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George Zornick | The Nation

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George Zornick

George Zornick

Action and dysfunction in the Beltway swamp. E-mail tips to george@thenation.com

The Payroll Tax Cut Gets the Fox News Treatment

A now-familiar theme is playing out today in Washington. A grand bargain worked out between leaders from both parties gains significant steam and heads for passage, only to careen off the rails at the last minute when far-right members of the House of Representatives lay down on the tracks. So why does this keep happening?

On Saturday morning, the Senate passed a bill that would extend a payroll tax cut and federal unemployment insurance for two more months, while preventing doctors from losing over a quarter of their annual Medicare payments. It also contained a Republican provision to force President Obama to issue a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline within sixty days.

Democrats wanted more—they originally asked for a year-long payroll tax cut, at a lower rate, and paid for with a surtax on incomes over $1 million. And even if the Keystone provision could kill the project, as the Obama administration is now signaling, Democrats didn’t want that in there, either.

But the deal was made, and eighty-nine Senators–including thirty-nine Republicans and Tea Party stalwarts like Senator Marco Rubio–voted for it. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was seen high-fiving fellow Republicans after the vote, and House Speaker John Boehner, who had been a party to the compromise bill all the way, called the bill a “good deal” and a “victory” on Saturday morning. The payroll tax cut would save families an average of $1,000 next year, and every dollar spent on unemployment insurance increases the annual GDP by $1.61.

Later that day, Boehner took it to his members, urging them on a conference call to pass it. It wasn’t pretty.

“I never heard words like 'sucks' and 'crap' in a GOP Conference,” one member told Fox News’s Chad Pergram afterwards. “Everyone sounded angry.”

A leader of the Tea Party in the House, Florida Representative Allen West (seen earlier in the week comparing Democrats to Joseph Goebbels), blasted the deal as “liberal Democrat incrementalism.” Twenty-four hours and 180 degrees later, Boehner was on Meet the Press saying the bill wouldn’t pass the House.

Already, four Republican Senators (each of them up for re-election in 2012, I would note) have blasted House Republicans for not passing the bill. But the rank-and-file there—which contains sixty members elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010—isn’t listening. They will probably defeat the Senate bill late today.

There have been a series of nonsensical arguments put forth by GOP leadership in the House as to why they oppose this deal. Some say the two-month extension creates “uncertainty,” but Republicans wouldn’t sign off on a clean year-long extension in the first place, which is why the deal is for two months. And the charges of “liberal Democrat incrementalism” would be news to the thirty-nine Republicans in the Senate who voted for it—and who succeeded in junking the millionaires surtax and adding the Keystone provision.

So really, why the vehement opposition? A compelling argument lies in a recent op-ed for the Guardian by Jonathan Freedland, titled “How Fox News is helping Barack Obama’s re-election bid.” He is speaking about the Republican nominating process, but I think the central argument applies to these rebellious House members as well:

Fox, serving up constant outrage and fury, favours bluster over policy coherence. Its ideal contributor is a motormouth not a wonk, someone who makes good TV rather than good policy. Little wonder it fell for Cain and is swooning now for Gingrich—one of whom has never held elected office while the other messed up when he did, but who can talk and talk—while it has little interest in Romney and even less in Jon Huntsman, even though both have impressive records as state governors. The self-described conservative journalist Andrew Sullivan says that the dominant public figures on the right are no longer serving politicians, but “provocative, polarising media stars” who serve up enough controversy and conflict to keep the ratings high. “In that atmosphere, you need talk-show hosts as president, not governors or legislators….

So far, so bad for the Republicans. Why should anyone else care? Because the Fox insistence on unbending ideological correctness turns every compromise—a necessary staple of governance—into an act of treachery. The Republican refusal, cheered on by a Fox News chorus, to raise the US debt ceiling this summer, thereby prompting the downgrading of America’s credit rating, is only the most vivid example. The larger pattern is one of stubborn, forced gridlock, paralysing the republic even now, at a moment of global economic crisis.

Notably, many of the House Republicans up in arms right now are frequent Fox News guests. Allen West, who has appeared on the network dozens and dozens of times, is the prototypical example of “a motormouth, not a wonk.” (See here, here, here and here just for starters). Representative Jim Jordan, leader of the powerful, ultra-conservative Republican Study Conference in the House, made his motivations clear recently, when talking about a House version of this same bill: “The fact that the president doesn’t like it makes me like it even more,” he said.

And, yes—Fox News has been similarly combative and polarizing on the payroll tax cut in recent weeks, sounding, like Jordan, much more eager to hand President Obama a defeat on payroll tax cuts than anything else.

For example, Fox & Friends co-host Gretchen Carlson was interviewing White House Press Secretary Jay Carney earlier this month and blasted the idea of a payroll tax cut. “We’ve already had that,” she said, and “I see dismal [job] numbers.” Lest viewers think the situation might be more complex than that, don’t worry—Carlson said she spoke to “tons” of economists. (Media Matters has a good roundup of Fox News attacking the payroll tax cut over the past several weeks here).

The situation is in full meltdown mode for the GOP now, of course—thirty-nine Republican Senators were just embarrassed and made to look insufficiently strident by their House colleagues. Boehner must now try to get the House to pass the Senate bill with nearly all of the Democratic votes and as many Republican moderates as he can wrangle, which would solve the immediate problem but carries with it the not-insignificant chance the rank and file would rebel against him and possibly even take his speakership. If he chooses not to go that road, as it appears he won’t, the “Tea Party Tax Hike” will likely take effect on January 1—and the White House won’t let voters forget it.

Much belatedly, and with no recognition of their prior opposition, Fox News is now calling for the passage of the payroll tax cuts. (Rogers Ailes is no dummy). But the virulent forces unleashed by the network can’t simply be turned off. Right after he was elected, Allen West pledged to work until “this liberal, progressive, socialist agenda, this left-wing, vile, vicious, despicable machine that’s out there is soundly brought to its knees.” He’s not going to just say “never mind.”

Keystone XL Is Back on the Table—for Now

Early Saturday morning, the Senate passed the Temporary Payroll Tax Cut Continuation Act of 2011, which extends a payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits for two more months—while requiring that the Obama administration make a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline within the same time period.

In November, President Obama delayed the Keystone decision until at least January 2013, while alternate routes around Nebraska were considered. But this bill requires a decision with sixty days. Here’s a summary of the provision:

Sec. 501 Keystone XL Pipeline Permitting Process (no cost)

Within 60 days, the President, acting through the Secretary of State, is required to grant a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline project application unless he determines the pipeline would not serve the national interest. Any permit issued shall require the reconsideration of routing the pipeline within the State of Nebraska. Any permit granted is deemed to satisfy all the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and any modification required by the Secretary to the construction mitigation and reclamation plan shall not require supplementation of the final environmental impact statement.

So this will require Obama to make a final permitting decision by mid-February, while still allowing for a potential reroute around Nebraska, where the Republican governor there has opposed the project.

Obama said at a press conference this month that “Any effort to try to tie Keystone to the payroll tax cut, I will reject.” That clearly was an empty threat, since he plans to sign this bill on Monday when the House will presumably approve it. In brief remarks at the White House this morning, Obama lauded passage of the tax relief and did not mention the Keystone provision at all.

So how likely is it that Keystone XL is ultimately approved? It’s hard to tell, since the White House hasn’t said a word, but many environmentalists inside and outside Congress believe this makes a rejection more likely.

“The deal passed by the Senate rushes the pipeline review process, making a credible, science-based review impossible. Because of this, and the great harm we already know the pipeline would cause, President Obama has no choice but to reject the pipeline,” said a statement this morning from Friends of the Earth.

Representatives Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, both stalwart environmentalists, told Politico yesterday before the bill was passed that they weren’t overly concerned.

 “I think it’s shortsighted for the Republicans to force a decision without giving the president enough time to fully consider it,” said Waxman, the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. “And if they force him to do that, it’d seem to me, the only logical thing for him to do is to say no to it.”

Markey agreed. “We expect the president to still reject the commencement of the construction of the pipeline until there is a full completion of an environmental review,” he said. “The sixty-day deadline should not lead to the White House approving the actual construction to begin.”

In that interview, Waxman revealed the only signal from the White House about its intentions that I’m aware of—Waxman held up his BlackBerry and said “The White House has just sent me an e-mail saying, ‘Don’t worry.’ ”

Pipeline opponents surely do have more to worry about today than they did last week—but Keystone XL approval is far from certain.

Keystone XL Is Back on the Table—for Now

Early Saturday morning, the Senate passed the “Temporary Payroll Tax Cut Continuation Act of 2011,” which extends a payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits for two more months—while requiring that the Obama administration make a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline within the same time period.  

In November, President Obama delayed the Keystone decision until at least January 2013, while alternate routes around Nebraska were considered. But this bill requires a decision with sixty days. Here’s a summary of the provision:

Sec. 501 Keystone XL Pipeline Permitting Process (no cost)
Within 60 days, the President, acting through the Secretary of State, is required to grant a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline project application unless he determines the pipeline would not serve the national interest. Any permit issued shall require the reconsideration of routing the pipeline within the State of Nebraska. Any permit granted is deemed to satisfy all the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and any modification required by the Secretary to the construction mitigation and reclamation plan shall not require supplementation of the final environmental impact statement.

So this will require Obama to make a final permitting decision by mid-February, while still allowing for a potential reroute around Nebraska, where the Republican governor there has opposed the project.

Obama said at a press conference this month that “any effort to try to tie Keystone to the payroll tax cut, I will reject.” That clearly was an empty threat, since he plans to sign this bill on Monday when the House will presumably approve it. In brief remarks at the White House this morning, Obama lauded passage of the tax relief and did not mention the Keystone provision at all.

So how likely is it that Keystone XL is ultimately approved? It’s hard to tell, since the White House hasn’t said a word, but many environmentalists inside and outside Congress believe this makes a rejection more likely.

“The deal passed by the Senate rushes the pipeline review process, making a credible, science-based review impossible. Because of this, and the great harm we already know the pipeline would cause, President Obama has no choice but to reject the pipeline,” said a statement this morning from Friends of the Earth.

Representatives Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, both stalwart environmentalists, told Politico yesterday before the bill was passed that they weren’t overly concerned.

 “I think it’s shortsighted for the Republicans to force a decision without giving the president enough time to fully consider it,” said Waxman, the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. “And if they force him to do that, it’d seem to me, the only logical thing for him to do is to say no to it.”

Markey agreed. “We expect the president to still reject the commencement of the construction of the pipeline until there is a full completion of an environmental review,” he said. “The 60-day deadline should not lead to the White House approving the actual construction to begin.”

In that interview, Waxman revealed the only signal from the White House about its intentions that I’m aware of—Waxman held up his BlackBerry and said “The White House has just sent me an e-mail saying, ‘Don’t worry.’ ”

Pipeline opponents surely do have more to worry about today than they did last week—but Keystone XL approval is far from certain.

Republicans Intensify Attacks on the Nuclear Safety Chief

If there was any doubt that an imbroglio around the leadership of Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, would be used to try to force his ouster from that agency, a Wednesday hearing before a House panel removed it.

All five members of the NRC appeared before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which is chaired by Representative Darrell Issa. Four commissioners publicly aired their grievances about Jaczko’s leadership, which include charges of bullying and intimidation of staff, along with refusing to share information with fellow commissioners.

Jaczko said he did nothing wrong, and cited a report from the NRC inspector general clearing him of legal wrongdoing when it came to sharing information among his colleagues. But Republicans went directly for the jugular.

“I think you should resign,” Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Tea Party favorite from Utah, told Jaczko after a rapid-fire series of questions during which he repeatedly cut off Jaczko mid-reply. “If you’re going to do the right thing for this country and this commission, you should step down.” After similarly berating Jaczko during his questioning, Representative Raul Labrador told him that “I’ve never seen such self-deluded behavior by any individual probably in my whole life.”

Already this week, two Republican members of Congress—Representatives Ed Whitfield and John Shimkus—have called for Jaczko’s resignation. Others have suggested that Jaczko step down as chairman but remain on the commission. During the hearing Jaczko said he has “no plans to resign.”

The four commissioners—two of whom are Democrats, while two are Republicans—were unanimous in saying that Jaczko’s temper was out of control, and cited detailed examples of NRC staffers who were reduced to tears or similarly humiliated with a “loss of composure”  after a confrontation with Jaczko.

There may be something to these allegations—but it’s also clear that the nuclear industry is using the conflict to attempt to neutralize or remove Jaczko from the NRC, where he has been a consistent advocate for tighter safety controls, particularly after the catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan. As we detailed Monday, on several key votes Jaczko has been the lone voice for tougher regulations, in opposition to the other four members.

On Monday, the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s main lobby in Washington, issued a statement echoing the concerns of the four commissioners and urged the White House and Congress to take “necessary steps” to correct the problem. And Ryan Grim at the Huffington Post reported this week that after the controversy erupted on Friday night, by Saturday morning industry officials were calling key Democrats and urging them not to back Jaczko.

Moreover, Grim noted that Commissioner William Magwood, who is leading the charge against Jaczko, has deep industry ties. His appointment was opposed by over 100 watchdog groups for that reason. Notably, Magwood did consulting work for Tepco—the company that runs the Fukushima plant.

Democrats on the panel repeatedly attempted to highlight Jaczko’s strong regulatory stand, despite a warning from Issa that the hearing wasn’t supposed to be about nuclear safety but rather effective personnel management.

“The Republican narrative for this hearing is superficial, political, and ultimately counterproductive for the health of the nuclear industry in America,” said Representative Gerry Connolly in written opening remarks. “By focusing on interpersonal bureaucratic disagreements within the [NRC], the frame of this hearing presented by the majority distracts from the more important issue at hand—the need for a robust, transparent NRC which is necessary to protect the public.”

The entire commission will again be before Congress tomorrow, this time before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

 

Meltdown at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Tensions at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the nation’s chief overseer of civilian nuclear materials, finally boiled over into public finger-pointing and accusations of malfeasance late Friday—creating what one lawmaker called “a regulatory meltdown.” It’s a messy conflict, but one thing is clear: the nuclear industry has many friends on the NRC.

On Friday, Representative Darrell Issa released a letter written in October by four of the commission’s five members. It accused the fifth member, Gregory Jaczko—who is also the NRC Chairman—of “causing serious damage” to the agency with “increasingly problematic and erratic behavior.” The commissioners feel Jaczko limited their role and bullied them in an emergency review of the nation’s nuclear facilities following the Fukushima meltdown in March.

The four commissioners’ complaints stem from when Jaczko invoked some emergency powers right after the Fukushima catastrophe. These powers transfer more authority to the chairman, in the name of streamlining NRC function when something crucial is happening. Jaczko created of a task force to study the Fukushima meltdown and issue recommendations about how to protect civilian nuclear facilities here from a similar fate, and the four commissioners claim not to have been notified of the new emergency powers and not to have been adequately consulted on the task force’s recommendations, which were released this summer.

But also on Friday, Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts released a detailed report directly challenging those four commissioners. His report concludes that they “have attempted a coup on the Chairman” and have “caused a regulatory meltdown that has left America's nuclear fleet and the general public at risk.”

Markey’s report paints a different picture than what the four commissioners claim—and reveals them to be primarily interested in protecting the nuclear industry.

His staff obtained thousands of pages of e-mails, correspondence, meeting minutes and other materials, and uncovered clear evidence that the four commissioners were largely kept in the loop about the new emergency mode. And in several e-mails, the commissioners pettily gripe amongst each other about Jaczko’s leadership; after one conference call with Jaczko, they e-mail back and forth with comments such as “what a bunch of shit,” “I detected a significant amount of ass-kissing” and “that was a bunch of Barbra Streisand.”

But this isn’t about bureaucratic backbiting. The Markey report demonstrates that at many different decision points the four commissioners were opposed not just to Jaczko’s leadership but what he was doing—namely, trying to toughen regulations on the nuclear industry. At several key points, the rebellious commissioners try to slow down or halt post-Fukushima disaster measures.

Key among Markey’s findings:

1. Four NRC commissioners attempted to delay and otherwise impede the creation of the NRC Near-Term Task Force on Fukushima.

2. Four NRC commissioners conspired, with each other and with senior NRC staff, to delay the release of and alter the NRC Near-Term Task Force report on Fukushima.

3. The other NRC Commissioners attempted to slow down or otherwise impede the adoption of the safety recommendations made by the NRC Near-Term Task Force on Fukushima.

4. NRC Chairman Greg Jaczko kept the other four NRC Commissioners fully informed regarding the Japanese emergency, despite claims to the contrary made by these commissioners.

5. A review of e-mails and other documents indicates high levels of suspicion and hostility directed at the chairman.

When President Obama was campaigning in 2008, he called the NRC “a moribund agency…captive of the industry that it regulates.” The Nation’s Christian Parenti has also detailed the influence the nuclear lobby has on the NRC. What’s happening now seems to be another symptom of that problem.

In the e-mails, the four commissioners mount an attempt “review” the Fukushima’s Task Force findings before they were released to the public. Jaczko is quoted second-hand as being concerned this review process “may create the impression the commission will sanitize the reports,” which appears to be exactly what was happening.

To give one example: as the Task Force report was being finalized, and the four commissioners had been unable to delay it, they had a senior NRC staff member attach a memo to the report. This memo basically tried to put the brakes on the reforms the Task Force was advocating: specifically, it said “before deciding on the path forward and the specific recommendations in the Task Force’s report, the Commission may wish to solicit external stakeholder input” and that there would be a benefit “to developing alignment on the objectives, approaches and schedules [with that of external stakeholders] for implementing safety improvements.”

To those not familiar with Washington speak, when regulators talk aligning objectives to those of “external stakeholders,” they mean: make sure the industry approves these regulations. Jaczko had this memo removed from the report before it was released.

Markey’s report takes pains to detail the times when the four commissioners voted against safety regulations, and where the only holdout was Jaczko. Some examples:

In June 2010, the commission voted 4-1, with Jaczko the lone “no” vote, to reduce limitations on the number of work hours for employees who perform quality control at nuclear facilities.

In December 2010, the commission voted 4-1, with Jaczko again the lone opposition vote, not to require specific NRC licenses for radioactive materials that could be used to create small nuclear devices, also known as “dirty bombs.”

In March 2011, the commission voted 4-1, with Jaczko again the lone opposition vote, to ignore a recommendation from the NRC’s own Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards about increased safety measures to prevent meltdowns in the event of fire or earthquake. This happened only four days after an earthquake struck the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan.

The four commissioners are now enjoying support from many Republicans on Capitol Hill, who not incidentally also oppose tougher regulation. Issa has been hitting the airwaves today in support of the four commissioners, and bashing Jaczko. Senator Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Energy Committee, basically called for Obama to remove Jaczko on Saturday—she said Jaczko’s alleged supposed actions are “a serious breach of the public’s trust” and that “such behavior is unacceptable at every level of government and a response from the president is long overdue.”

Democrats, meanwhile, are defending the chairman. “It is sad to see those who would place the interests of a single industry over the safety of the American people to wage a politically-motivated witch hunt against a man with a proven track record,” said Senate majority leader Harry Reid in a statement. (Jaczko used to work for Reid’s Senate office as a policy adviser).

All of this is a backdrop for what will surely be combative hearings on Capitol Hill this week. All five commissioners will testify before Issa’s House Committee on Government Oversight on Wednesday, and then before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Thursday. I’ll be at both hearings and will continue to provide updates.

GOP Blocks Cordray's Nomination to Head the CFPB

The US Senate blocked the nomination of Richard Cordray to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau this morning by a 53-45 vote, with one senator voting “present.” The failure to appoint a head to the CFPB will certainly be a hot topic in the 2012 presidential and Congressional elections, since Democrats seems increasingly willing to paint Republicans as protectors of Wall Street and the one percent.

Though Cordray received a majority of the votes cast, seven more were needed to pass the sixty-vote threshold to break a filibuster. Some Democrats like Senator Claire McCaskill and Senator Bill Nelson sent signals this week that they might not vote to move forward with Cordray’s nomination, but every Democrat did end up voting in the affirmative (except Senator John Kerry, who did not vote).

Two Republicans, however, wavered. Senator Scott Brown voted for Corday’s nomination to move forward, provoking immediate pushback from some right-wingers. This is a clear indication of the Elizabeth Warren effect on Brown: he presumably could not risk having blocked a crucial nomination to the popular CFPB when he’s running against the woman who started it. Another New England Republican up for re-election in 2012, Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, voted “present.” That seems like an odd over-calculation, since neither side will give credit for the vote, but she’s clearly concerned about opposing consumer protection as well.

Forty-five Republicans sent the White House a letter in May asserting they would not approve any director to head the CFPB unless certain “reforms” were made, chief among them being the elimination of the position of director. Instead, Republicans want a bipartisan, five-person board to head the CFPB—and they also want yearly Congressional approval of the CFPB’s budget, along with more oversight from existing industry-friendly regulators.

These “reforms” are nakedly transparent attempts to weaken the CFPB’s power, and the Senators who signed the letter have received over $125 million from the financial sector during their careers. (For more on the industry’s war on the CFPB, see Ari Berman’s piece from June).

But Republicans are attempting to paint the agency as out-of-control and in need of serious checks. “We don’t need any more unelected, unaccountable czars in Washington,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the floor Tuesday. Senator Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, ludicrously urged Democrats today to “stop obstructing reform.”

With the nomination effectively dead, there’s only one thing left to do—President Obama can recess-appoint Cordray to the CFPB. Though Republicans have been maneuvering this year to prevent recess appointments, it is possible for Obama to do so at the end of this year. At a press briefing immediately following the Cordray vote, Obama said he "will not take any options off the table" when it comes to installing Cordray at the CFPB. 

Obama Will 'Reject' Attempt to Restart Keystone XL

Last week, we flagged an attempt by Representative Lee Terry of Nebraska to get the Keystone XL pipeline approved within weeks—something the Obama administration has delayed until at least 2013, if the project even survives that long. Terry is crafting a measure that would take the power to approve Keystone XL away from the Obama administration and give it to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an independent agency. His bill would also require FERC to approve the pipeline within thirty days.

Terry plans to attach this bill to a big year-end package that would extend a payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits. But when asked about Terry’s plan by a reporter yesterday during an appearance at the White House with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Obama said he would reject any package that contains provisions on Keystone XL:

Q: Thank you, Mr. President. I have Keystone questions for both of you. Mr. President, we’ve got some House Republicans who are saying they won’t approve any extension of the payroll tax cut unless you move up this oil pipeline project. Is that a deal you would consider? […]

PRESIDENT OBAMA: First of all, any effort to try to tie Keystone to the payroll tax cut I will reject. So everybody should be on notice.

And the reason is because the payroll tax cut is something that House Republicans, as well as Senate Republicans, should want to do regardless of any other issues. The question is going to be, are they willing to vote against a proposal that ensures that Americans, at a time when the recovery is still fragile, don’t see their taxes go up by $1,000. So it shouldn’t be held hostage for any other issues that they may be concerned about.

Obama’s  threat is quite significant, because the political mechanics had suddenly became dangerous for pipeline opponents. Democrats and the White House are extremely eager to get a payroll tax cut and extended unemployment insurance passed, and Republicans have been pushing hard on Keystone XL in recent weeks—so there was real concern that, in the final horse-trading over the desperately sought economic measures, Democrats might let the Keystone XL provision survive. Obama didn’t explicitly say the word “veto,” but he has no doubt served at least a warning to Congressional leaders not to allow the Keystone provision through.

Occupy Storms K Street

“Take Back the Capitol” protesters join local Occupy Encampments on K Street in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy SEIU

The second day of action for “Take Back the Capitol” focused on K Street lobbying Wednesday—and offered a chance for the labor-heavy, electorally focused “Take Back” protesters to mesh with the Occupy movements camping out in Washington, DC.

Around noon, the “Take Back the Capitol” groups, which have been camping off the National Mall, headed towards K Street, where long-running Washington Occupy encampments joined them. They targeted in particular the Podesta Group, founded in 1988 by John and Tony Podesta. (John, of course, would later become Bill Clinton’s chief of staff and then head of the Center for American Progress). The goal quickly became to shut down the entire street, and there were between fifty and seventy arrests for blocking a public highway, according to the Washington Post.

Nation intern Cal Colgan shot this video at the protests:

Tomorrow, “Take Back the Capitol” is marching on the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court, and there will be a prayer vigil for the unemployed on the National Mall. (You can see our recap of yesterday’s action inside Congressional offices here).  

Peter King Hearing Probes Definition of Terrorism

If you’re not a fan of right-wing media, you may have missed the conservative consternation over President Obama’s handling of the shooting at an Army Recruiting Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2009.

Carlos Bledsoe, a Memphis man who later became Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad after convincing himself he was a warrior in Al Qaeda’s war on America, shot two soldiers outside that recruiting station, killing one of them, 28-year-old Pvt. William Long.

Two days after the shooting, Obama released a statement condemning the “senseless act of violence” against two soldiers. Muhammad was charged with capital murder by the state of Arkansas, to which he ultimately pled guilty after his lawyers unsuccessfully tried to argue he was delusional. In exchange for his plea, Muhammad did not receive the death penalty.

Right-wingers were upset for two overlapping reasons: first, that Obama did not forthrightly condemn Muhammad as a jihadist but rather decried simple “senseless violence.” Second, that the federal government didn’t treat the shootings as an act of terrorism and either bring Muhammad up on federal terrorism charges or have the military capture him and treat him as an enemy combatant.

“’Senseless?’ It made perfectly good sense to a vengeful Muslim convert jihadi,” sneered right-wing blogger Michelle Malkin. In an editorial titled “Arkansas Jihadi,” the Washington Times charged that “perhaps the White House thinks that if it turns a blind eye toward domestic Islamic terrorism, it won’t really exist.”

Today on Capitol Hill, Representative Peter King held the latest of his high-profile hearings into perceived Muslim radicalization problems inside the United States—specifically, the problem of terrorists targeting US military personnel on American soil. “Military communities in the US have recently become the most sought-after targets of violent Islamist extremists seeking to kill Americans in their homeland,” said King in his opening remarks. “We cannot stand idly by while our heroes in uniform are struck down in the place they feel safest.”

As you might expect, the Little Rock incident played a central role in the hearing. King called William Long’s father, Daris, to testify.

Daris Long didn’t hold back, and strongly asserted the popular right-wing arguments: “Abdulhakim Muhammad’s jihad in America has been downplayed by the federal government and the mainstream media, causing irreparable change to the families involved as well as flat-out lying to the American people,” he said. “I am convinced the government’s position is to deny Little Rock was a terrorist attack. By not being open and transparent, despite promises to do so, to this administration’s shame two soldiers have been abandoned on a battlefield in the advancement of a political agenda.”

Those were strong words, and Daris Long coupled them with wrenching minute-by-minute accounting of his son’s murder, including gruesome details about William Long’s mother watching his legs flail in the air as he was given fruitless CPR.

Republican members of the committee seized the moment, and attacked the Obama administration for not sufficiently combative when it comes to “radical Islam,” in the verbal or actionable sense. The best distillation of that clash came when Representative Dan Lungren confronted Paul Stockton, an assistant Secretary of Defense who was also called to testify.

Lungren wanted Stockton to admit that the United States was at war with Islamic extremism, something that Stockton repeatedly declined to do. I’d recommend watching this brief exchange because it distills the clash well (but also because Lungren’s increasing contempt for Stockton gets hilarious fast):

Previous hearings of this sort by King received megawatt attention, but this one isn’t getting much play in Washington, especially as Occupy protesters were shutting down K Street at the very same time. But this issue won’t go away—Mitt Romney was sure to mention in his major foreign policy speech that the United States faces a threat of “Islamic fundamentalism with which we have been at war since September 11, 2001.” Expect to hear this debate again and again in 2012.  

Occupying Senator Scott Brown's Office

“Take Back the Capitol” protesters wait outside Sen. Scott Brown’s office in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on December 6, 2001. Photo credit: Massuniting

This week, “Take Back the Capitol” brought hundreds of self-proclaimed 99 percenters to Washington in hopes of impacting key legislative battles that will take place between now and the end of the year. Thousands are sleeping either in pitched tents near the national mall, or in church basements, union halls and community groups throughout the city—and participating in mass action during the day.

While clearly akin to the Occupy movement—many of the people I spoke with today came from Occupy encampments across the country—there is also heavy labor involvement in this push, with several union groups, most notably SEIU, lending organizing muscle. And unlike the deliberately non-electoral Occupy movement, “Take Back the Capitol” came directly to lawmakers’ offices with specific goals: primarily extending unemployment insurance, passing a jobs bill, taxing the wealthy and not cutting too deeply into domestic spending.

Tuesday’s action involved splitting into state-by-state delegations and visiting Congressional offices to push for these specific requests. Some members, like Representative Chris van Hollen of Maryland, spoke to the protesters, while many others did not.

I spent the day with the Massachusetts delegation, one of the largest of the state groups. About half of them—more than 100 people—marched to the office of Senator Scott Brown and arrived a little before noon. They massed inside and nearby his office, and requested to speak with the senator. A staffer told the group Brown was “not available,” but offered to take two or three demonstrators to speak with Brown’s chief of staff, provided the conversation was not recorded.

The demonstrators rejected that offer and announced their intention to wait for the senator. They promptly made themselves comfortable on the couches, chairs and floor inside Brown’s office. Dozens more demonstrators lined the hallway outside—this completely prevented Brown from coming into his office unseen, since the only doors were in that hallway.

Despite being in Washington and voting on the Senate floor today, Brown somewhat mysteriously never returned to his office after the protesters arrived. We waited for six hours, until the office closed, but Brown never showed up. His press staff would not confirm his schedule for me, nor say where he was.

While we waited, I spoke with many of the participants. All of them were either unemployed or underemployed, doing part-time work or jobs that paid much less than they were accustomed to getting. They had a variety of very specific concerns: Medicaid cuts, the expiration of unemployment benefits, the failure of Congress to pass infrastructure bills or more general job bills.

I filmed intermittently throughout the day—you can see a brief compilation here:

There was one arrest reported today, for unlawful entry, at the office of Missouri Representative Vicki Hartzler. Otherwise, the protesters that I saw were quiet and respectful of the rules.

Tomorrow, “Take Back the Capitol” heads to K Street, where they plan action at the city’s powerful lobbying firms. We’ll be following the movement throughout the week, so check back for updates. 

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