Friday, November 18, 2005

DCCC @Stake - Republicans on the Defensive

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Republicans on the Defensive

November 18, 2005

Republicans on the Defensive

Last week saw big Democratic victories in the gubernatorial elections in both New Jersey and Virginia, and already the implications for the 2006 mid-term elections are being felt. The Virginia result is particularly noteworthy, as Democrat Tim Kaine posted a 6% victory in a state that President Bush had carried 54-46 only a year before. You can be sure that every Republican in Congress took careful note of this result.

Republicans had been hoping for a victory in the Virginia Governor's race to stop their recent downward spiral of corruption and incompetence, but instead faced a demoralizing defeat. As a result, Democratic momentum heading into next year's mid-term elections continues to build, as esteemed congressional analyst Charlie Cook noted:

Forecast For GOP Looks Anything But Sunny
National Journal - 11/12/05

Republicans who had hoped that this year's almost relentless stream of bad news would be broken by a GOP victory either in the New Jersey or Virginia gubernatorial contests were disappointed again. As the Morton Salt slogan goes, "When it rains, it pours." These days, the Bush White House and the rest of the Republican Party are getting drenched, and no relief is in sight for them.

...For President Bush, the danger is that Election 2005 has pushed Republican senators and House members closer to the point of stampeding. Their willingness to break ranks with his administration has increased dramatically over the past month, compared with six months ago. And that willingness is likely to continue growing.

Among GOP lawmakers, the prevailing view now seems to be that Bush has appeared on the ballot for the last time, that their own names will be on the line next November, and that he will be of little or no help to them. He might even be a liability for some of them. So, they must do whatever they can to save their own seats.

The snowball rolls on.

President Bush's increasing radioactivity when it comes to Republican electoral prospects is a story that continues to grow, especially in the wake of his failed attempt to campaign for Republican Jerry Kilgore in Virginia. As we head into a midterm election year, how much of a drag will Bush be on Republican candidates? At the very least, it appears certain that he won't be any help, despite the best protestations from Scott McClellan:

New Jersey, New Hope
The American Prospect - 11/15/05

The White House, of course, is spinning hard against the idea of any domino theory.

"I think the facts say otherwise," Scott McClellan assures us. "I don't think any thorough analysis of the election results will show that the elections were decided on anything other than local and state issues and the candidates and their agendas. That's what I think. And I think that if you look at the facts, that bears that out."

We'll see, for sure. But bluster that looks like self-confidence when you're winning starts to look self-delusional when you're taking a thorough butt-kicking. When, for example, McClellan, as evidence that the president is not a drag on GOP candidates, states that the president will shortly be campaigning for Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele, who is running for the Senate, he seems to be missing the point. Raising money from GOP donors is not the same as getting regular, aggravated folks to vote for your guy. And if Bush couldnít help Kilgore in magenta red Virginia, what's on the after-dinner menu at the White House that makes him think he can help Steele in Democratic Maryland, which he lost 56-to-43 to John Kerry and 57-to-40 to Al Gore?

It's obvious that the White House has awakened to this burgeoning problem, and with good reason: as Congressional Republicans lose faith in Bush's ability to help them in next year's elections, their motivation to support his legislative agenda will falter significantly -- something we are already seeing. As further evidence, the Republican Leadership in the House lost their first vote in years yesterday when a united Democratic front thwarted the majority's attempt to force through a spending bill that would have made major cuts to both education and health care funding:

House Democrats Defeat Spending Bill
Associated Press - 11/17/05

Legislation to fund many of the nation's health, education and social programs went down to a startling defeat in the House Thursday, led by Democrats who said cuts in the bill hurt some of America's neediest people.

The 224-209 vote against the $142.5 billion spending bill disrupted plans by Republican leaders to finish up work on this year's spending bills and cast doubt on whether they would have the votes to pass a major budget-cutting bill also on the day's agenda.

Democrats, unanimous in opposing the legislation, said it included the first cut in education funding in a decade and slashed spending for several health care programs. "It betrays our nation's values and its future," said House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland. "It is neither compassionate, conservative nor wise."

...Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., said one factor in the bill's defeat was the drop in the president's popularity and his inability to maintain unity among the GOP ranks. He also noted that the Republican Party misses the vote-gathering powers of Texas Rep. Tom DeLay _ nicknamed "The Hammer" _ who has stepped aside as majority leader because of legal problems, replaced by Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. "Not every blunt instrument is a hammer," Frank said.

And after Democrats forced Republicans to delay the vote for literally weeks on a series of massive cuts to Medicaid, food stamps, student loans, child support enforcement, and job creation -- coupled with massive high-end tax cuts -- Republicans finally managed to cram the bill through the House in the middle of the night last night. Every single Democrat showed up and voted against the bill, and this morning every Republican who voted for it will begin to be held accountable in their districts.

Unless Republicans miraculously begin proposing policies that actually help the American people, they will be in this bind throughout 2006.

Bad GOP Policy Watch

This week brought the start of the sign-up period for the Medicare Prescription Drug benefit, and already the flawed program is causing headaches for eligible seniors attempting to join. But before we discuss the myriad problems with the program as it was written by Republican leaders, it's worth remembering the stunning abuse of power that led to the plan's enactment in the first place. The vote was held open for almost three hours -- representing an unprecedented power grab -- so that Republican leaders could twist enough arms (and, in the case of Tom DeLay, make enough threats) to squeek the bill through:

The Night The Clocks, Scoreboard Stood Still
The Hill - 11/16/05

As exhausted lawmakers walked off the House floor, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) grabbed Billy Pitts by the arm.

"We're still friends," Dingell told the Republican Rules Committee staff director, "but that was one of the most shameful things Iíve ever seen."

It was dawn on Nov. 22, 2003. After keeping the vote open for nearly three hours, the House had just delivered President Bush a major victory by passing its Medicare prescription-drug bill less than a year before the election.

...If the Medicare vote were a prizefight, it would have been stopped early on. Democrats were up between 15 to 20 votes in the first 10 minutes. At the 15-minute mark, the tally was 194 for, 209 against.

With most eyes focused on the changing vote count, some Republicans were looking to get out of sight. GOP leaders had set up "door men" around the exits of the floor to make sure that Republican no votes would be around until the end.

Some, including Reps. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Charles Norwood (R-Ga.), quietly voted no, evaded the guards and escaped into the night.

...The vote stood at 216-218 at 4 a.m. It would stay that way for the next 111 minutes.

...Various so-called "cells" were working the floor in search of votes. Staffers and aides moved from member to member. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) worked on Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) for close to an hour. Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.) relentlessly worked the room.

Proponents were using every possible argument:

"The president needs this to be reelected."

"If we don't pass it, we could lose the House and the Senate."

"Do it for the team."

"Do you want the Democrats to win?"

Notice what wasn't offered as an argument: that this bill would actually help seniors with the high cost of prescription drugs. Instead, the Republican leadership was focused exclusively on the politics of the bill. And when politics and pleasing your donors are the top priorities, chances are the program you enact will be inherently flawed.

The bill was finally passed at the break of dawn that morning. Now, almost two years later (and following a dramatic increase in the expected cost of the program), the benefit is finally taking enrollees, and its poor design is already causing problems for seniors trying to enroll. In particular, seniors are basically being forced to rely on the internet as a source for information, and - predictably - that is not working out very well:

Problems Cited In Medicare Drug Benefit Sign-Up
Washington Post - 11/16/05

Medicare beneficiaries for the first time began signing up for federally subsidized drug coverage yesterday, and early indications were that many will need an antidote for the outbreak of confusion and frustration that accompanied it.

The 43 million people eligible for the new benefit have at least 40 plans to pick from on average, reflecting the competition that Medicare officials say promotes lower costs -- but also more head-scratching. Moreover, one of the most efficient ways to get comparative information is via the Internet, a medium with which many seniors are uncomfortable or unfamiliar.

...After nearly a month of delays, Medicare officials rolled out last week an interactive tool on the Web site They say the tool will allow seniors to key in the names of the drugs they take and other information and to instantly receive a personalized list of drug plans in their area ranked by annual cost. With a few mouse clicks, officials said, seniors can choose a plan and sign up for coverage.

...Gary Karr, a Medicare spokesman, said officials are working to expand the capacity of the Web site. "There's been times when it's been extremely slow or just has stopped working," he said.

But besides the problems with relying on the internet as a resource for confused potential enrollees, the program is unecessarily complex, again as a consequence of trying to please Republican special interests rather than enacting sounding policy. Most of the seniors who are interested in the program have taken it upon themselves to study up on it, but this has done little to make sense of the myriad potential plans:

More than six in 10 seniors said they understood the drug benefit "not too well" or "not well at all" even though 74 percent said they had received information about it, according to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed said the large number of choices "makes it confusing and difficult to pick the best plan."

Keep in mind that these problems are surfacing before a single dime in benefits has been paid. Once enrollees begin to experience the infamous "doughnut hole" that could leave them on the hook for thousands of dollars in prescription drug costs, things will get even worse. In addition, it's a good bet that many will be frustrated by the fact that their provider can change their benefit at will, but the enrollee can only switch plans once a year -- putting them at the mercy of the very industry the bill was supposed to reign in.

The irony of the entire process that has led to this point is that in engaging in a reckless abuse of power to secure what is barely a nominal solution to the problem of high prescription drug costs, Congressional Republicans have placed themselves on the hook for all the problems the benefit will cause (Bush will certainly bear some blame as well, but - as Congressional Republicans are becoming increasingly aware - he doesn't have to face the voters again). They've also shown themselves to be completely incapable of enacting sound programs that will actually help solve real-world problems, something the voters will remember every time real questions of governance are asked in the lead up to next year's mid-terms elections.

Iraq Intelligence and Accountability

In a rebuke of the White House, it appears that some Republicans may finally prepared to take their responsibility for oversight seriously.

Senate demands accountability on war
CNN - November 16, 2005

"The Senate demanded regular reports on the progress of the war in Iraq on Tuesday but rejected a Democratic plan to require the Bush administration to lay out a timeline for a U.S. withdrawal.

"Senators voted 79-19 to add language to a $491 billion Pentagon spending bill that declares 2006 to be 'a period of significant transition' for Iraq and calls on the Bush administration 'to explain to Congress and the American people its strategy for the successful completion of the mission in Iraq.'

"The measure was drafted largely by Democrats, but GOP leaders removed language that would have called for a flexible timetable for a possible American pullout from Iraq. But because its stated purpose was 'to clarify and recommend changes' to U.S. policy in Iraq, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid called its adoption a vote of 'no confidence' in the administration and said 'staying the course will not do.'

"'The administration's strategy is aimless, and sadly, it's rudderless,' said Reid, a Nevada Democrat. '[The vote is] a victory for our troops and the American people.'"

Vice President Cheney, whose office remains at the center of investigation into the outing of a CIA agent for political purposes, has taken the lead in accusing Democrats of... politicizing national security. As he stated in a recent speech:

"I know what it's like to operate in a highly charged political environment, in which the players on all sides of an issue feel passionately and speak forcefully. In such an environment people sometimes lose their cool, and yet in Washington you can ordinarily rely on some basic measure of truthfulness and good faith in the conduct of political debate. But in the last several weeks we have seen a wild departure from that tradition. And the suggestion that's been made by some U.S. senators that the President of the United States or any member of this administration purposely misled the American people on pre-war intelligence is one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city."

The Washington Post's Dan Froomkin notes this irony, however:

"So what is Cheney's response to his critics? He's going to 'throw their own words back at them.'

"That's the strategy in its entirety.

"He is not, by contrast, offering to clear up, say, any one of his 51 misleading statements compiled by House Democrats on the Government Reform Committee.

"Here, just for example, is what he said about Saddam Hussein in remarks on January 30, 2003: 'His regime aids and protects terrorists, including members of al Qaeda. He could decide secretly to provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorists for use against us.'"

Kevin Drum of Washington Monthly also identifies five central claims where Bush Administration rhetoric went well beyond the intelligence given to them:

1. The Claim: Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, an al-Qaeda prisoner captured in 2001, was the source of intelligence that Saddam Hussein had trained al-Qaeda members to use biological and chemical weapons. This information was used extensively by Colin Powell in his February 2003 speech to the UN.

What We Know Now: As early as February 2002, the Defense Intelligence Agency circulated a report, labeled DITSUM No. 044-02, saying that it was "likely this individual is intentionally misleading the debriefers." Link. This assessment was hidden from the public until after the war.

2. The Claim: An Iraqi defector codenamed "Curveball" was the source of reporting that Saddam Hussein had built a fleet of mobile biowarfare labs. Curveball's claims of mobile bio labs were repeated by many administration figures during the runup to war.

What We Know Now: The only American agent to actually meet with Curveball before the war warned that he appeared to be an alcoholic and was unreliable. However, his superior in the CIA told him it was best to keep quiet about this: "Let's keep in mind the fact that this war's going to happen regardless of what Curveball said or didn't say, and the powers that be probably aren't terribly interested in whether Curveball knows what he's talking about." Link. This dissent was not made public until 2004, in a response to the SSCI report that was written by Senator Dianne Feinstein. Link.

3. The Claim: Iraq had purchased thousands of aluminum tubes to act as centrifuges for the creation of bomb grade uranium. Dick Cheney said they were "irrefutable evidence" of an Iraqi nuclear program and George Bush cited them in his 2003 State of the Union address.

What We Know Now: Centrifuge experts at the Oak Ridge Office of the Department of Energy had concluded long before the war that the tubes were unsuitable for centrifuge work and were probably meant for use in artillery rockets. The State Department concurred. Link. Both of these dissents were omitted from the CIA's declassified National Intelligence Estimate, released on October 4, 2002. Link. They were subsequently made public after the war, on July 18, 2003. Link.

4. The Claim: Saddam Hussein attempted to purchase uranium yellowcake from Africa as part of his attempt to reconstitute his nuclear program. President Bush cited this publicly in his 2003 State of the Union address.

What We Know Now: The primary piece of evidence for this claim was a document showing that Iraq had signed a contract to buy yellowcake from Niger. However, the CIA specifically told the White House in October 2002 that the "reporting was weak" and that they disagreed with the British about the reliability of this intelligence. Link. At the same time, the State Department wrote that the documents were "completely implausible." Link.

Three months later, in January 2003, Alan Foley, head of the CIA's counterproliferation effort, tried to persuade the White House not to include the claim in the SOTU because the information wasn't solid enough, but was overruled. Link. Five weeks later, the documents were conclusively shown to be forgeries. Link. In July 2003, after the war had ended, CIA Director George Tenet admitted publicly that that the claim should never have been made. Link.

5. The Claim: Saddam Hussein was developing long range aerial drones capable of attacking the continental United States with chemical or biological weapons. President Bush made this claim in a speech in October 2002 and Colin Powell repeated it during his speech to the UN in February 2003.

What We Know Now: The Iraqi drones had nowhere near the range to reach the United States, and Air Force experts also doubted that they were designed to deliver WMD. However, their dissent was left out of the October 2002 NIE and wasn't made public until July 2003. Link.

For the record.

Washington Lobbying and the Need for Reform

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee, headed by Republican John McCain, held yet another hearing on the scandal surrounding Republican super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff this week. There was exactly one witness, Italia Federici, who according to emails between herself and Abramoff used her influence with high-ranking officials inside the Bush Administration to advance the interests of Abramoff's clients. As the LA Times reported...

"The head of a Republican environmental organization clashed repeatedly today with senators who accused her of trying to use her friendship with an Interior Department official to further the business interests of super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff's tribal clients.

"Italia Federici, president of the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, told an incredulous Senate Indian Affairs Committee that she believed Abramoff's tribal clients donated $500,000 over a three-year period to her organization because they were generous, not because they hoped she would help them thwart the efforts of competing tribes to open casinos.

"Her testimony came as the committee was wrapping up a lengthy inquiry into Abramoff's collection of $82 million in fees from tribal clients. The investigation has raised questions about whether he improperly used his relationships with powerful lawmakers and administration officials to further the interests of the tribes.

"Abramoff, who is under indictment in an unrelated case, is under federal investigation along with several associates for lobbying efforts on behalf of the tribes.

"The scandal has touched powerful lawmakers, including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), whose trip to a Scottish golfing resort with Abramoff has come under scrutiny. DeLay, who once described Abramoff as a close friend, has denied any wrongdoing and has asked the House Ethics Committee to investigate his travels."

As DCCC Executive Director noted in an online chat with DCCC supporters on Thursday, cleaning up the culture of corruption - through lobbying reform amongst other things - is a top Democratic priority:

The relationship between the Republican Congress and corrupt lobbyists has become seamless, and the American people are paying a high price. The cozy relationships between Republicans and oil and energy companies have produced a Congress that is too focused on special interests, and not focused on the priorities of American families - like lowering gas prices and prescription drug costs. The ethical cloud hanging over the Congress is a major reason why Congress has lost the confidence of a majority of Americans. National Republicans have officially turned the "people's house" into an auction house. In order to clean up the ethical mess in Washington, Congress must pass lobbying and ethics reform immediately. We support legislation that cleans up the relationship between lobbyists and Members of Congress in four ways: increasing disclosure of lobbying activities, slowing the 'revolving door' between government and lobbying, curbing lobbyists-sponsored junkets and toughening enforcement and oversight.

Indeed, the New York Times recognized the efforts of DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel in an outstanding editorial on these issues...

"The largely uncontrolled lobbying world of Washington deserves all the attention it is getting by way of Mr. Abramoff, who seems to have styled his shop after 'Glengarry Glen Ross.' A worthy bill to end the scandalous privately financed junketeering - $18 million worth by 600 lawmakers in the last five years - and closely track lobbyists' money and influence has been submitted by two Democratic representatives, Martin Meehan of Massachusetts and Rahm Emanuel of Illinois. As the Republican majority grows anxious about next year's elections and the public's increasing disapproval of Congress, it would be wise to resort to lobbying reform as the last refuge of ex-junketeers."

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"Fewer than one in 10 adults say they would prefer a congressional candidate who is a Republican and who agrees with Bush on most major issues, according to a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday. Even among Republicans, seven of 10 are most likely to back a candidate who has at least some disagreements with the president."
-- USA Today, 11/14/2005

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