From NBC's Kelly Paice
From NBC's Kelly Paice
From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Debating The Goals: Today's White House meeting on Afghanistan at 3:00 pm ET (closed to press) will probably be as much about laying out the potential strategic options -- not troop levels, but about debating what the ultimate goals should be. For instance, is the goal about removing just al Qaeda? Is it about stabilizing Afghanistan? Is it about removing the Taliban, too? Is it about stabilizing Pakistan? Of course, the answer to all of these questions is "yes." But to what extent? That's the ultimate question at today's meeting. Also, why just 40,000 troops? Why not 150,000? (Could it be that 40,000 is simply the maximum number available at this time?) One other thing: Who talks the most at this meeting of heavyweights (not many shrinking violets will be in attendance) could also tell us a bit more about where things are heading. Then again, how pro-forma is the meeting itself? There are so many important folks in this meeting that it's hard to imagine it can be THAT productive.
*** The Guest List: Here's a list of those attending today's meeting: Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Clinton, envoy Richard Holbrooke, Ambassador to Afghanistan Eikenberry (by remote), Ambassador to Pakistan Patterson (by remote), Defense Secretary Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen, Gen. Petraeus, Gen. McChrystal (by remote), Chief of Staff Emanuel, Director of National Intelligence Blair, CIA head Panetta, U.N. Ambassador Rice, National Security Adviser Jones, Deputy National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan, Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, and Gen. Lute.
*** Major Disaster In Samoa: Today's biggest story, though, is the tsunami that slammed into Samoa and American Samoa, and the death toll there stands at 99, according to the AP. President Obama declared a major disaster there, and he released this statement early this morning: "Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of those who lost their lives in the earthquake and tsunami in American Samoa and the region. I am closely monitoring these tragic events, and have declared a major disaster for American Samoa, which will provide the tools necessary for a full, swift and aggressive response. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is in close and constant contact with emergency responders, and the U.S. Coast Guard is fully supporting the deployment of resources to those areas in need of immediate assistance. We also stand ready to help our friends in Samoa and the region. Going forward, we will continue to provide the resources necessary to respond to this catastrophe, and we will keep those who have lost so much in our thoughts and prayers."
*** Stop The Presses! Senate Finance Doesn't Support A Public Option! If you've been paying attention to the health-care debate over the past several months (and reading First Read), you shouldn't have been surprised that the Senate Finance Committee yesterday defeated those public option amendments. But that didn't stop some news outlets from calling yesterday's votes "a crippling blow" to liberals or a "setback" for the White House. Is the public option dead in the Senate? Probably -- and that hasn't changed over the past couple of months. Still, we don't know if a trigger is possible, and we have no idea about the so-called co-op. Yet Baucus' decision to cite votes, even as he praised the idea of a public option, was interesting. And public option advocates have successfully used yesterday's actions to raise even more money to target Baucus (and Olympia Snowe) in TV ads. Maine and Montana are cheap states, so getting on the air in both states isn't hard. By the way, and we've noted this before, TV ads in general appear to be the dog that hasn't bitten.
*** On The Iran Talks: Per NBC's Andrea Mitchell, Swiss officials say they are moving tomorrow's talks on Iran to another location than originally announced. The talks will now be held in an 18th century government conference center called the Hotel Saugy (pronouonced Saw-Gee). The U.S. delegation flew overnight to Geneva and is holding strategy sessions today with other members of the Security Council, as well as its Swiss hosts. A senior U.S. official told Mitchell that we are now about to test the proposition of whether the (Obama) policy of diplomatic engagement will work -- and that this will be the first chance to see whether Iran is willing to engage constructively on the nuclear issue. The official added that how Iran responds will set the stage for what happens next (whether they proceed with a move toward tougher sanctions, either with the Europeans or, optimally, with the U.N. Security Council). Today's various stories on the run-up to these talks suggest that those who believe engagement will work might be feeling a tad pessimistic. Iran clearly wants to be publicly defiant, and China continues to send NO signals it will be open to serious sanctions. So what happens if these talks fail and sanctions aren't viable thanks to China?
*** All About Daggett? Is the New Jersey race for governor beginning to tighten? A new Quinnipiac poll finds Chris Christie (R) leading incumbent Jon Corzine by four points, 43%-39%. Earlier this month, Christie was ahead by 10 points (47%-37%). That's the good news for Corzine and the Democrats. The bad news is that the incumbent remains stuck in the high 30s, and his approval/disapproval is 36%-58%. Ouch. The reason for Corzine seeming to close the gap? Third-party candidate Christopher Daggett is now getting 12% in the Quinnipiac poll. Indeed, it increasingly looks like the difference between Corzine winning and losing re-election is going to be Daggett. Yet history has shown that indie candidates -- more often than not -- see their numbers go down, not up, on Election Day. A final thought about Corzine: His unfavorable rating is at 56%. Did even Gray Davis, the last governor we can think of to win re-election with an upside down job approval rating, have a 56% unfav rating? Meanwhile, did you know Christie has attended 120 Springsteen concerts in his life?
*** 2007-2008 Flashback: "Norman Hsu, a former prominent Democratic fund-raiser, was sentenced Tuesday to more than 24 years in prison for bilking hundreds of investors of millions of dollars in a nationwide Ponzi scheme and committing campaign finance fraud," the New York Times reports.
*** Obama's Day: Before his meeting on Afghanistan in the Situation Room, President Obama travels to the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, where he tours an NIH lab with HHS Secretary Sebelius and then makes a stimulus-related announcement there at 11:00 am ET. Per the White House, Obama will "announce $5 billion in [Recovery Act] funding to support 12,000 critical research projects – and tens of thousands of jobs associated with them, ranging from teachers and lab technicians to database managers and scientists. These research grants are part of the Recovery Act's overall investment of $100 billion in innovative research and advancing our science and technology infrastructure."
*** Biden's Day: And before he attends today's White House meeting on Afghanistan, Vice President Biden heads to his home state of Delaware, where he will address the Delaware National Guard brigade that just returned from Iraq. One of the members of that brigade, of course, is Biden's son Beau, who is expected to run for his dad's Senate seat next year. Biden's speech in Dover, DE occurs at 1:00 pm ET.
Countdown to Election Day 2009: 34 days
Countdown to MA Special Primary: 69 days
Countdown to MA Special Election: 111 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 398 days
The Wall Street Journal previews today's White House meeting on Afghanistan. "The White House unexpectedly decided to review its strategy in Afghanistan after a series of recent setbacks in the war, including allegations of fraud following last month's presidential elections and surging violence throughout the country. It begins just days after Gen. McChrystal submitted his request for as many as 40,000 additional troops to the Pentagon. Some in the administration, notably Mr. Biden, have argued for a smaller military footprint and a tighter focus on counterterrorism as the best way forward."
The LA Times: "The vice president's plan: Scale back the overall American military footprint in Afghanistan, drop the mission of rescuing the country from the Taliban, focus on strikes against Al Qaeda along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border -- the real threat to U.S. national security -- using special forces and Predator missile attacks."
With Biden's desire for a tighter focus on counterterrorism, the Washington Post front-pages, "U.S. and international intelligence officials say that improved recruitment of spies inside the al-Qaeda network, along with increased use of targeted airstrikes and enhanced assistance from cooperative governments, has significantly reduced the terrorist organization's effectiveness."
USA Today writes that the U.S. is having difficulties with the Afghan military and police forces. "After nearly eight years of war, Afghanistan's security forces are still plagued by corruption, high levels of absenteeism, a lack of proper training and an excessive dependence on their American counterparts, U.S. commanders and troops in the field say."
Iran is not helping its case about the secret nuclear facility by admitting it built in a place that would provide it maximum security from outside attack. Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi's statement 'This site is at the base of a mountain and was selected on purpose in a place that would be protected against aerial attack. That's why the site was chosen adjacent to a military site,'' Salehi said. ''It was intended to safeguard our nuclear facilities and reduce the cost of an active defense system. If we had chosen another site, we would have had to set up another aerial defense system.''
More from the Wall Street Journal: "President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has hinted Iran has other nuclear sites that it hasn't disclosed to the IAEA. IAEA officials will have their eyes and ears open for hints of such sites during interviews with personnel at the site near the holy city of Qom, and in documents there. They need Iranian permission to enter any facility unless there is hard evidence of nuclear material present. Mr. Salehi said Iran won't negotiate its right to develop nuclear energy. "But we can discuss about disarmament, we can discuss about nonproliferation and other general issues," he said, according to Reuters. "The new site is part of our rights, and there is no need to discuss."
Meanwhile, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Ray Odierno, "said Tuesday that he could reduce American forces to 50,000 troops even before the end of next summer if the expected January elections in Iraq went smoothly," the New York Times says.
"A key Senate panel twice beat back efforts Tuesday to create a government-run insurance plan, dealing a crippling blow to the hopes of liberals seeking to expand the federal role in health coverage as a cornerstone of reform," the Washington Post reports. "In a signal moment in the increasingly fractious debate over reforming the nation's sprawling health-care system, Senate Finance Committee members rejected two amendments to create a public option on votes of 15 to 8 and 13 to 10."
Video: Newsweek's Howard Fineman explains why several Democrats and all Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee coted against the public option.
More: "Despite the setback for advocates of a public option, debate over such a plan is certain to continue. Sens. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who offered the amendments that were voted down Tuesday, have vowed to keep the issue at the forefront as the debate unfolds. And Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) could include a government plan when he combines the Finance Committee's bill with Senate health committee legislation, approved in July, that includes a public option. Aides said Tuesday that Reid has not decided how to proceed."
The New York Times adds, "The votes … underscored divisions among Democrats and were a setback for President Obama, who has endorsed the public plan as a way to 'keep insurance companies honest.'"
Politico says that the Obama will be the ultimate referee on the public option."'Expect the president and his staff to be key participants in the tough decisions we have to make, on such issues as the level of subsidies and the public plan versus the co-ops," said a senior Democratic Senate aide. "The only way we are going to get this done is with active involvement of the president.'"
By the way, here's a reminder of how Republican ideas do get incorporated into the final bill. "[T]he committee agreed late Tuesday to a measure that would require lawmakers to shop for insurance within new state purchasing exchanges the bill would set up. The measure's author, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said it was only fair that if their constituents had to enter the exchanges, lawmakers should too. The committee defeated an amendment, also by Grassley, that would have allowed states to opt out of a new requirement for every individual to purchase insurance coverage or pay a fine."
A Republican aide emails First Read that the GOP plans to make a big deal over Rep. Alan Grayson's (D-FL) comment yesterday: "If you get sick, America, the Republican health care plan is this: Die quickly."
Sens. Kerry and Boxer introduce their climate/energy bill today.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said yesterday that his plans to do a series of speaking engagements in key election states are intended to "galvanize the Republican Party," but did not deny that he was considering running for president in 2012. In a conference call with reporters, Santorum previewed his speech on Thursday in Iowa, which just happens to be the home of the first presidential nominating contests. When asked whether the speech is an opening salvo to a presidential bid, Santorum said "it's not that I'm not going to plan; it's just that this is an opportunity to speak and lend my voice to what I hope to be a conservative movement and Republican movement to change the direction that Barack Obama wants to take us."
During the Q&A, one reporter on the call likened Santorum's non-official platform to that of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin -- to which Santorum responded: "The opportunity to influence the debate has to come from other places. It can't come from doing press conferences at my Senate office." He described his current junket as a "combination of helping candidates and speaking to groups that would like to hear a different set of ideas than those that are being espoused in Washington DC by the administration."
After opposing Obama on the stimulus, "Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal urged his party in an interview Tuesday to shift to offering health care solutions instead of just rejecting what President Barack Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress are proposing," Politico writes.
COLORADO: The New York Times parachutes into the Bennet-Romanoff Senate primary. "Republicans see the Democratic primary as a lucky break in a state where they badly need one. There are three top Republican candidates: former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton; Ken Buck, a district attorney from Weld County; and Ryan Frazier, a city councilman from Aurora."
NEW JERSEY: PolitickerNJ writes that "a new Quinnipiac University poll shows Republican Christopher Christie with a four-point lead over Democrat Jon Corzine, 43%-39%, among likely voters." On the issue of personal integrity, voters are "split: 44%-45% on whether Corzine is honest and trustworthy, and 37%-36% on Christie."
The New York Times looks at one of Republican gubernatorial nominee Chris Christie's non-political hobbies: going to Springsteen concerts.
VIRGINIA: In the wake of the news about Bob McDonnell's controversial thesis, the Washington Post writes that the race for Virginia governor has increasingly turned into a battle for the female vote. "On Tuesday, Deeds launched a TV ad attacking McDonnell's views on working women, citing the Republican's 20-year-old graduate school thesis, in which he says working women are 'detrimental to the family.' Over the weekend, the Deeds campaign started a series of Oprah-style book clubs to bring women together to talk about the thesis and other aspects of the race."
"McDonnell is airing a spot featuring his eldest daughter, Jeanine, an Iraq war veteran whom he often mentions as an example of his support for working women. His wife, Maureen, appeared on the campaign trail Saturday to defend his attitudes toward women, and his pink 'Women for McDonnell' T-shirts, signs and bumper stickers have become ubiquitous at his events."
The only question we have: Can Deeds make the entire end of his campaign about this issue and this alone? If Deeds wins, then we know the answer. But if McDonnell wins, the criticism against Deeds will be that he relied too much on this thesis hit.
From NBC's Ken Strickland
In today's Senate Finance Committee mark-up, the public option amendment introduced by Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer was defeated by a 10-13 vote.
Democratic Sens. Baucus, Conrad, and Lincoln voted no, joining all Republicans.
We don't expect any more public option votes in committee.
From NBC's Domenico Montanaro
After the closed Democratic Caucus meeting, the top two House Democrats told reporters that there's no rush on getting a House bill out on health care -- particularly since the legislation won't be enacted until 2013.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer reiterated that the bills will be introduced "when ready."
At a briefing this morning, Hoyer said a House bill was likely to emerge next month.
On the public option, a source of division among moderate and liberal Democrats, Pelosi stressed once again, "I believe we will have a public option" -- with this caveat -- "in OUR bill."
Neither Hoyer nor Pelosi would endorse a deadline for a health bill to hit the floor, but they insisted progress is being made.
House Democrats seem to content to bide their time and wait for the Senate, particularly the Finance Committee, to finish up its work or at least appear closer to a final bill before they go ahead with their version.
Remember, moderate Democrats feel like they were burned when House leadership twisted arms and narrowly pushed through climate-change legislation -- which has yet to come up in the Senate.
Of course, the Senate Finance Committee is the place where most see the potential blueprint of a final overall bill. But its work is far from done as its public, and sometimes contentious, markup is ongoing.
Pelosi seemed to be speaking to those moderates, as she continually stressed that her "members are concerned with bringing costs down."
"Costs" are a major concern for the moderate, Blue Dog Democrats, many of whom have indicated they will not support a bill with a public option in it.
From NBC's Bobby Cervantes
RNC Chairman Michael Steele said today that President Obama has failed to give an answer to one important question: "What's the focus?"
In a conference call with reporters, Steele argued that the president has neglected his promise to create jobs and stimulate the economy -- and has instead jumped from health care and cap-and-trade, to his Olympic pitch in Copenhagen.
"I think the president needs to, along with members of Congress, tell the American people what their focus is going to be going into the fall and next year," Steele said. "In all of this, what's lost is what matters to the American people."
Also in the conference call, Steele hit what he said were the president's health-care "taxes," saying that taxing people who can't afford to buy a health-care plan during a recession is simply bad economics. (Steele here is referring to emerging plans to fine those who don't have insurance; all the health legislation moving through Congress would provide low-income Americans with subsidies to purchase health insurance.)
Calling the president's upcoming trip to Copenhagen meant to boost Chicago's chances of hosting the 2016 Summer Games a "noble idea," Steele refused to answer if he thought it was a mistake, saying instead that it's "in the eye of the beholder."
"If it's [health care] that important, Mr. President, then stay home and get it done," he said.
From NBC's Ken Strickland
The Senate Finance Committee is about to vote on the first amendment dealing with public option.
The amendment is offered by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who is making his closing argument now.
The vote is expected to fail. The reason: Committee Chairman Max Baucus already has announced he'll vote against, and it's expected that Democratic Sens. Kent Conrad and Blanche Lincoln will vote against as well. In addition, all Republicans, including Olympia Snowe, will vote against it, too.
After Rockefeller vote, they'll start the debate on the Schumer public option amendment.
*** UPDATE *** As expected, the Rockefeller amendment was defeated by an 8-15 vote.
Five Democrats voted against: Baucus, Lincoln, Bill Nelson, Tom Carper, and Kent Conrad
All Republicans voted no.
From NBC's Athena Jones
Success will be achieved in Afghanistan, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen declared today after a meeting with President Obama in the Oval Office.
The head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization went on to say that the organization was committed to staying in Afghanistan for as long as necessary to get the job done.
"I'm convinced that success in Afghanistan is achievable and will be achieved," Rasmussen said. "And don't make any mistake -- the normal discussion on the right approach should not be misinterpreted as lack of resolve. This Alliance will stand united and we will stay in Afghanistan as long as it takes to finish our job."
The White House is undertaking a comprehensive review of strategy in Afghanistan, where civilian and troop deaths are on the rise, as Taliban forces spread to areas they have not previously operated. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S.'s top military commander in Afghanistan, reportedly wants up to 40,000 additional troops, though that resource request hasn't been formally forwarded to the president. A decision on whether to send more troops is weeks away -- at least.
Some Democrats in Congress have suggested they will not support a troop increase, while some of the president's Republican critics have said he is dragging his feet on making a decision on whether to send more forces. Obama has consistently argued it's important to make sure the U.S. has the proper strategy in the country.
"I agree with President Obama in his approach -- strategy first, then resources," Rasmussen said. "The first thing is not numbers; it is to find and fine-tune the right approach to implement the strategy already laid down. And all NATO allies are right now looking at McChrystal's review."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden were also in today's meeting. The president holds an expanded meeting on Afghanistan tomorrow with several other top officials, including Clinton, Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen, and Gens. McChrystal and David Petraeus.
In their meeting today, Obama and Rasmussen also discussed the U.S.'s recent decision to focus on short- and medium-range missile defense in Europe, rather than long-range missile defense -- a move Rasmussen said would protect all allies and make the alliance stronger/
"NATO has been so successful that sometimes I think that we forget this was shaped and crafted for a 20th century landscape," Obama said. "We're now well into the 21st century, and that means that we are going to have to constantly renew and revitalize NATO to meet current threats and not just past threats."
From NBC's Domenico Montanaro
Fresh from advocating for a public option at the Senate Finance Committee's ongoing health reform mark-up, Sen. Bob Menendez made the walk across the street from the Capitol and put on his other hat as head of the Democrats' Senate political arm.
He acknowledged that the landscape for Democrats, as it stands now, could be tough. He pointed out "red flags" -- their big gains in the past two cycles (and how that's tough to replicate); that Dems have dropped in the generic ballot test; and the historical disadvantages of trying to make gains in the Senate after picking up the White House.
But, he urged that the elections are still 14 months away and any prognosticating now is premature.
He acknowledged that Republicans gained some momentum during the August break, but he called it short term and that the GOP will come to regret being solely in opposition of the most important issues facing the country, like the economy and health care.
On the overarching issue of the economy, he said, "Does anyone think that a year from now we won't be in better shape? he asked.
Republicans, he said, have "done nothing to help" and have ceded the economy and health care. "That's a bad sign for Republicans," he said.
"They gamble against the economy, and the economy is recovering... It's about them positioning themselves on failure."
On the horse races, he said his Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee won't interfere in primaries unless they see them becoming too divisive. He said when candidates are talking about themselves or Republicans, that's fine. But when they start in harshly on each other, then the committee will step in.
Asked about the tough primary in Kentucky, though, Menendez said, "It's no big deal. I come from New Jersey."
From NBC's Domenico Montanaro
Expect health-reform legislation to emerge from the House next month, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters in one of his regular off-camera briefings.
He also touched on the economy, saying he saw positive signs, as well as Afghanistan and tomorrow's auto talks designed to give some say to dealers who had their franchises closed on them -- even if they were profitable. On Afghanistan, Hoyer reiterated that he'd like to see what Gen. Stanley McChrystal -- the U.S. commander in Afghanistan -- has to say.
Though he expects a health-reform bill in October, Hoyer noted that there is no deadline set.
"The speaker and I are in lockstep on this," he said, adding with a smile, "I'm sure that'll be the headline."
Echoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Hoyer said a bill won't come up for a vote until it's ready. He outlined familiar requirements for the bill, like bringing costs down and bending the curve, as scored by the Congressional Budget Office -- all things he and Democratic leaders have stressed previously.
What's in or out -- i.e. the public option -- Hoyer said is still "in flux."
He labeled Republicans again as the "Party of No" and accused them of wanting to slow down the process and for not being genuine about their want for reform.
Hoyer said he does not believe Rep. Charles Boustany and Minority Whip Eric Cantor agree with 80 percent of what's in various pieces of legislation, as they have said. Hoyer reached out to both last week, but said he met with just Boustany, but has not met with Cantor and doesn't expect to at this point. [*** UPDATE *** In response to this post, Cantor's office said Hoyer never reached out. "Last week the Majority Leader suggested that he wanted to meet with Republican Whip Eric Cantor," said spokesman Brad Dayspring. "In the absence of an invitation from the Majority Leader, Mr. Cantor will request a meeting with Mr. Hoyer this week to focus on the areas of agreement as outlined in previous public statements. Mr. Cantor looks forward to a positive policy forum where the exchange of ideas is welcome."]
Hoyer accused Republicans of "trying to scare seniors to somehow project themselves as the protectors of Medicare." He said it was not believable, considering the GOP's past positions on Medicare. Hoyer added that Medicare would not be substantially affected under legislation going through the House.
On the economy, he said he sees positive signs, including that Wall Street is about to report its most successful quarter since 1998, "the last time," Hoyer pointed out, that "we had a Democratic president."
He noted that unemployment applications are down. New jobs numbers come out on Friday, and Hoyer said he hopes they will reflect a further decrease in the number of jobs shed. He called TARP "unpopular" but "necessary," and credited it and the stimulus with helping the economy out of a "trough." Hoyer added that financial institutions are beginning to pay back TARP money and that so far the government has made a 17% profit on what's been paid back -- though he stressed it's too early to tell that the government will make a profit overall on TARP.
On Afghanistan, Hoyer said, "Where I stand is I want to hear from McChrystal." Republicans have also called for McChrystal to testify before Congress, and the commander was profiled this Sunday on 60 Minutes.
Hoyer left the door open for supporting more troops to the country, as he said that the U.S. took its eye off the ball by going into Iraq and there's no doubt that "Afghanistan is, in fact, the place in which attacks were planned and launched." But, he added, he wants to hear about the plan proposed and if it can succeed.
Hoyer is also set to attend talks tomorrow on car dealers, who had their franchises closed during the auto companies' restructuring.
"We want a credible appeals process" for profitable dealers, Hoyer said, adding, "Many of us feel these dealers were treated relatively without process, due process or any process."
He noted that some states have laws on the books protecting franchisees from franchisors, "so we're very concerned."
From NBC's Ken Strickland
Increasingly, liberals and progressives pushing for a public option in any health-care reform want to use a tool called budget reconciliation, so reform could be passed by just 51 Senate votes instead of the filibuster-proof 60 (requiring conservative Democrats and maybe even a moderate Republican like Olympia Snowe).
Putting aside the political debate about reconciliation -- and whether or not Democrats should use it -- the bottom line is this: Reconciliation can be used and has been used by both parties. It's written into law.
But the biggest question is this: Can it be used to successfully produce a comprehensive health-care reform bill?
This is an attempt to give a stripped-down, dumbed-down, Cliff Notes-like explanation of what reconciliation is, what hurdles opponents can place before it, and how it might be handled on the floor should Democrats decide to use it.
What is reconciliation and why is it used?
As mentioned above, it takes 60 votes to pass anything controversial in the Senate, due to the threat of a filibuster. But in 1974, in an effort to cut the nation's soaring deficits, Congress passed a law creating a procedure that could NOT be filibustered and would only need a simple majority of 51 votes to pass.
Without a filibuster-proof procedure, lawmakers reasoned, the Senate would face difficulty passing bills that would make cuts in Medicare and Medicaid -- popular programs which take up a significant portion of government spending. In an "explanation" of why reconciliation is needed, the Senate Budget Committee wrote in 1998:
These changes are considered difficult because the very nature of the programs involved often necessitates changing tax rates or placing restrictions on very popular social programs in order to achieve budgetary savings.
In addition to needing only 51 votes to pass, floor debate is limited to only 20 hours. Adding amendments that are unrelated to the bill are also prohibited. These rules are intended to speed up the legislative process and prevent opponents from gumming it up with deliberate procedural dawdling.
So how did health-care reform fall under reconciliation?
If deficit reduction is the original purpose for using reconciliation, how did a health-care bill get involved? Simply put, Democratic leaders made it about controlling spending and at the same time created a path to push the bill through if they realized they couldn't find 60 votes to pass it the traditional way. It's an escape hatch, of sorts.
From President Obama on down, Democrats have long proclaimed that a key component of fixing the economy was reining in health-care costs -- "bending the cost curve," as they like to say. Equally importantly, Obama's only line in the sand thus far has been that any health-care bill cannot "add one dime" to the deficit. (Ding, ding. Did someone say "deficit"?)
So when Congress passed its budget earlier this year, it included "reconciliation instructions" for the Senate Health and Finance Committees to produce legislation that reduces the deficit by $2 billion. So in simple terms, as long as long as the bill that could cost as much as $900 billion can find a way to make an extra $2 billion to put towards reducing the deficit, reconciliation can be used.
While Republicans argue that the Democrats' health-care plan is as much as about social policy and big government, there is a fiscal component. Reconciliation has also been used in a similar ways by Republican leaders to restructure social programs like welfare reform.
Indeed, reconciliation has been used with tax cuts, student loans programs, the creation of a children's health insurance program, and it even played a part in the implementation of digital television when coupons were provided for the purchase of converter boxes.
Death by a thousand cuts
It's clear that reconciliation would put any health-care bill on the fast track for passage. It can't be filibustered; it only needs 51 votes to pass; and debate is limited to 20 hours. But opponents have weapons of their own -- which could potentially gut the bill and could still require 60 votes to approve key sections of the legislation.
Remember, reconciliation was originally created to address fiscal policy -- not social policy. So every line in the bill must adhere to strict rules to ensure things stay within those boundaries. In short, if it's not about spending government money or taxing people, an opponent can raise an objection to have that section struck from the bill.
Example #1: Expanding Medicaid or cuts to Medicare would more than likely pass muster, because those programs are run with taxpayer dollars. Example #2: A provision requiring insurance companies to issue coverage regardless of health status could be killed because there's no obvious direct connection to spending or saving federal dollars. (These are, of course, unscientific best guesses.)
When a senator wants to challenge a section of the bill, he or she objects by raising a "budget point of order." There are more than a dozen that could apply to a health-care bill.
During the 20 hours of debate when the bill is on the floor, the senator stands and says, "I'd like to raise a budget point of order" against a section of the bill. If the parliamentarian sustains or agrees with the objection, that section is removed from the bill or amendment. (More on the parliamentarian's critical role below.) There is no limit to how many objections can be raised.
However, the parliamentarian's decision can be appealed, with 60 votes. So if the parliamentarian rules against the senator, that senator could ask for a vote to override the decision. If there are 60 votes, the questionable item can stay in the bill. While it may take only 51 votes to pass the final bill, but there may be 60-vote hurdles en route to final passage.
The most well-known point of order is referred to as "the Byrd Rule." Named after its creator, West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd, the rule generally allows sections of the bill to be struck if they do not have a direct impact on deficit reduction.
Provisions can also be challenged where the impact on spending is "merely incidental." (Simple question: Would a financially self-sustaining public option or co-op have a "merely incidental" impact on the deficit?)
So popular is the Byrd Rule that it has its own lexicon. If someone thinks he/she can strike a section of the bill, that section is considered "Byrdable." Once it is struck from the bill, it's called a "Byrd Dropping." A bill that has been riddled by the Byrd Rule has gone through a "Byrd Bath."
(Bonus phrase: The Byrd Bath leaves the bill looking like "Swiss Cheese" for all the holes created within the original legislation.)
The parliamentarian's critical role
The Senate parliamentarian and his staff obviously play a critical role in any reconciliation bill. When objections are heard on the floor during debate, they make the call. They alone determine the definition of "merely incidental." And if someone disagrees with the decision, it takes a super-majority of 60 votes to overrule.
The Senate parliamentarian is viewed by most observers, even Republicans, as a non-political role. Alan Frumin, the current parliamentarian, was promoted to the top spot by then-Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott. The top Republican on the Budget Committee, Sen. Judd Gregg, said of Frumin this month, "I think he'll be a fair arbiter and honestly call the shots."
Because reconciliation has been used almost 20 times since 1980, the people writing the bills are well-studied in the best ways to fly around the Byrd Rule and would presumably write their legislation as to not have it drown in the Byrd Bath. But nothing is certain until the bill is on the floor and rulings are finally made. Why?
Because of the complex nature of bills brought under reconciliation, it is not uncommon for the committee writing the bill to get an early read from the parliamentarian's office on whether specific provisions can pass the smell test.
According to someone who's been through reconciliation before, it's in everyone's advantage to give the parliamentarian plenty of time to understand the bill before any ruling.
But any early guidance is only that: guidance.
When the bill reaches the floor, there's always the possibility that an opponent will raise an objection to a provision that the bill's sponsors hadn't considered.
In other words, just because you may have your opponents' playbook on Saturday doesn't mean they won't create new plays on Sunday. No one goes to the floor knowing how it all plays out, one reconciliation vet explained.
If Democratic leaders decided to use reconciliation, the Conventional Wisdom is that the health-care bill would be split into two different bills.
One bill would be the reconciliation bill itself, which would deal with all the measures that address government spending and saving. That would included things like expanding Medicaid, making cuts to Medicare, creating government subsidies for low- and middle-income families, and imposing taxes and fees on businesses.
The other bill, what Sen. Judd Gregg calls "the sidecar," would address all the other intangibles, especially the measures addressing insurance reform. But because it would not be passed under the rules of reconciliation, the sidecar would be subjected to filibusters, and would more than likely require 60 votes for passage. The reconciliation part of the bill could be done in a week; the sidecar could take a few weeks.
The tea-leaf-reading from Majority Leader Harry Reid's folks suggested that reconciliation would be used as a last resort: the escape hatch.
This reading may give you a sense of why.
From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** All about Afghanistan: The next two days are all about Afghanistan for President Obama. Today, he huddles with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at 11:30 am ET (pool spray at the bottom), and then Obama meets separately with Gates and Biden at 4:30 pm (closed press). The Biden-Gates meeting introduces Biden's skepticism into the Afghanistan conversation in a very intimate and serious setting. And what had been scheduled for TODAY -- a major meeting of the key players on Afghanistan strategy -- has been postponed a day and will now be held TOMORROW. Among those who will be at tomorrow's meeting with Obama include Gens. Petraeus and McChrystal, Defense Secretary Gates, Secretary of State Clinton, Ambassador to Afghanistan Eikenberry, and Af/Pak envoy Holbrooke. It's a BIG meeting -- all about strategy assessment, which is why it may have been postponed a day as today may have simply gotten too packed.
*** Finance Committee back at work: Turning to health care, the Senate Finance Committee returns to work today on its mark-up of its health-care bill. On the agenda today will be the committee's vote on the public option amendments that Sens. Chuck Schumer and Jay Rockefeller are proposing. The big unknown is whether Olympia Snowe will introduce her version of a public option trigger.
*** The Club for (Democratic) Growth? Are Republicans/conservatives going to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in NY-23, the congressional seat vacated by John McHugh (R)? The conservative Club for Growth has now endorsed Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman over the socially moderate/liberal GOP nominee Dede Scozzafava; former presidential candidate Fred Thompson also has endorsed Hoffman. Could Republicans splitting their votes between Hoffman and Scozzafava tip the race to the Democrat in the race, Bill Owens? We've said this before and we'll say it again: Outside of watching the Obama administration's ups and downs, the most intriguing political story in America could very well be the infighting inside the Republican Party. Besides the Scozzafava-Hoffman split, we're going to see several important GOP primaries next year over the heart and soul of the GOP -- Perry vs. Hutchison in Texas, Crist vs. Rubio in Florida, the challenge against Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, and even the primary challenge against John McCain.
*** Whitman's crucial test: Meg Whitman, the former eBay CEO who's running for California governor, now enters a crucial phase in her gubernatorial campaign. Either she survives an intense focus over the fact that she hasn't voted in past California elections, including recent ones, or it ends up sinking her fledgling campaign. Now her chief primary opponent, Steve Poizner, has a TV ad hitting Whitman on her voting record (or lack thereof). And today, the Los Angeles Times pens this editorial: "[J]ust because she failed to vote doesn't mean she lacks the skills to do the job well. As a voter, Whitman might have been disengaged, but as CEO of one of California's largest tech companies, she surely was not. Still, it's surprising, and of some concern, that someone so seemingly uninterested in politics would suddenly want to govern what is perhaps the most ungovernable state in the union."
*** "Going Rogue": As Politico writes, Sarah Palin's memoir is set to be entitled "Going Rogue" -- a reference to the complaints during the end of the presidential campaign that she wasn't entirely a team player for the McCain campaign -- and that the book is now scheduled to be published earlier than expected, for Nov. 17. Sources tell NBC's Norah O'Donnell that she was able to move up her schedule by writing furiously for months, something she couldn't have done if she were still governor of Alaska. O'Donnell adds that Palin moved the whole family to San Diego for the month of August, so she could crash the book with her collaborator Lynn Vincent, editor of an evangelical magazine; that Palin traveled to New York City for the first half of September to work on the editing process; that she will address never-heard details about her life, her time as governor, and the historic campaign; and that HarperCollins has ordered a huge first print of 1.5 million books. By the way, Palin's book will come out when the president is likely overseas… It would mark the second-straight major overseas trip for the president where Palin could be the national story.
*** Rick Santorum heads to … Iowa: Here's some more 2012 news: This Thursday, former Sen. Rick Santorum -- who lost his bid for re-election in the battleground state of Pennsylvania by a whopping 19 points, 59%-41% -- heads to Iowa to deliver the keynote at a conservative economic lecture series in Dubuque. Santorum holds a conference call at 10:30 am ET to preview his speech.
*** 2009 watch: Finally, Creigh Deeds is bringing in in his big gun, former Virginia Gov. (and current Sen.) Mark Warner. In a brand-new TV ad, Warner speaks to the camera about his support for Deeds. "The choice in this election for governor is really pretty simple," Warner says. "Do we move Virginia forward by continuing the pro-business economic policies that I helped put in place, or do we go backwards with the failed economic approach that ruined our economy? Creigh Deeds knows keeping taxes low and controlling spending is the right way to keep Virginia 'the best place to do business'. And I agree." Deeds also will be getting the endorsement of another former governor today, according to Virginia sources: Republican Linwood Holton. Of course, this shouldn't be a surprise… Holton is outgoing Dem Gov. Tim Kaine's father-in-law. And as the Virginia Republican Party has become more conservative, Holton has become more supportive of Democrats.
Countdown to Election Day 2009: 35 days
Countdown to MA Special Primary: 70 days
Countdown to MA Special Election: 112 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 399 days
The head of NATO is coming to the White House today to talk Afghanistan. "Anders Fogh Rasmussen, chief of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, stopped short of calling for more combat troops to be sent to Afghanistan, as the Obama administration currently is debating. Instead, he said a far stronger focus needs to be put on preparing Afghan military and civilian forces to take the lead in securing and building their nation. But Rasmussen also voiced doubts that the U.S. and NATO will be successful in preventing the Taliban and other extremists from again making Afghanistan a haven for terrorists."
Former Pakistan President "Pervez Musharraf said Monday that the U.S. would make a "disastrous" mistake if it withdrew from Afghanistan and warned that a delay in sending more troops would be seen as a sign of weakness," the Washington Times writes.
More: "Asked by reporters and editors at The Washington Times whether the U.S. and its allies might be seen as weak because of the prolonged debate over whether to send more forces to Afghanistan, Mr. Musharraf said, 'Yes, absolutely… By this vacillation and lack of commitment to a victory and talking too much about casualties [it] shows weakness in the resolve.'"
The Wall Street Journal takes a look at which economic sanctions against Iran are in play and whether it's a viable strategy.
Turning to health care, the AP fact-checks Obama's anecdotes he tells about health-care hardships. "Obama tells stories of real-life hardships repeatedly, in his speech to a joint session of Congress, in interviews and at his citizen meetings across the country in support of his campaign to rework medical insurance. Beaton's case is just one cited by Obama that mixes fact with fiction. In reflexively blaming insurance companies, Obama is playing into fears that have become a frightening reality for many Americans. Health insurance under the current system is not always the rock-solid guarantee you think you're paying for. Especially, it turns out, when you don't fill everything out just right."
Meanwhile, the Washington Post delves into the millions and millions in earmarks in the current defense bill making its way through the Senate. Obama threaten a veto? Doesn't look like it.
The Chicago Tribune reports that the Windy City's Olympic delegation has arrived in Denmark; Friday Lady Michelle Obama leaves tonight, and President Obama will depart on Thursday. "In recent weeks Rio has become the emotional favorite to win the games -- and Brazil's president has said he is confident that country will. During the day, however, Chicago seemed to gain momentum after President Obama officially announced he was going to Copenhagen, joining his wife Michelle, in making a case for a U.S. win. Madrid and Tokyo also are in the running."
The New York Times: "Mr. Obama changed his mind and decided to take a gamble no other American president has taken at the urging of his close friend and senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett, who has been deeply involved in promoting Chicago's bid. He hopes to trump the presence in Copenhagen of his counterparts from rival countries seeking the games — Brazil, Japan and Spain — and duplicate the success that Tony Blair of Britain and Vladimir V. Putin of Russia have had in recent years by personally lobbying for their nations' bids. 'Having the leader of the free world there supporting the bid sends a good message,' Michelle Obama, who was originally tapped to go to Copenhagen without her husband, told reporters at the White House. 'It will demonstrate to the I.O.C. that this bid has unprecedented commitment throughout our government.'"
"At the same time, crossing the ocean for a dramatic personal plea on behalf of his adopted hometown involves at least some political hazards. Mr. Obama risks looking parochial at a time of enormous challenges and, perhaps even worse, risks a major international embarrassment if the committee rebuffs him and rejects Chicago in favor of Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo or Madrid."
Politico adds, "The White House knows that the decision to go before the International Olympic Committee is fraught with political risk: The president could be embarrassed on a world stage if he doesn't land the games. Plus, more than a few Americans are surely scratching their heads — with his inbox crowded with a troop request for Afghanistan, a new secret nuclear site in Iran, sky-high unemployment and a health care bill in Congress, does the president really have time for this?"
It's public option day at the Senate Finance Committee. The big mystery: Will Olympia Snowe offer her plan -- a public option trigger -- as an amendment? "The Senate Finance Committee is expected to consider whether the government should offer its own insurance plan for the middle class in competition with private carriers. A public option is the top goal for liberals, but it has no Republican support and moderate Democrats say the Senate will never go along."
"So Tuesday's debate is expected to pit Democratic liberals against moderates. Although the public plan isn't expected to get a majority of the panel, supporters say at least they'll know where everybody stands."
The Hill breaks down the Senate Finance Committee mark-up. There are 13 Dems and 10 Republicans. "Apart from Snowe, the GOP is lined up strongly against the legislation. Baucus can afford to lose one Democrat when the final vote comes -- or two if Snowe jumps aboard."
Schumer's influence: "Sen. Charles Schumer has revived the prospect of a public insurance option in the Senate's version of healthcare reform. Whether it ultimately passes may depend on a handful of first-term Democrats who owe their seats, in significant measure, to the support they received from Schumer (D-N.Y.) when he headed the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) in 2006 and 2008."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's health care leadership seems to be in the media's crosshairs of late. Yesterday, it was about how he's relying on the White House to cut the big deals needed to get 60 votes. And today, the New York Times focuses on how he's gotten a Medicaid exception of Nevada in the Finance Committee bill.
The Washington Times has a good analysis of the GOP strategy in the Senate which, surprisingly to some, has meant the party will NOT offer a policy alternative and instead will continue to strategically target the bill on things like, transparency. "But the Republican strategy, so far, doesn't have much to show for it. One of the most substantial Republican arguments - and one that shows signs of resonating with the public - came from Mr. Bunning. It called for the entire bill to be posted online in legislative text for three days before the committee casts its final vote. The Congressional Budget Office would also have to submit a full analysis of the bill - requiring two weeks of work."
The Democratic-leaning group Americans United for Change is running a new TV ad ($25,000 buy in Orlando, Louisville, and DC) targeting health insurer Humana.
CongressDaily's Carrie Dann reports that the top House Republican overseeing the census -- North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry -- is enlisting his GOP colleagues "to maximize participation in the decennial count by constituents who may be reluctant to disclose information to government officials." This effort comes after the apparent murder of a Census worker in Kentucky (although it is still unclear whether his death was due to his work with the Census), as well as critical comments about the census by some GOP members, including Rep. Michele Bachmann.
More from Dann: "In an interview Thursday, McHenry declined to point fingers at other Republicans, emphasizing that his goal is to underscore to his colleagues that encouraging participation in the census is 'in their own self-interest' because it affects the allocation of federal aid and congressional seats. 'If none of their constituents answer the census,' he said, 'then they do not have any constituents, and they don't have a district.' McHenry may be keenly aware of the need for full participation because his home state narrowly won a 13th House seat after the 2000 census. A legal battle ensued between North Carolina and Utah, which fell 857 residents short of qualifying for that extra seat."
Palin Watch: "POLITICO surveyed nearly 50 prominent Republican Party officials and politicians, representing every region of the country and ranging from statewide-elected officeholders to state legislators to state and county party chairs. Some refused to talk about her at all. Others, mostly her critics, would do so only off the record. But taken as a whole, the body of interviews revealed that despite Palin's high negative ratings in recent national polls, Republicans at the grass-roots level and their leaders still hold a very favorable impression of the former Alaska governor. Westerners have a particular affinity for Palin, with many noting that she embodied the values of freedom and self-reliance."
A Star Tribune poll finds that only 30% want to see Tim Pawlenty (R) run for president in 2012, versus 55% who don't want him to run. "But in a mixed message for Pawlenty, 25 percent of Minnesotans said there was a 'good chance' they would vote for him if he became the GOP nominee, while another 25 percent said there was at least "some chance" they would vote for him. A solid 43 percent said there was no chance they would vote for a President Pawlenty."
"Despite his rising national profile, Pawlenty's job approval rating among Minnesotans stands at 49 percent, similar to his rating in April. Last September Pawlenty's approval rating was 54 percent, while two years ago at this time it was 59 percent."
"While it didn't help him win the White House in 2008, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) has continued to maintain close contact with his one-time House GOP backers and put a premium on their needs for 2010 as he weighs his next move," Roll Call writes.
MASSACHUSETTS: A quick primer, per the New York Times, on the MA SEN special election when it comes to fundraising. Dem front-runner Martha Coakley is trying to raise a million dollars by the end of the month (that's tomorrow).
NEW JERSEY: Now it's personal! GOP gubernatorial nominee Chris Christie "hit back" on his opponent Jon Corzine's claims that Christie's proposed policies on health insurance "would not require insurers to follow mandates, leading Corzine to charge that young women could be denied mammograms to detect breast cancer." Last week Corzine released a Web ad "in which Christie heatedly debates the issue with a cancer survivor." That Christie responded to with his own ad "describing his own mother's lifesaving mammogram" and calling Corzine "so deceitful." "The governor's said a lot of things about me all summer," Christie said to a crowd of 40 women at a New Jersey library. "I didn't respond to any of it, because it was trivial. But this was different. ... My mother survived. She survived because she got a mammogram. It's deceitful and now it's personal."
VIRGINIA: Deeds brings in his big gun, former Virginia Gov. (and current Sen.) Mark Warner. In a brand-new TV ad, Warner speaks to the camera about his support for Deeds. "The choice in this election for Governor is really pretty simple," Warner says. "Do we move Virginia forward by continuing the pro-business economic policies that I helped put in place, or do we go backwards with the failed economic approach that ruined our economy? Creigh Deeds knows keeping taxes low and controlling spending is the right way to keep Virginia 'the best place to do business'. And I agree."
This was inevitable… Creigh Deeds is looking for more White House help. "To tap the good will, Mr. Deeds said the campaign is negotiating more visits from Mr. Obama and possibly one from first lady Michelle Obama. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is scheduled to campaign for him at least once more."
And Deeds and Bob McDonnell will participate in a debate on Tuesday, Oct. 20th at Roanoke College in Salem, VA. The debate, the last before the Nov. 3rd election, will be broadcast by NBC affiliate WSLS 10.
From NBC's Kelly Paice and Ali Weinberg
The top-two Republicans on the ticket in Virginia this year -- gubernatorial nominee Bob McDonnell and current Lt. Gov Bill Bolling -- today announced a series of budget and spending proposals intended to increase transparency and efficiency in the Virginia state government.
In a conference call with reporters today, McDonnell laid out his plans for evidence-based budgeting, an approach that he said corporate America had embraced. Annual budgets for state agencies would be determined "on the premise that they must justify expenditures year after year," as opposed to adding to or subtracting from the previous years' budget. Each agencies' budget would be subject to "performance measures and metrics to determine how well that money has been spent," McDonnell said.
Bolling recommended increasing the permitted amount of state revenue put into the Rainy Day Fund, created in 1995 by former Gov. Doug Wilder (D) to provide extra funding during tough economic times. The current cutoff is 10% of total state tax collections, which Bolling said he wants to increase to 15%.
When asked whether it would be possible to have too much money in the Rainy Day Fund, McDonnell said, "No. And I think this last budget has shown that it needs to be a lot bigger."
While McDonnell spent most of the call outlining his policy proposals, he did take time to criticize his opponent, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Creigh Deeds, who has said he is open to increasing taxes for increases in state transportation spending.
McDonnell said that Deeds is "the only candidate for governor in the modern era actually running on a platform of increased taxes."
The Deeds campaign countered with this statement: "Virginians have no reason to trust Bob McDonnell on fiscal responsibility. If Bob McDonnell and Bill Bolling had their way, Virginia wouldn't have a triple-A bond rating, wouldn't be the Best State for Business and wouldn't have any money in our Rainy Day Fund to get through this economic downturn. When Virginia was at a crossroads, Creigh Deeds joined a bipartisan coalition to reform our budget and save our triple-A bond rating. Bob McDonnell stood in the way."
From NBC's Chuck Todd and Ali Weinberg
Last week, we received a press release from Virginia Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine touting the fact that his state had seen its unemployment rate drop for the second straight month. It got us wondering, what states are bucking the national trend.
Here's what we found out after a thorough examination of the Bureau of Labor Statistics web site. (And remember when reading this data, state unemployment numbers are a month behind the national data; so all of this is as of August).
Just three states registered job INCREASES in the month of August: Montana, North Carolina and West Virginia. In addition, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas and Virginia all had an unemployment rate DECREASES.
Also, it's worth noting that the two Dakotas (4.3% and 4.9% respectively) and Nebraska (5.0%) continued to report overall low jobless rates.
A few quick points:
-- You can't look at this data and not notice that two of the most important swing states in the country right now -- Colorado and Virginia -- are seeing some light at the end of their tough economic tunnel. That's a potentially HUGE development politically for the current White House occupant.
-- Obviously, this recession hasn't hit the northern plains states very hard; that's clear from the Montana, Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas data.
-- We plan to delve into the data even more to see if there is a pattern to these states in particular. Why are they showing the first signs of recovery? Each of these state governors will probably claim credit for a friendly business climate etc, but is there something else? We'd love to hear your theories as well.
From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Obama's foreign focus: Although President Obama has spent so much time and energy on domestic issues in his first nine months in office, last week's news (Iran and its nuclear ambitions and missile tests, the future of Gitmo's closure, and Gen. McChrystal's troop request for Afghanistan) once again proved that foreign affairs could end up defining Obama's presidency more than health care or even the economy. And foreign affairs will continue to dominate this week's headlines. On Tuesday, Obama will meet in his Situation Room to discuss Afghanistan with Gens. Petraeus and McChrystal, Defense Secretary Gates, Secretary of State Clinton, Ambassador Ikenberry, and Afghanistan adviser Holbrooke. On Thursday, the U.S. will have its big meeting with Iran in Geneva. That meeting comes after today's news that Iran test-fired long-range missiles capable of striking Israel and American bases in the Persian Gulf.
*** Lots of questions on Iran: Diplomatically, the White House feels very good about the moves it made regarding Iran. But this week will TRULY tell us how good the White House team really was. Will China step up, a la Russia, on sanctions? Will Iran continue to act as defiantly as they have, or will the domestic pressure in its country bring a more conciliatory Iran to the table? And how soon can some economic sanctions be passed? Clearly, U.S. sanctions aren't enough, but could the U.S. cobble together a coalition of countries in Europe to impose some sanctions if China continues to drag its feet? There are so many moving parts. Remember, Iran's potential nuclear threat -- unlike North Korea's -- can easily become a domestic political issue, as all things Middle East tend to do.
*** Applying the Powell Doctrine to Afghanistan: Turning to Afghanistan, the news over the weekend that Colin Powell was among those Obama was seeking advice about Afghanistan didn't get the attention it deserved. This could be the best hint yet that the president is rethinking the strategy to the point that not only are more troops NOT going to be sent, but we could see a re-deployment of some troops OUT of Afghanistan proper. By the way, the president is getting personal with his outreach on this issue, as he called John McCain over the weekend in what was described as a brief chat with the president making his case for deliberation.
*** A few other stray thoughts on Afghanistan: As Obama gathers his entire national security team at the White House on Tuesday, we're betting the president will -- at least -- outline a timeline for making a decision. And we're also guessing there will be some handwringing over all the leaks coming from the Pentagon. Also, for those wondering why Gen. McChrystal is getting so much support from Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen, among others, it may have to do with the fact that McChrystal was recruited by Mullen to take over the Afghanistan command after the previous general was relieved of his duty. The least the leadership at the Pentagon can do is stand by their man on the ground. McChrystal, we're guessing, made a pretty good first impression to many in Washington on "60 Minutes" last night.
*** Copenhagen here we come: As NBC's Savannah Guthrie first reported on TODAY, President Obama will reverse course and travel to Copenhagen to take part in Chicago's presentation to host the 2016 Olympics. (Who didn't see this coming…?) He will depart Washington Thursday evening to be in place for Chicago's presentation on Friday. Obama made the final decision Saturday night, after previously saying he would not be able to attend because of the health care debate, dispatching First Lady Michelle Obama to make Chicago's pitch in his stead. Guthrie adds that the first lady is still planning to attend and will travel Tuesday night as previously planned to spend the week lobbying International Olympic Committee officials. Other administration officials planning to attend include Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The IOC will hold a series of votes Friday to determine which of the four finalist cities -- Chicago, Rio de Janeiro, Madrid, and Tokyo -- will host the games.
Video: President Obama will travel to Copenhagen to make a personal pitch for Chicago to get the 2016 Olympic Games.*** Chicago-style politics: This is a classic case of "All politics is local." Chicago's 2016 Olympic bid has seemed like a shoo-in to many observers for a few reasons, including: 1) it's been 20 years since the U.S. last hosted an Olympics; 2) the IOC is struggling to make the 2014 Winter Olympics enticing for sponsors, and they're desperate to link it to a big summer draw in 2016; and 3) McDonald's is one of the most loyal Olympic sponsors in history, and if Coke could get an Olympics in Atlanta, then why couldn't McDonald's get one for its hometown of Chicago? But, as of late, Chicago political leaders have been paranoid that Rio's bid has been gaining ground, and Brazil was sending ITS president (Lula) to personally make their final pitch. Rio's best selling point is that South America has never hosted an Olympic Games (perhaps the reason: It's winter there during our summers…) So Chicago has been pulling out all the stops, including Oprah and now Obama. Bottom line: The president and his Chicago-area advisers were getting all sorts of "If he doesn't go and Chicago doesn't get it" veiled threats, and so he was boxed in. Better to go and not get it, right? Without a doubt, however, getting Obama to Copenhagen is a big win for mayor Daley.
*** Don't forget about the economy and health care: While the focus is on foreign affairs, the economy and health care aren't going away anytime soon. On Friday, the Labor Department will release the all-important job numbers for September (will the unemployment rate decline, or will it reach 10%?). And Max Baucus' Senate Finance Committee tries to finish its health-care bill this week. And as Baucus' committee concludes its work, liberal groups Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy for America are running a TV ad in Montana and DC that pressures the senator to support the public option. By the way, this New York Times piece makes public what many on Capitol Hill had already believed: that the White House is playing the role of Senate Majority Leader on health care; it's the White House cutting the deals and wooing Snowe, Collins, and the like.
*** Paterson says he's still running: On "Meet the Press" yesterday, embattled New York Gov. David Paterson told NBC's David Gregory that he's running for election next year. "I'm blind, but I'm not oblivious. I realize that there are people who don't want me to run," he said. "But let me just tell you at the outset, I am running for governor in 2010. I don't think that this is an issue other than for the people of the state of New York to decide.
*** RIP, William Safire: The former Nixon speechwriter and conservative New York Times columnist passed away yesterday. He was 79. The New York Times' obituary: "There may be many sides in a genteel debate, but in the Safire world of politics and journalism it was simpler: There was his own unambiguous wit and wisdom on one hand and, on the other, the blubber of fools he called 'nattering nabobs of negativism" and "hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.' He was a college dropout and proud of it, a public relations go-getter who set up the famous Nixon-Khrushchev 'kitchen debate' in Moscow, and a White House wordsmith in the tumultuous era of war in Vietnam, Nixon's visit to China and the gathering storm of the Watergate scandal, which drove the president from office."
Countdown to Election Day 2009: 36 days
Countdown to MA Special Primary: 71 days
Countdown to MA Special Election: 113 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 400 days
"Amid growing international pressure in advance of highly anticipated talks this week, Iran displayed its defiance of Western threats against its nuclear program by announcing Sunday that it had test-fired at least two short-range missiles," the Washington Post says. "Senior Obama administration officials, meanwhile, said they had the international support necessary to impose crippling sanctions if Tehran does not stop construction on a new uranium-enrichment plant and allow immediate inspections."
The New York Times: "The Obama administration is scrambling to assemble a package of harsher economic sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program that could include a cutoff of investments to the country's oil-and-gas industry and restrictions on many more Iranian banks than those currently blacklisted. The administration also is seeking to build a broader coalition of partners for sanctions so that it may still be able to act against Iran even if China and Russia were to veto harsher measures proposed in the United Nations Security Council."
Indeed, the Times also notes that Russia could slow-walk any actual decision on Iran sanctions. "Russia is also reluctant to mass the might of the United Nations Security Council against a single country, especially at Washington's behest. That in part explains why Russia has historically sought to dilute sanctions, as it did in previous rounds against Iran."
The Wall Street Journal has a good analysis about why it's not easy for Israel to militarily take out Iran's nuclear plants.
"The administration had intended to confront the Iranians about the secret site later this year, but Tehran's sudden disclosure forced their hand," AP writes. "Now the administration hopes to use the new site as leverage to win a commitment from Iran to abandon its nuclear program or face severe new economic sanctions."
The AP: "Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is pushing back against liberal calls for withdrawal timetables from Afghanistan, saying it is a mistake to set a deadline to end US military action and a defeat would be disastrous for the United States… 'The notion of timelines and exit strategies and so on, frankly, I think would all be a strategic mistake. The reality is, failure in Afghanistan would be a huge setback for the United States,' Gates said on CNN's 'State of the Union.' 'Taliban and Al Qaeda, as far as they're concerned, defeated one superpower. For them to be seen to defeat a second, I think, would have catastrophic consequences in terms of energizing the extremist movement, Al Qaeda recruitment, operations, fund-raising, and so on. I think it would be a huge setback for the United States.'"
But he also praised Obama's handling of Afghanistan. Gates said the "United States has faced difficulties in the Afghanistan conflict because the Bush administration did not have the same kind of 'comprehensive strategy' that President Barack Obama does for the nation… 'I will tell you, I think that the strategy the president put forward in late March, is the first real strategy we have had for Afghanistan since the early 1980s,' he told CNN. 'And that strategy was more about [the] Soviet Union that it was about Afghanistan.'"
Meanwhile, the "United States and NATO countries fighting in Afghanistan have told President Hamid Karzai's government that they expect him to remain in office for another five-year term and will work with him on an expanded campaign to turn insurgent fighters against the Taliban and other militant groups," the Washington Post writes.