Nation editor-at-large and host of MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes.
Obama is emerging, on the other hand, as a President who convenes the players, points them down the road and then lets the chips fall where they may. Obama regularly gathers members of Congress at the White House to give them broad encouragement, not marching orders. On May 5, he invited Democrats from the House Energy and Commerce Committee to a meeting at the White House, but he had no specific list of demands. He asked only for a bill that could get industry support, deal with regional concerns and provide market certainty for future investment. Behind the scenes, his aides all but backed off from any arm-twisting. "They are not at the negotiating table," said Representative Rick Boucher, a Democrat from Virginia's coal country and a lead drafter of the bill.
This is spot on, and really, really frustrating. Sometimes it almost seems like the White House conducts itself like an editorial page: announcing its views, and principles and then promising to watch closely as the process unfolds. But its' not an editorial page, it's the White House. They don't have to just nudge. Think LBJ nudged?
A savvy progressive DC observer said to me recently that they lay out principles, let congress do with it what they will, and then come in and declare victory. Politically it makes sense: it's almost impossible to have a high-profile setback or defeat if you follow this method. But it's also unclear that you can ever, you know, win.
From Greg Kaufmann, our weekly preview:
The war supplemental, FY10 budget hearings, and credit card reform -- those are the big-ticket items this week.
The House is expected to pass the $96.7 billion war supplemental. Senate Appropriations will take it up on Thursday. $84.5 billion is devoted to military and intelligence ops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and $10 billion for the State Department and USAID -- a split that flies in the face of the Petraeus counterinsurgency strategy which calls for 80% non-military and 20% military expenditures. (Today, participants in a National Call-In Day will ask their Representatives to fund alternatives to escalation and co-sponsor a bill demanding that President Obama provide an exit plan by the end of this year.)
It looks like a credit card reform bill will pass the Senate this week. It would keep companies from raising rates on people unless the borrower is 60 days late in making a minimum payment. That's a good change, although Senator Bernie Sanders continues to push a cap of 15 percent -- the same cap Congress has placed on credit union interest rates. He keeps hammering the point that the same banks taking bailout money are turning around and charging taxpayers exorbitant rates. Is anyone listening?
The House and Senate begin hearings on the FY10 budget -- 14 hearings in the House, 7 in the Senate. Defense Secretary Gates and Joint Chiefs Chair Adm. Michael Mullen will appear before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees on Wednesday and Thursday to defend the Pentagon's $534 billion budget request, and an additional $130 billion for Iraq/Afghanistan next year.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus has a lot going on this week. On Wednesday it holds its sixth forum on Afghanistan, this one on "Forging an International Diplomatic Strategy". This morning the CPC held a briefing on "Voices from the Frontlines of the Economic Crisis -- A Bold Agenda for Change". Thursday evening the Caucus holds a reception for Darcy Burner, the newly hired and first Executive Director of the American Progressive Caucus Policy Foundation. CPC Co-Chair Raúl Grijalva will testify at the House Education and Labor Committee hearing -- "America's Competitiveness through High School Reform" -- on the needs of Latino students and English Language Learners.
House Energy and Commerce Chair Henry Waxman hopes to mark up his energy and climate bill this week… still working out deals on free emissions credits and the renewable energy portfolio standard with fellow-Dems on the committee. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee continues its work on figuring on the siting intricacies for the national energy grid.
On Thursday the Senate Finance Committee looks at "Financing Comprehensive Health Care Reform". Yesterday, senators Baucus and Grassley released a report on policy options that includes a section on a public plan.
Other hearings: AIG and its CEO will surface for more abuse on Wednesday at the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform's hearing "AIG: Where is the Taxpayer's Money Going?"
Sen. Sherrod Brown will chair a hearing Wednesday on "Manufacturing and the Credit Crisis". United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard is among the witnesses.
Senate Judiciary holds a hearing tomorrow on torture and the torture memos. Former FBI special agent Ali Soufan -- who interrogated Abu Zubaydah -- will testify.
Jimmy Carter and Tony Blair are in town to testify before John Kerry's Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- Carter's testifying today on "Energy Security" and Blair this Thursday on Middle East peace. Kerry will also hear from Obama's Af-Pak envoy, Richard Holbrooke, this morning. Last month he chaired a compelling hearing with veterans from Afghanistan during which he promised to ask the tough questions -- now is his chance.
The New York Times has a piece today about the Obama administration's intention to actually enforce anti-trust provisions, a shocking departure from the actions of the last administration.
I just got back from a speech by Christine Varney, the recently confirmed Assistant Attorney General for anti-trust, who gave a remarkably forthright, unapologetic defense of zealous anti-trust enforcement. I'll have more to say about the speech later, which was short on specifics, but unequivocal about the dangers of "too big to fail." But anti-trust has been relegated to a backwater not only in the Bush administration's justice department, but also in our public discourse and in the elite opinion of legal academia. I think (hope!) this morning's speech marked the end of that chapter.
From Greg Kaufmann:
President Obama meets with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan on Wednesday, while the Senate, House, and Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) all look into Pakistan strategy.
The Administration's Pakistan-Afghanistan envoy Richard Holbrooke will testify before both Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs on Tuesday. Also Tuesday, the CPC holds its fifth forum on the Afghanistan War, examining how US policy in Pakistan is impacting Afghanistan. On Thursday, House Armed Services will hold a hearing on "Counterinsurgency… Issues and Lessons Learned", witnesses include counterinsurgency specialist David Kilcullen who recently called for drone attacks in Pakistan to be halted. Also on Thursday morning, House Appropriations will mark-up the Administration's $83 billion war supplemental.
Regarding the supplemental, last week the CPC met with Obama and took issue with the fact that it doesn't come anywhere close to an allocation of 80 percent non-military and 20 percent military that the counterinsurgency strategy calls for. ($75 billion -- or about 90 percent -- is for military operations.) Obama said the supplemental reflects the mess he inherited from Bush and that the Caucus should instead examine his FY10 budget. Congress will get a chance to do just that this week as the details of Obama's budget are expected to be released. There are also a host of appropriations hearings scheduled, including on funding for Justice, Army, Navy, and the Marine Corps.
In other defense spending news, the House Armed Services Committee will markup its bill on Pentagon procurement reform -- Senate Armed Services already approved its version.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the Administration will also release its plan for cracking down on offshore tax havens used by corporations and the wealthy. Aspects of this will lead to dire predictions from lobbyists on massive job losses and the inability of US companies to compete.
Last week -- after months of negotiations with banks failed to drum up the Senate support necessary for legislation that would allow bankruptcy judges to modify home mortgages -- Majority Whip Dick Durbin declared that banks "are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place." Now the Senate will take up consumer protections for credit cards and the smart money is on some watered down piece of legislation -- especially since it's spearheaded by Senate Banking Chair Sen. Chris Dodd. What we really need are caps to prevent usurious interest rates -- along the lines of what Sen. Bernie Sanders is fighting for.
The House -- which has been more successful with its mortgage reform efforts -- will look at more reforms this week, including a bill which would require lenders to retain 5 percent of any loan they repackage and sell, and ban bonuses for steering borrowers into higher-priced loans. According to CongressDaily, Dodd hasn't decided whether he'll take up a companion bill -- you can bet if he does it will be much more favorable to the bankers.
It's a big week for energy legislation…. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will markup legislation on the "siting of interstate electric transmission facilities, energy finance, and nuclear energy." The Senate Finance Committee will hold a hearing on auctioning emissions credits in a cap-and-trade system. And, according to CongressDaily, House Energy and Commerce Chair Henry Waxman hopes this week to begin the markup on legislation establishing cap-and-trade, a renewable electricity mandate, and the energy grid.
The big battle over healthcare reform that includes a public plan option will be on display this week when Senate Finance holds another "roundtable" (which seems heavily skewed to business interests -- with the notable exception of Ron Pollack, director of Families USA) and House Ways and Means discusses reformwith HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
Other notable hearings: House Science and Technology Committee holds a hearing on Recovery Act oversight and witnesses include Gary Bass, founder and executive director of the excellent OMB Watch. Want to know how the stimulus is faring in terms of transportation infrastructure jobs? Check out the House Transportation hearing tomorrow. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke will also testify tomorrow before the Joint Economic Committee on the economic outlook. House Education and Labor will offer the latest hearing on the swine flu with a focus on preparedness at school and work (hint: If sick, don't go. Also wash hands for 20 seconds.). Finally, I hope this one isn't a case of wishful thinking, but I fear it is: House Foreign Affairs hold a hearing titled "Zimbabwe: Opportunities for a New Way Forward".
After digesting a bit, here's my sense:
1) This is a huge deal psychologically and in terms of the media narrative. Both coverage and polling show the GOP is increasingly a marginalized party, controlled by its most reactionary, zealous members. This really furthers that (largely accurate) impression.
2) The motivation here is pretty clearly expediency: he was going to lose a GOP primary. No way around it. This is the best way for him to keep his seat.
3) Considering that's the case, I don't think the Democrats really owe him anything, in terms of the primary. He's a member of the Democratic party, but democracy doesn't operate with guarantees and a good Democrat (or more!) should primary Specter. If Pennsylvania Democratic primary voters are persuaded Specter shares their values, then he'll win, if not, not. Seeing as how Penn is one of the most heavily unionized states in the union and Specter still says he'll filibuster EFCA, I think Democratic primary voters should have the opportunity to vote for someone who believes in the human right to organize.
4) The basic power dynamics in the Senate remain somewhat unchanged. The fact is that the fulcrum of the entire agenda is a collection of about six or so self-described "moderate" senators: Collins, Snowe, Specter, Nelson, Conrad, Bayh, and it doesn't matter a whole lot what letter they have in front of their name.
All that said, they've got to be happy over in the White House, and pretty damn pissed in the GOP cloakroom.
That's the word from CNN. Specter, of course, has had to bend further and further right to protect his right flank from primary challenger Pat Toomey. Apparently he realized that was a dead end. The GOP base, which makes up primary voters, is getting more and more right-wing. So he's decided to switch parties and become a Democrat, hoping to preserve his political future. He stresses in his statement that:
My change in party affiliation does not mean that I will be a party-line voter any more for the Democrats that I have been for the Republicans. Unlike Senator Jeffords' switch which changed party control, I will not be an automatic 60th vote for cloture. For example, my position on Employees Free Choice (Card Check) will not change.
It's possible, indeed likely, that this is merely a semantic shift. Specter will retain his own politics, vote the way he was before and have a D in front of his name instead of an R. He's hoping he'll have a clear path to re-election as a Democrat in a blue state.
But, it's also hard not to think that Democrats are in a much better position than they were 24 hours ago. It also occurs to me that the increasingly right-wing, out of step GOP base really is on its way to further destroying what's left of its party.
Greg Kaufmann gives a run-down of a busy upcoming week on Capitol Hill:
The Rest of the Week
The House and Senate negotiated a final budget resolution Monday night and will vote on it this week. It includes "reconciliation instructions" which would allow healthcare and education legislation to pass the Senate with a simple majority rather than the filibuster-proof 60 votes. It should be fun to watch the histrionics of Republican Sen. Judd Gregg as he does a 180 from his days in the Majority and claims that reconciliation will basically bring down the Republic. (Jon Stewart had a blast with this earlier this month -- worth checking out at the 05:05 mark.)
President Obama's $83 billion war supplemental will also be taken up in Senate Appropriations when Secretary Clinton and Secretary Gates testify on Thursday. The bill includes nearly $76 billion for the military and approximately $7 billion for diplomatic efforts and foreign aid.
The supplemental is sure to be a topic that comes up when the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) and its 77 members meet with President Obama today -- many members oppose the escalation. Another focus likely will be on the Caucus' determination to only support a healthcare reform bill that includes a public plan option (like Medicare). CPC Co-Chairs -- Reps. Raúl Grijalva and Lynn Woolsey -- recently wrote a letter to Obama outlining that commitment along with the chairs of the Black, Hispanic, and Asian and Pacific American Caucuses.
In other CPC news… the fourth forum in a six-part series on Af-Pak policy will be held this morning at 10:00. It's good to see the Caucus ahead of the curve in its commitment to hearings and exploring alternatives.
On credit card reform, the House will take up a bill that -- like the Dodd bill in the Senate -- seems largely designed to allow legislators to tell constituents they took action while avoiding real reform that takes on the banks. I think Senator Bernie Sanders has it exactly right as he continues to fight for an interest rate cap of 15 percent -- the same limit that has applied to credit unions for decades. Last week Sanders asked people to write him about their dealings with the credit card companies -- he's posting some responses online and will read others on the Senate floor. He's received over 1,000 emails and wants more from people all over the country. Fellow-Vermonter and CPC member -- Rep. Peter Welch -- along with CPC members John Tierney and Maurice Hinchey will introduce an amendment to the House bill to cap rates at 18 percent.
Senator Dick Durbin continues this week to try to win over banks and credit card unions in order to allow bankruptcy judges to modify the principals of mortgages. The longer this goes on, the more infuriating it is that loan modifications are done on a voluntary basis by banks. (Even though modifications are better for both homeowners and the banks than foreclosure.)
Speaking of banks sucking... Sen. Chuck Schumer is holding his first hearing on immigration reform this Thursday. The star witness? Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. According to CongressDaily Greenspan will "assess the economic impact of [immigration] legislation." In his opening statement Schumer should explain why the American people should trust Greenspan to assess the economic impact of anything.
Other notable happenings on the Hill…. Pakistan-Afghanistan envoy Richard Holbrooke will testify about the Administration's Pakistan strategy before the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations committees on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively. The House Armed Services Committee will also hear from Administration officials on Wednesday regarding counterinsurgency efforts with Pakistan. The House (Select) Intelligence Committee will receive a closed briefing on Afghanistan the next day.
Workplace safety gets a fresh start after eight years in the wilderness. The Senate HELP Committee looks at incentives for workplace safety, and the House Education and Labor Committee holds two hearings -- on OSHA penalties as deterrents to safety violations and improving OSHA enforcement.
Wednesday there is a Senate Judiciary hearing on "Restoring Fairness to Federal Sentencing: Addressing the Crack-Powder Disparity". It's great to see this still on the radar -- but haven't there been a ton of hearings on this? It's disappointing that this isn't a markup of an actual bill that takes corrective action. On the other hand, the same committee will markup the "State Secrets Protection Act" and "Improving Assistance to Domestic and Sexual Violence Victims Act".
Finally, a hearing on the VA Meeting Veterans' Mental Health Needs… The House Financial Services Committee will once again markup a Predatory Lending Bill (it did so last session as well but the Senate failed to act)…. Representatives of 16 nations responsible for 80 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions gather in DC to try to get a jump on curbing climate change…. On Wednesday, President Obama will hold a prime time news conference marking his 100th day in office.
Of course both the House and Senate will hold hearings on the federal response to the Swine Flu, surgical masks optional.
My final weekly 100 Days column is in the magazine this week, and up on the web here. For the foreseeable future, we're going to convert the column to a biweekly one, so I can do some more feature reporting. (We'll have to come up with a new name. Suggestions welcome in comments.)
I've had some interesting exchanges with readers and friends about this Notes on Change column, and wanted to expand and clarify one of the points. A number people have said they found my tone somber, even pessimistic. But while I've found much of the last three months frustrating, I've also started to come around to a view about Obama and his role in the story of American progress that's a bit different, I think, than the prevailing CW among left-liberals in the District.
The standard view I encounter is that the left has a once-in-a-generation (maybe once in a century) opportunity to enact its agenda, and if we don't do it now, and quickly, we're sunk. I'm sympathetic to this view because it's true that crisis really does create opportunity, because conservatism really is as discredited as its been in decades, and because the American constitutional system is so unruly and hostile to change that electoral alignments like the one Democrats currently enjoy are rare.
But there's also the possibility that we're at the beginning of a long era of social democratic ascendence. I think both demographic trends and the nature of the kinds of social, economic problems we're facing make that fairly likely. That's why I wrote that:
I wonder, though, if we won't look back and see him as a figure similar to Nixon. I don't mean we'll see him as a tragic, corrupt man driven by his pathological attachment to sundry resentments but as a president whose visionary understanding of a new political dynamic didn't translate into policy changes on a sufficient scale. The ship of state was subject to many of the same inertial forces during Nixon's time as well, and despite Nixon's genius in harnessing the power of the culture wars, when it came to domestic policy, he more or less maintained, even expanded, the liberal state.
Conservatives had to wait for Reagan to start the revolution. We are, I believe, at the beginning of a long era of progressive ascendance. It may be that this is the last administration conceptually handcuffed by the residual dogmas of late twentieth-century conservatism.
One way of reading this as a glum prediction about how much Obama will be able to accomplish, but what I dwell on is that change really is going to be a long process and that the arrow of history is pointing in our direction.
Scalise, Sleaze, and the Nefarious Al Gore
Al Gore was on the Hill to endorse the House climate bill at an Energy and Commerce hearing. He was armed as always with the latest science, opening by announcing that new data shows the Artic ice cap may be about to completely disappear "if nothing is done to curb emissions of greenhouse gas pollution. For most of the last 3 million years, it has covered an area the size of the lower 48 states."
Republicans, no longer able to argue with Gore on the merits -- even the New York Times revealed that an association of Big Polluters buried its own scientific report affirming man-made global warming fourteen years ago -- desperately tried to cast aspersions on the Nobel Peace Prize-winning messenger.
"I think it's really important that no suspicion or shadow fall on the foremost advocates of climate change legislation," Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn told her fellow Tennessean. "So I wanted to give you the opportunity to kind of clear the air about your motives…." (see 2:38:45 of webcast)
Blackburn proceeded to ask Gore if he knew of "a capital firm called Kleiner Perkins", and feigned surprise when the Vice President called her bluff and said with a chuckle that he is a partner. She noted that the firm had invested $1 billion in 40 companies that would benefit from cap-and-trade, and asked Gore whether he would "personally benefit" from the legislation.
Gore reassured her that all profits he receives from investments in a clean economy, his book, the documentary -- all go into his non-profit Alliance for Climate Protection to educate on this issue. "And Congresswoman, if you believe that the reason I have been working on this issue for 30 years is because of greed, you don't know me," he said.
"No sir, I'm not making accusations," she said, as -- to her dismay -- an audience that knew better laughed. "I'm asking questions…."
But it was Louisiana Republican Steve Scalise who honed in on a stunning conspiracy. (see 2:08:45) It seems Gore met with former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay in the White House back in his VP Days. Scalise charged that Gore "knew him well enough to help devise this trading scheme", and he accused Gore of having "interests with Goldman Sachs" (which Gore denied). Undeterred, Scalise defended his thesis: "When you see the types of people involved in wanting to set up this kind of scheme you can see why so many of us are concerned about turning our energy economy over to a scheme that was devised by companies like Enron and some of these Wall Street firms…."
Yes, Steve. We can see why so many of you are concerned. If there's one thing Republicans have proven time and again it's that you are determined to use government to keep our economy scheme-free. Thank goodness you are there to protect us from the nefarious Al Gore.
Ok, I understand these are hard-working civil servants. A lot of themdo wonderful, conscientious, vital work, etc. I understand theimportance for a new president to show he supports them, "feels theirpain," etc. But his whitewashing of the past was pretty disgusting.He said something to the extent of "mistakes that were potentiallymade in the past." Sorry. That's not good enough. Not at all. Forcingwater down someone's throat to trigger the drowning reflex six times aday every day for a month is not a "mistake potentially made in thepast," and no degree of euphemism, spinning or wanting to "lookforward" makes it anything other than a war crime.