Congress

Retrench Warfare

AP Photo/Alex Brandon
AP Photo/Alex Brandon Senator Mike Johanns, a Republican from Nebraska, left, walks with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell from Kentucky to the Senate floor for a vote on the fiscal cliff early this morning. The Senate vote just before dawn in favor of a permanent tax hike on the top one percent defers virtually all of the other budget battles. Assuming the House follows suit today, it is up to President Obama and the Democrats to radically change the conversation. In the deal that the Senate agreed to, with only eight senators voting against, the Democrats won big in two respects. They forced the Republicans to raise taxes on the rich, and they took all spending cuts including in Social Security off the table—for now. If Tea Party Republicans vote against the deal and it passes the House with the voters of nearly all Democrats and a few dozen renegade Republicans, it could cost John Boehner his Speakership. But automatic cuts of $120 billion this year and $1.2 trillion over a...

Obama Appoints Scott Brown as Senator from Massachusetts

Flickr/U.S Embassy Kabul Afghanistan
Flickr/U.S Embassy Kabul Afghanistan Senator John Kerry and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzain in Kabul in 2009. The Washington Post reports that President Obama has nominated Massachusetts Senator John Kerry to be the next Secretary of State. This doesn’t come as a surprise; he was on the short list behind Hillary Clinton, and has been a stalwart defender of the administration’s foreign policy choices over the last four years. Clinton is a hard act to follow, but there’s little doubt Kerry will perform well in the position. If there’s a problem, it’s that Kerry’s departure from the Senate leaves an open seat in Massachusetts, and as it happens, there’s a former Republican senator—Scott Brown—itching to get back into the game. It helps that he’s still well liked by most Massachusetts voters; a recent poll from MassINC Polling Group shows Brown with high favorability—58 percent, compared to 28 percent who view him unfavorably. The New York Times ’ Nate Silver isn’t so sure that Brown...

Don't Count Boehner Out Just Yet

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
AP Photo/John Duricka Representative John Boehner holds up a copy of the Constitution on Capitol Hill in Washington Thursday, May 7, 1992, as Senator Don Nickles looks on. T he side of John Boehner we understand most is the one that offers a distant sense of comfort—the one who'll pander to the conservative movement during these fiscal-cliff talks but understands a compromise must come through at the end. This is the John Boehner we dub the "dealmaker," the leader who must "stand up” to the Tea Party—and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the rival who would do him in. His “dealmaker” persona stems from the assumption he isn’t a true believer or an aggressively ideological Republican, which is correct. But it's his other side, the deeply ambitious one, that clouds our ability to predict where the fiscal saga ends. This is the Boehner who clawed his way to the House Speakership for over 20 years, a position that his conference may force him out of if he "surrenders" to President Obama in...

The Nature of John Boehner's Problem

Flickr/Gage Skidmore
So last night, John Boehner suffered a particularly humiliating defeat. Attempting to pass "Plan B," a fiscal plan that would go nowhere in the Senate, and even if it did it would get vetoed by the President, Boehner was hoping that if nothing else he'd be able to say in the face of rising criticism, "We passed a plan!" But he couldn't accomplish even that; realizing that he couldn't muster the votes within his caucus for Plan B, he cancelled the vote. Boehner is the weakest Speaker in memory. I picture Nancy Pelosi, who can corral more votes before her morning coffee than Boehner can in a week of begging, smiling a wicked little smile at her opposite number's bumbling failure. So just why is it that Boehner finds even a symbolic vote like this one so impossible to win? I don't think it's that he's ineffectual, and a more skilled dealmaker would be able to accomplish more. The problem is in his troops. Ed Kilgore offers his explanation : This raises a question that has been at the...

How House Republicans Neutered Themselves

Gage Skidmore / Flickr
Gage Skidmore / Flickr Last night witnessed the implosion of John Boehner’s efforts to pass a Republican-crafted fiscal-cliff proposal, otherwise known as “Plan B.” Unlike the floated compromise, Boehner's proposal would extend the Bush tax cuts for everyone earning under $1 million, preserve a high estate-tax cut-off, and slash spending on tax credits for working-class Americans (in addition to cutting Obamacare and repealing key mechanisms of Dodd-Frank). The idea was to build leverage in negotiations with the White House by passing a bill that could serve as an alternative to any deal that doesn’t give substantive weight to conservative interests. If, for example, the White House refused to concede further entitlement cuts, Boehner could send Plan B to the Senate, and force a vote, thus presenting himself as a sensible negotiator, pace President Obama’s partisan demands. If House Republicans had basic tactical skills, this might have worked. Instead, the right-wing fringe of the...

Prostitution for the Price of a Happy Meal

Why food-stamp bans are perpetuating risky behaviors among America’s most vulnerable

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, file
Carla walked into my office with despair in her eyes. I was surprised. Carla has been doing well in her four months out of prison; she got off drugs, regained custody of her kids, and even enrolled in a local community college. Without much prodding she admitted to me that she had retuned to prostitution: “I am putting myself at risk for HIV to get my kids a f---ing happy meal.” Despite looking high and low for a job, Carla explained, she was still unemployed. Most entry-level jobs felt out of reach with her drug record, but what’s worse, even the state wasn’t willing to throw her a temporary life preserver. You see, Carla is from one of the 32 states in the country that ban anyone convicted of a drug felony from collecting food stamps. With the release of the Global Burden of Disease Study last week, it bears looking at how we are perpetuating burdens among the most vulnerable Americans with our outdated laws. If she’d committed rape or murder, Carla could have gotten assistance to...

Paying for Having Been Raped

AP Photo/Cliff Owen
Cross your fingers, but it looks a s if Congress is going to let women in the military rely on health insurance to pay for abortions in cases of rape or incest. That’s been a long time coming, as Mother Jones reports : Current Department of Defense policy only provides abortion coverage if the life of the mother is at stake. Under the 1976 Hyde Amendment, federal money cannot be used to provide abortion services, except in the case of rape, incest, or if the woman's life is endangered. But since 1979, the DOD has had an even stricter limit on abortions, refusing to cover them in cases of rape despite the high rate of sexual assaults in the military. (Over 3,000 sexual assaults were reported in the armed services in 2010 alone.) If [New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne] Shaheen's measure passes, the 400,000 women in the armed services will have the same access to abortion that other federal employees get. If a Department of Health and Human Services employee working in Washington, D.C. is raped,...

It’s a Mad, Mad Michigan

Right-to-work legislation was only the beginning. State Republicans have an entire docket full of legislation set to limit rights.

(AP Photo/The Detroit News, Elizabeth Conley)
Sure, lame-duck legislatures are bound to be a bit mad. But the session that just closed in Michigan was one for the ages. Aflush with the flurry of bills sent to the desk of Governor Rick Snyder—not so much speaking to his opinion on their quality—a politics-loving friend of mine in Detroit exclaimed, “It’s like Christmas in … well, in December.” The swift passage of right-to-work in Michigan picked up national and international headlines last week. But that overhaul of labor law is only one piece of the expansive legislative plan for the state that now awaits Snyder’s go-ahead. The lame-duck session was the final and powerful display of influence by GOP and Tea Party lawmakers that had a total and triumphant win in the 2010 election. Even as Michigan’s reputation as a “swing state” is diminishing—it’s voted Democratic for president since 1992, and both its U.S. senators are Democrats—local politics remain fractious. Not only does the GOP dominate both chambers in the state...

Social Security: Will Obama Cave?

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak President Barack Obama looks toward reporters shouting questions at him regarding the fiscal cliff as he walks to the White House after attending a holiday party for the National Security Council. O nce again, President Obama seems to be on the verge of folding a winning hand. Widely leaked reports indicate that the president and House Speaker John Boehner are making a fiscal deal that includes hiking tax rates back to the pre-Bush levels with a threshold of $400,000 rather than the original $250,000, and cutting present Social Security benefits. Obama, the reports say, will now settle for as little as $1.2 trillion in tax increases on the rich rather than the $1.6 trillion that he had originally sought. The difference, in effect, will come out of the pockets of workers, retirees, the young, and the poor. Especially foolish is the cut in Social Security benefits, disguised as a change in the cost-of-living adjustment formula. Before getting to the arcane...

Mitch McConnell Doesn't Understand What the Debt Ceiling Is

Flickr/Gage Skidmore
Now that Republicans have pretty much resigned themselves to the idea that there is going to be some kind of tax increase for the wealthy, they're comforting themselves with the idea that come early next year, they'll still be able to re-enact the lovely conflict we had over the debt ceiling in 2011 and hold the American economy hostage to their demands. President Obama has quite sensibly said that we ought to just get rid of the debt ceiling itself, since it serves no purpose and allows a party to engage in just this kind of economic blackmail if it's desperate and cynical enough. So Republicans are pushing back, none more so than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But in the process, McConnell has revealed that he has no idea how the debt ceiling actually works. What McConnell has been saying is that if we eliminate the debt ceiling, it will give the president all kinds of new powers, to spend money willy-nilly however he wants to, run up the debt, and generally become a kind...

What Raising the Medicare Eligibility Age Means

President Johnson signing Medicare into law in 1965.
After a campaign in which Republicans attempted to pillory Barack Obama for finding $716 billion in savings from Medicare (via cuts in payments to insurance companies and providers but not cuts to benefits), those same Republicans now seem to be demanding that Obama agree to cuts in Medicare benefits as the price of saving the country from the Austerity Trap, a.k.a. fiscal cliff. Oh, the irony! You'd almost think that they weren't really the stalwart defenders of Medicare they pretended to be. And there are some hints that the Obama administration is seriously considering agreeing to raise the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67 as part of this deal. It's a dreadful idea, and as we discuss this possibility, there's one really important thing to keep in mind: Medicare is the least expensive way to insure these people. Or anybody, for that matter. In all this talk of the bloated entitlement system, you'd be forgiven for thinking Medicare was some kind of inefficient, overpriced big...

Exit Jim DeMint. Enter ... Tim Scott?

North Charleston / Flickr
North Charleston / Flickr Rep. Tim Scott speaks to a group of veterans in North Charleston, South Carolina. Arch-conservative Senator Jim DeMint—who is something of an avatar for the Tea Party in Congress—is retiring to join the Heritage Foundation as its new president: South Carolina U.S. Senator Jim DeMint will replace Ed Feulner as president of the Heritage Foundation. Mr. DeMint will leave his post as South Carolina's junior senator in early January to take control of the Washington think tank, which has an annual budget of about $80 million. His reasoning seems to be that he's of more use in the private sector—spreading ideas—than he is in the Senate: Sen. DeMint said he is taking the Heritage job because he sees it as a vehicle to popularize conservative ideas in a way that connects with a broader public. "This is an urgent time," the senator said, "because we saw in the last election we were not able to communicate conservative ideas that win elections." DeMint's departure...

Speaker Harry Reid?

Center for American Progress, Bill Murray
Flickr/Bill Murray The façade of the U.S. Senate wing G iven current proposals for reform, it seems clear the filibuster in some form will survive—at least in the upcoming session of Congress. What the Senate looks like in the long term, however, is still very much up for grabs. One thing is for sure: It can’t continue in its current dysfunction. The first step in thinking about the fate of the filibuster is to place it in historical context. Filibusters were once a rare occurrence, but as University of Miami professor Greg Koger explains in Filibustering , they increased in two major and important spikes. First, Republicans reacted to the election of Bill Clinton and a unified Democratic government in 1993 by filibustering all major initiatives. Then, Republicans reacted to the election of Barack Obama and another period of unified Democratic government in 2009 by establishing a true 60-vote requirement; passing virtually any bill (and even amendments to those bills) and every...

An End to Debt Ceiling Shenanigans?

Center for American Progress
Via Matthew Yglesias, Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, explains one of the administration's key demands as deals with Republicans on the fiscal cliff—an end to the debt ceiling as a negotiation tool: Make no mistake about it: no budget agreement – however robust – will provide the economic certainty and confidence we aspire to if job creators, investors and working families believe that, after we reach that agreement, just months down the road, we will start the next round of debt limit debacles. As both economist and business leaders have told us, only the greatest national tragedies have competed with the debt limit debacle of 2011 in terms of damaging consumer confidence. So let’s be clear: if we want to see the economic benefit of a bipartisan budget agreement we need to agree that the era of threatening the default of the United States as a budget tactic is over. The full faith and credit of the United States of America is something we should cherish and...

The Importance of Elizabeth Warren

(AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
The Boston Globe , Politico, and Huffington Post are all reporting that Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren has been granted her wish to get a seat on the Senate Banking Committee. This victory for progressives is huge. It means that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid—who makes the committee selection, later ratified by the Democratic caucus—did not cave to pressure from either the financial lobby or from Senate Banking Committee Chairman, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, who is effectively part of that lobby. (South Dakota gutted its usury laws decades ago to make the state hospitable to the back office operations of the biggest banks.) It isn’t just that Warren is a resolute progressive. It’s that she knows so much about the financial industry, from her years as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the TARP, and before that as one of the leading scholars of bankruptcy and consumer abuses. And it’s that she’s incorruptible, as well as very smart. More than your typical freshman...

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