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Nation Now Alerts

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Bruised & Battered

Even figuring out the terms of debate for legislation is a tough task for Republicans these days--as the fight over lobbying reform in the House illustrated yesterday. First the GOP leadership introduced a rule to prevent reformers from offering amendments, then they pulled the rule from the House floor fifteen minutes later. They didn't have the votes. Then they did. When they reconvened to vote again, no one knew for sure. At the end of the day, the rule passed 216-207. Translation: Republicans 1, Democracy 0. A supposedly "open government" bill will come to a vote next week under closed debate. For those interested in backroom legislative minutia, here's yesterday's (sub-only) synopsis from National Journal's Congress Daily:

A last-minute agreement between House Speaker Hastert and Appropriations Chairman Lewis salvaged the lobbying and ethics overhaul package Thursday, but not before exposing divisions across the Republican Conference.

Following a two-hour afternoon Conference meeting, Hastert and Majority Leader Boehner were prepared to pull the trigger on a procedural vote that appeared destined for failure amid opposition from a united bloc of GOP appropriators.

The decision to put the rule up for a seemingly hopeless vote was against the wishes of Rules Chairman Dreier, who crafted the legislation at Hastert's request, and Majority Whip Blunt, who has never lost a procedural vote on the floor.

However, GOP leaders and appropriators appeared at a stalemate after appropriators balked at a commitment Dreier made to Lewis Wednesday that a bill would not come out of conference that did not include changes agreeable to the spending panel.

     ....

Tensions flared in leadership after the Conference meeting as leaders and their aides scrambled to reach an agreement just as debate resumed on the floor--with the widely held expectation that the rule vote would fail.

Several GOP leadership sources said Hastert was furious with Lewis and appropriators who remained opposed to the bill despite commitments to extend the overhauls in conference.

Defeating the rule would make it increasingly difficult for the House to pass a bill in the future, and Hastert has put a high priority on the legislation. Leaders were also concerned that the failure to pass the rule would open the door to a barrage of Democratic criticism and undermine the GOP leadership team.

"That case was made," said Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce of Ohio. "Not only [would it undermine] the leadership, but the whole majority."

An hour before the vote, Hastert and Boehner huddled in another meeting with appropriators, including Lewis and Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas. This time, Lewis accepted the commitment to fix the bill in Conference.

Walking out of the meeting, Lewis remarked, in classic Washington-speak: "The Speaker is a very persuasive man."

GOP Retreats on Reform

In the ongoing fight to clean up Congress, the reformers won a minor victory when the House Republican leadership was forced to yank its bogus lobbying "reform" bill off the House floor today.

The move came shortly after Democrats Louise Slaughter and Jim McGovern, both on the House Rules Committee, spoke out against a rule to close debate on a supposedly "open government" bill. When Chairman David Dreier realized he didn't have the votes to pass the rule, he simply yanked it from consideration. As Slaughter told Dreier at a Rules hearing yesterday, "Everybody in this town has beaten up on your bill."

Members of the House Appropriations Committee, led by powerful chairman Jerry Lewis, wanted earmark reform to extend to tax and spending bills. GOP moderates, led by Chris Shays, were unhappy about the steady weakening of an already-toothless piece of legislation. Democrats were virtually united against its passage. And Republican Rep. Joel Hefley, who Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert booted as chairman of the House Ethics Committee in February 2005 after the panel rebuked Tom DeLay three times, was going to speak on the Democrats side.

Rather then face another humiliating defeat for the House Leadership, Dreier pulled the plug. No word yet on when it will resurface. As McGovern, a stalwart progressive, said today: "The Republican Leadership's so-called 'reform' bill deserves to collapse under the weight of its own hypocrisy."

UPDATE: House just reconvened to debate lobbying reform rule for one hour.

Bring the Troops Home Amendment

As the Senate considers another emergency supplemental appropriations bill to fund the occupation of Iraq, U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, has proposed an an amendment that would require the redeployment of U.S. forces from the country by the end of this year.

"Our country desperately needs a new vision for strengthening our national security, and it starts by redeploying U.S. forces from Iraq," Feingold explained. "Our military has performed valiantly in Iraq, but the indefinite presence of large numbers of U.S. forces there tends to weaken our ability to fight the global terrorist networks that threaten us today."

Feingold, who in June, 2005, became the first senator to call for an exit strategy, won the support of 40 Senators in November, 2005, for an amendment that proposed a flexible timetable for the withdrawal. His current amendment, while pressing for a deadline for a general withdrawal, maintains a measure of flexibility with regard to limited initiatives that might continue beyond December 31. In other words, it is a moderate proposal that will be opposed only by those who n-- whether they admit it or not -- have embraced the concept of open-ended occupation.

"Our current path is unsustainable," says Feingold. "While this amendment recognizes the need for certain U.S. forces to be engaged in counter-terrorism activities, the training of Iraqi security services, and the protection of essential U.S. infrastructure, it also recognizes that the President's current strategy in Iraq is undermining our nation's national security."

The Feingold amendment tests all senators. It asks Senate Democrats to stop playing games and make a clear commitment to opposing the Bush administration's policy of permanent warmaking. It asks Senate Republicans -- especially those, such as Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee and Nebraska's Chuck Hagel, who have been critical of the war -- to make an honest break with the White House.

The American people now recognize that the war was a mistake. They understand that an exit strategy is needed. If the Senate fails to back Feingold's proposal, it will not be the Wisconsin Democrats who stands outside the political mainstream, but, rather, those senators in both parties who cannot bring themselves to chart a course indepedent of that misguided one dictated by George Bush, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld.

Republicans Fake Reform

Republicans are in denial. They've forgotten all the favors they did for Jack Abramoff. They continue to raise unprecedented amounts of money from lobbyists on K Street. And today they're expected to vote for a lobbying "reform" bill that is so weak and watered-down one watchdog called it a "complete joke." A bill intended to strengthen representative democracy only insults it.

"My leadership doesn't think we have an ethics problem and doesn't believe in reform," remarked Rep. Chris Shays, one of the few Republican reformers left in Congress. His leadership, as the Washington Post describes today, is betting that the public won't notice, or won't care. When members of Congress went home recently for recess, their constituents complained about the Iraq war, immigration and gas prices--no matter that the GOP is on the wrong side of those issues as well.

It's true that few voters are following the intricacies of this debate or pressing their leaders for tougher ethics reform legislation. But everywhere you go, Americans are disgusted by the influence of lobbyists, skeptical of Washington rhetoric and convinced the system is broken. They're right. Sour voters usually turn on the party in power. Republicans elected in 1994 ought to know this.

And the Democratic leadership, for its part, has been remarkably inept at making the oft-repeated rhetoric about a "culture of corruption" stick. The top Democrat on the paralyzed House Ethics Committee recently was forced to resign. Another rank-and-file member, William Jefferson, is almost certain to be indicted. It may not be easy to sell a message of "we're bad, but the other side is worse," to the American people.

Debate on HR 4975 begins this morning. Click here to tell your Representative to vote against this charade and for real reform.

UPDATE: House just pulled bill from the floor. Unclear why. There could be some fireworks later today.

Reconstruction Watch Part V: We Deserve Answers

In the Washington Post last week, Griff Witte reported that American businessman Philip Bloom--whose companies were awarded $8.6 million in Iraq reconstruction contracts--pleaded guilty to attempting to bribe U.S. officials with more than $2 million in cash and gifts in exchange for the reconstruction deals.

Three officials of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority have already been implicated and more arrests are expected.

According to Stuart W. Bowen Jr., Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (and former Associate Counsel to the Bush White House), "This shows oversight is working. It will send a message to those involved in similar schemes that we are on the case."

Will it, indeed?

As the Wall Street Journal reports, Attorney Alan Grayson is representing dozens of whistleblowers who are suing contractors suspected of defrauding the government. But under The False Claims Act, not one of these cases can proceed or be disclosed to the public until the Bush administration makes a decision as to whether to join in the suit.

There are reportedly 50 such lawsuits pending against firms like Halliburton. Some were filed more than two years ago, and the law states that decisions are supposed to be made by the Bush Administration within 60 days. But the law also allows the administration to seek extensions as it sees fit and so far it has done so in all but one case.

Grayson thinks the reason for the delay is all too clear. "The Bush administration has made a conscious decision to sweep the cases under the rug for as long as possible. And the more bad news that comes out of Iraq, the more motivation they have to do so."

The one case the Bush administration did allow to proceed--though it declined to be a party to it--was against Custer Battles, who was forced to pay $10 million in penalties.

With a White House that is more than cozy with so many of its no-bid contractors... and a motive to keep bad news from hitting the press--especially when it comes to the misuse of taxpayer (and 2006 voters') money… it is once again clear that only a bipartisan independent war profiteering commission will get the answers the American people deserve.

Until that happens, tell your representative to turn up the heat for full disclosure on these pending whistleblower lawsuits. Enough with the sorry delay tactics. It's time for answers now.

*Previous Reconstruction Watch Posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4And on the need for an Independent War Profiteering Commission: here and here.

Snow Job: White House Prevaricator-in-Chief

While it is not merely fair but necessary to challenge the Supreme Court nominations of presidents who seek to stamp a lasting ideological imprint on the Constitution, and even to deny them Cabinet picks who have records of lawlessness, it certainly seems reasonable that they should have freedom of choice when it comes to selecting their fabulists.

It is the job of White House press secretaries to baffle and bamboozle an intentionally naive press corps and, by extension, the Congress and the American people.

The soon-to-be-forgotten Scott McClellan, like his only somewhat more memorable predecessor, Ari Fleischer, never hesitated to dissemble the truth. McClellan's problem as far as this White House was concerned was not his dishonesty, but rather the ineptitude he so frequently evidenced when practicing to deceive.

Veteran Republican retainer Tony Snow will probably be a better prevaricator-in-chief than either McClellan or Fleischer. Why? Because he is a confirmed ideologue who actually believes at least some of the big lies that he will be peddling.

After all, this is the Fox News commentator who, after the most recent State of the Union address, described the Bush administration as having a "brilliant foreign policy."

Snow is, as well, the political personality who said of what honest conservatives and liberals describe as the most imperial presidency in history: "No president has looked this impotent this long when it comes to defending presidential powers and prerogatives."

With all due respect, while George Bush may be incompetent, the boy king has never suffered from impotence when roused to do battle against the system of checks and balances, the Bill of Rights and the rest of the Constitution on behalf of his Patriot Act, his warrantless wiretapping schemes and the White House-orchestrated punishment of those – like Ambassador Joe Wilson – who have dared reveal the cynical manipulations of intelligence that were used to make the "case" for his undeclared war.

If Tony Snow really does not think that George Bush has done enough to defend presidential powers and prerogatives, then he is a fine fit for this imperial presidency. He has not merely drunk the Kool-Aid, he has complained that the mix is not strong enough. Where Scott McClellan listlessly disseminated distortion, Snow will do so with gusto.

California Governor's Race A-Simmerin'

Six weeks out from the primary vote that will select the challenger to Arnold Schwarzenegger's re-election, the top two Democratic rivals are slugging it out in a bloody free-for-all. State Treasurer Phil Angelides gathered endorsements from unions, Democratic interest groups, and from elected officials early on in his campaign -- trying to create a certain sense of inevitability about his nomination. But his opponent, former E-Bay exec and state Controller Steve Westly, has got the really big bucks -- plowing some $22 million of his own fortune into his campaign. Westly has also has a widening lead in the polls.

The race may take a dramatic turn this weekend in Sacramento when the California Democratic Party meets in convention. The once slam-dunk Angelides may be denied the official party endorsement by the surging Westly. Stay tuned for more. I'll be doing some live blogging from the convention floor.

Another Republican Ditches Bush

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher was Jack Abramoff's best friend in Congress. The two were so close that Rohrabacher was the only member of Congress to sign a letter asking a federal judge to give Abramoff a reduced sentence.

"Over many years, I've known a far different Jack that the profit-seeking megalomaniac portrayed in the press," Rohrabacher wrote. "Jack was a selfless patriot for most of the time I knew him."

But when President Bush visited Rohrabacher's Orange County locale yesterday to pitch immigration reform, the OC Congressman wanted nothing to do with W.

"I don't want to be behind him looking glum and not applauding," Rohrabacher told the LA Times. "So as not to be rude to the president---which I think is inexcusable---I think I'll just be staying away."

Wow. Is Rohrabacher insinuating that Jack Abramoff is less toxic than President Bush?

As political scientist John Pitney said of the White House: "I'm not sure they had their OC antennae up."

UPDATE: Also see New York Times today: "Once Boon, Ties to Bush May Be Bust."

Nuclear Madness

First the Bush Administration undermines the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by supplying India with nuclear technology, then it flirts with the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Iran.

The Administration's reckless nuclear politics has led thirteen of the nation's pre-eminent physicists--including five Nobel laureates--to join generals and intelligence officers as the latest to speak out.

In a letter to President Bush--barely reported in the media--the scientists call the planned use of nuclear weapons against Iran "gravely irresponsible" with "disastrous consequences for the security of the United States and the world." They note that "the NPT will be irreversibly damaged by the use or even the threat of use of nuclear weapons by a nuclear nation against a non-nuclear one…."

Further highlighting just how dangerously out-of-step the Bush administration is with a sane nuclear policy, one-time hardliner and Reagan administration arms negotiator, Max Kampelman, called for the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction in a New York Times op-ed on Monday. "I have never been more worried about the future for my children and grandchildren than I am today," he writes. (For a moment, I thought Kampelman was channeling Jonathan Schell's extraordinary Nation special issue calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons.)

The hypocrisy of the Bush Administration in dealing with Iran is staggering. On the one hand it speaks of diplomacy while it also secretly plans regime change and the use of tactical nuclear weapons. And all the while the charge is led by a little man/would-be cowboy with a messianic vision who finds himself at the helm of the most powerful nation in history.

The least we must do as citizens at this critical moment is follow the lead of these wise physicists and demand that our representatives call for publicly taking the nuclear option against non-nuclear adversaries off of the table. And then we should heed Kampelman's call to bring back a measure of idealism to our politics, and "find a way to move from what 'is'--a world with a risk of increasing global disaster--to what 'ought' to be, a peaceful, civilized world free of weapons of mass destruction."

If a former Reaganite can summon the imagination to envision such a world, so must we.

Bush Enters Border Fray

With the Senate coming back from its recess, will it now pick up from where it left off two weeks ago and finally get around to passing comprehensive immigration reform?

Under pressure from poll-afflicted Republicans, President Bush directly entered the fray this week by endorsing the general outlines of reform: a guest worker program, legalization of the undocumented already here, and tougher enforcement at the border as well as in work sites.

There's been a definite shift in public opinion in the past few months toward liberalizing current immigration policy. And the fact that Senate Republicans have recruited the President to pressure a more recalcitrant House is evidence that at least some in the GOP are ready to reach an acceptable compromise.

This is far from a perfect situation. But we should take our victories where and when we can get them. Pro-reform advocates have made historic progress in moving this issue forward. We're a long way now from last decade's dark days of Pete Wilson winning re-election on the xenophobic slogan of "they keep coming." Read the whole story here.

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