuscule percentage of the federal budget. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs defended the President by saying he "sending a message." Gibbs scoffed at the notion that $100 million wasn't a lot of money by telling CBS' Chip Reid that "only in Washington is that not a lot of money." That is just totally dishonest. In fact, I heard George W. Bush use the same line. It ISN'T a lot of money, and we shouldn't mislead the American people into thinking that it is. Furthermore, we should be focusing on reviving the economy and creating jobs rather than capitulating to the "reasonable centrists" in Congress with tiny agency budget cuts.

The President ventured this afternoon to the CIA headquarters this afternoon to address the rank and file. He thanked them for their service in helping to protect the American people. He also said that he understood that they sometimes act with one hand tied behind their backs. The United States operates under the rule of law, unlike our enemies, and thus we don't do certain things that may make intelligence gathering easier. Over the long term, Obama said, we will defeat our enemies because we're on the better side of history. The President is still is facing harsh criticism for releasing CIA torture memos last week. Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss said that Obama "overstepped his bounds." The vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Kit Bond (R-MO), said Obama's decision undermines the CIA intelligence-gathering process. In this case, I'm fully on the President's side. As I said yesterday, most of this information was already known, and the American people have the right to know about it.

This wasn't the only criticism leveled at the President today. Two of the least popular and most maligned politicians in the country, Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney, said that Obama is emboldening our enemies by shaking Hugo Chavez's hand. If I had a nickel for every time these two hacks have said similarly ludicrous things, I would wealthy.

CONGRESS: Hooray! Congress is officially back in session. At least one branch, that is. The Senate returned this afternoon to vote on three assistant attorney general nominees, and to cut off debate on ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill. All three justice department nominees were confirmed:

-Tony West by a vote of 82-4. Dissenting Republicans were Bunning (KY), Chambliss (GA), Isakson (GA) and Shelby (AL). What did he do to the state of Georgia?

-Lanny Breuer by a vote of 88-0.

-Christine Varney by a vote of 87-1. Bunning (KY) was the lone dissenter.

Hill's nomination was just advanced moments ago by a vote of 73-17. All opposition was from Republicans, who stalled his nomination because of his past work as ambassador to North Korea.

The House is back in session tomorrow. Two important developments happened today off the floor. First, budget committee staffers in both chambers say that conferees could be named this week to reconcile that House and Senate versions of the budget resolutions. Once the conferees are appointed, the conference will take place. The major sticking point will be on whether to include fast-track "reconciliation" procedure to make it easier to pass health care reform. Reconciliation, for those of you new to the blog, is a special procedure that calls for committees to adjust mandatory spending to pre-set levels. A reconciliation bill is not subject to a filibuster, meaning it would only require 51 votes to pass the Senate. The House had reconciliation in its version of the non-binding budget resolution, but the Senate did not. If I had to guess, they will include reconciliation language in the final version.

On that same subject, the chairmen of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, Ted Kennedy, and Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus, outlined a timeline to pass health care reform legislation. The two committees hope to mark up a comprehensive bill by mid-June. This most important part of this announcement is the willingness of Baucus and Kennedy to work together to create one bill. This was not the case during Clinton's health care reform effort in 1993.

That's it for tonight. Before we go, I bring you our second edition of the Big Picture's Corner. He was reacting to Obama's call for minuscule spending cuts. Very good insight here. See you tomorrow!
What's particularly poor is that cutting $100 million means cutting jobs. That's a huge thing that just isn't understood enough, which is that all of this spending isn't just flushed down the toilet, it actually pays people. Now, perhaps the money could be better spent, more equitably distributed, on better priorities, but it's completely insane just to oppose "spending" in a time when the economy is so under-capacity.
That could be part of a series of "Things the Mainstream Media Refuses to Understand":
1. What spending actually MEANS
2. That Tax Cuts are by far the most fiscally irresponsible thing you can do, the biggest cause of deficits
3. That deficit spending is neither bad nor good - it completely depends on WHAT the money is being spent on, and especially when the economy is drastically under capacity, it's most likely good unless it's tax cuts.
4. The only way to close the budget deficit short and long term is to eliminate unnecessary tax breaks and useless subsidies, and use that money to invest in the American people, in good jobs, and sustainable job producers.
5. (and most important) The majority of Americans care far far more about their job, their pay, their benefits, their bills, and their long-term prospects than they do about tax cuts, "spending" or other stupid obsessions.