North Korea on Tuesday said it will restart a shuttered nuclear reactor capable of producing fissile material for weapons and “readjust” other facilities at its sprawling Yongbyon nuclear facility some 55 miles north of Pyongyang.
Is this just empty rhetoric from a regime trying to test the resolve of South Korean and US leaders? Or is it a genuinely worrisome development in an increasingly tense area of the world?
The answer to that question may depend upon North Korea’s follow-through. It’s possible the warning is just words and that construction at Yongbyon won’t actually accelerate. It’s also possible the Pyongyang regime will now rebuild the facility that produced the plutonium for at least two of North Korea’s nuclear tests. That would not be a good thing.
“Among Pyongyang’s recent inflated threats, the announced intention to ‘readjust and restart’ its nuclear facilities is the most worrisome,” writes International Institute for Strategic Studies nuclear expert Mark Fitzpatrick in his analysis of the event.
The main issue may be what happens to the Yongbyon plutonium production reactor. This facility, which first went critical in 1985, can produce enough dangerous fissile stuff for about one small nuclear weapon per year. It was shut down in 2007 per international disarmament talks (which have since stalled). In 2008 North Korean officials made a show of imploding its aging cooling tower, issuing rare invitations to international journalists to visit and see the destruction.
The reactor has not been ripped up beyond hope of repair, though. Far from it. Restarting this facility would take about six months, according to Sig Hecker, a nuclear expert from Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation who has visited the site.
Mr. Hecker estimates that North Korea has about four to eight bombs worth of plutonium extracted from fuel rods used to power this reactor in the past. A restart obviously would allow Pyongyang to slowly build up this arsenal.
The second issue of “readjustment” might allow this increase to occur more quickly. That’s because this statement suggests that North Korea will do more to produce highly-enriched uranium, the second type of fissile material used in nuclear weapons.
There’s already a centrifuge facility for uranium enrichment operating at Yongbyon. North Korean officials surprised Hecker by taking him on a tour of the previously-undetected plant in 2010. At the time the officials said it was meant to produce fuel for a light-water reactor also under construction at the site. The “readjustment” term implies that Pyongyang may up the ante and openly begin production at bomb-worthy enrichment levels.
The US has long suspected that North Korea was enriching uranium in secret. Centrifuge halls are easy to hide and North Korea’s mountains have many tunnels where they could be stashed. In an address to a South Korean nuclear conference, Hecker expressed doubt that the Yongbyon enrichment facility sprang up from nowhere within months.
“The Yongbyon centrifuge facility could not have been constructed from scratch and made operational in only 18 months, between April 2009 and November 2010, as Pyongyang has claimed,” Hecker said at the conference. “It is likely that the North had one full cascade (about 340 centrifuges) operational at a separate site long before it moved into the renovated Yongbyon fuel fabrication building and revealed their centrifuge program in November 2010.”
Tuning up the Yongbyon centrifuges could produce enough highly-enriched uranium for one bomb per year. Any clandestine facility likely could produce at least that much, if not more. Add in the plutonium production from a restarted reactor, and some US experts see a worrisome trend, if not a nightmare scenario: a North Korea eager to produce a large and workable arsenal of nuclear weapons.
It’s possible Pyongyang isn’t technically good enough to get both these fissile material tracks going. In the Washington Post, Max Fisher writes that the vow to restart the plutonium reactor in fact indicates that North Korea can’t master the difficult art of uranium enrichment.
And again, it’s possible the whole thing is just talk. But if it isn’t, the US and its allies may find it hard to stop the move. Current sanctions are leaky at best due to China’s “inattention,” writes Mr. Fitzpatrick, the IISS nuclear expert. And in any case North Korea is by now almost self-sufficient in nuclear technology.
“Unfortunately, there are not good solutions,” writes Fitzpatrick. “The only glimmer of hope is that North Korea also announced that along with the nuclear weapons work it will simultaneously be pushing forward economic development.”
Caroline Kennedy is on the verge of serving as US ambassador to Japan, according to news reports. The Obama administration has apparently asked her to take this major post, and she’s now being vetted for the position.
The last surviving member of President Kennedy’s family, Ms. Kennedy has largely shunned public political life, though she often speaks at quadrennial Democratic National Conventions. She’s spent much of her time working at nonprofit organizations in New York. Her latest book is called “Poems to Learn by Heart.”
Is it a good idea to send someone with so little diplomatic experience as envoy to an important US ally?
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Not always. But in Ms. Kennedy’s case, the answer to that question is most likely yes.
The main reason for this is rooted in the hierarchical Japanese political culture. In the US view, Japan prefers well-known American ambassadors, not necessarily because they are more effective, but because they symbolize the importance of Tokyo to Washington.
Thus Walter Mondale was a good choice for US envoy during the Clinton administration. In the United States, he was still somebody who’d lost a presidential bid to Ronald Reagan. In Japan, he was a revered elder statesman to a degree perhaps difficult to fathom back home.
Other Democratic Party elder statesmen who have served as Washington’s person in Tokyo include former Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield, from 1977 to 1988, and ex-Speaker Tom Foley. Former Republican Senate majority leader Howard Baker was ambassador to Japan from 2001 to 2005.
“And in a country still very much captivated by the Kennedys, her celebrity could also provide a subtle antidote to the growing concern among Japanese officials that Japan is being eclipsed in American eyes by its chief regional rival, China,” writes Tokyo-based reporter Coco Masters in Foreign Policy.
Ms. Masters makes another interesting point in her piece: Kennedy would be the first woman in the Tokyo post. This could be a powerful symbol of a different kind for Japan, which remains more male-dominated than almost all other developed countries. Only 12 percent of Japanese management positions are held by females, according to an International Monetary Fund study.
“Kennedy could ... be a powerful example to Japanese women,” Masters writes.
Not every commentator in the US thinks Kennedy-to-Japan is a great idea, though. Conservatives who have long seen the Kennedy family as the avatar of tax-and-spend liberalism are particularly negative.
They point out that Kennedy’s attempt to follow Hillary Rodham Clinton into a New York Senate seat was something of a train wreck. After Mrs. Clinton was named secretary of State, Kennedy angled for an appointment from then-Gov. David Paterson to fill out the term. But her public appearances were stilted and made her appear as if she knew little about New York State politics. Eventually she withdrew her name from consideration, citing unnamed personal matters.
“I realize that the U.S. government can’t function without a Kennedy or two somewhere in the mix, but is there really no lesser diplomatic position to gift Princess? The Koreas are on the brink of war and Japanese tensions with China will be fragile for years to come. This is not a purely ceremonial role. Why not ambassador to Luxembourg instead? I’ll bet the skiing’s great,” writes conservative commentator Allahpundit on Hot Air.
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Mr. Miller, a former Kentucky state treasurer, writes that Democratic supporters of current Kentucky secretary of state Alison Lundergan Grimes kept up a steady stream of sniping at Ms. Judd via a credulous national mainstream media. Furthermore, some unnamed Democrat circulated a false report that Judd, at a private Louisville dinner, said “I have been raped twice, so I think I can handle Mitch McConnell.”
“I was at that dinner and never heard her say anything remotely like that,” writes Miller.
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The last straw was news stories reporting that former President Bill Clinton had met with Ms. Grimes and was trying to force Judd out of the race. The problem here was that the Big Dog had met with Judd and actually urged her to run against incumbent GOP Senate minority leader McConnell, according to Miller.
“ABC News ultimately cleared up the record, but by then the narrative was set – the most popular national figure for Kentucky Democrats was opposed to a Judd candidacy, providing further oxygen to the anti-Ashley conflagration,” writes Miller.
OK, we’re not a Kentucky insider. We did not even put Louisville in our March Madness Final Four. (Go Wolverines!) But it seems pretty obvious to us that Judd’s candidacy unraveled due to larger, basic political forces.
For instance, last time we looked Judd still lived in Tennessee. McConnell ran an ad in February that hit her hard for that, among other things. It had several clips of her saying stuff like, “Tennessee is home!” Yes, Judd was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention – from Tennessee. In a state as proud as Kentucky this was going to be a big problem, however deep her roots. Heck, non-residency would be a big problem in any state, proud or not.
And Judd has made many straightforward comments about policy that would get her in more trouble than the fictional reference linking “rape” and “McConnell.” She’s criticized mountaintop coal mining as “environmental genocide,” for instance. Coal is a powerful industry in her state, and in many parts of Kentucky mountaintop removal mining is popular due to the jobs it represents.
And that’s her final problem: the movie industry connection. It could bring her money and recognition and lots of blog-delivered page view publicity. But it also would let McConnell paint her as an out-of-touch Hollywood liberal bent on forcing everyone in America to drive hybrids to their government health care. And Kentucky is a red state: last fall it went for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by 61 to 38 percent.
So that’s why we think Judd decided not to run. She took a look at the electoral context and decided she did not want to undertake a race that she would more than likely lose.
That doesn’t mean there’s not some truth to what Miller says. But as Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce notes, complaining that party rivals hit your candidate with sharp elbows and reporters hungry for a story were eager to print whatever they felt like is tantamount to whining about reality. If you can’t take that heat, get back to the film studio.
“Making the argument that her candidacy was doomed at the start because other Democrats did her dirt, or because a bogus ‘narrative’ was created by the national media is the functional equivalent of saying that she didn’t run because she got up one morning, faced east, and found that the sun was in her eyes,” writes Mr. Pierce.
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The top-line F-22 Raptors were deployed from Japan to Osan Air Base in South Korea, US officials confirmed on Sunday. They are following in the slipstream of B-2 stealth bombers, which dropped dummy bombs on a remote South Korean island during an exercise last week.
What’s the purpose of this latest US military move? After all, North Korea has been pretty belligerent of late. On Sunday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and other top officials adopted a declaration calling nuclear weapons “the nation’s life,” something they would not trade for “billions of dollars.” Pyongyang is already upset over the continuing US-South Korean military exercises.
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How do the F-22s figure into this equation?
First, their presence is likely an effort to show the extent of the US commitment to South Korea’s defense. Exercises are meant to test the integration of particular forces into a joint fighting enterprise; this shows the United States would commit its most expensive jet fighters to a conventional Korean War, if Pyongyang decides to attack.
In that sense, the F-22s complement the appearance of the B-2s. The latter are long-range, nuclear-capable bombers based in the US. The message they sent with their dummy bombs was that Washington remains committed to protecting South Korea and Japan with its own nuclear weapons in the face of North Korea’s nuclear development.
“While the [B-2] operation was an exercise, the North undeniably must have been unsettled by this demonstration of long-range force projection by the United States,” writes Victor Cha, a Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), in an analysis.
Second, the F-22s may represent something of an attempt to educate the inexperienced Mr. Kim.
North Korea’s conventional artillery and missiles can threaten most of South Korea and parts of Japan, notes a Foreign Policy article by David Kang, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, and Mr. Cha of CSIS. Pyongyang could hit Seoul with half a million artillery rounds in the first hour of a conflict. Stability has held for decades in the face of this threat because North Korea’s leaders understood that if they pulled the trigger, the US military would defeat them and topple their regime.
Does Kim understand that context?
“The worry is that the new North Korean leader might not hold to the same logic, given his youth and inexperience,” write Mr. Kang and Cha.
Last, there is a practical aspect to the F-22 deployment – getting US pilots used to the structure and terrain of a region where they might be called upon to fly real missions.
In any war, US cruise missiles would probably take out North Korea’s air defenses with little trouble. Pyongyang’s geriatric Air Force constitutes little threat, notes David Cenciotti on his widely read blog “The Aviationist.”
F-22s would probably escort bombers to targets within North Korea, then hit targets of their own, according to Mr. Cenciotti.
“The F-22 can be tasked to escort bombers into an anti-access target area (a superfluous task when air superiority has been already achieved) and then perform an immediate restrike on the same target attacked by the B-2, B-52, or B-1 bombers being accompanied, or attack another nearby ground target, if needed,” Cenciotti writes.
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After a 4-1/2 month silence, following his very public fall from grace, retired Gen. David Petraeus has signaled he’s ready to come back to public life.
But are we ready? Chances are, yes.
The storied general, who resigned as director of the CIA on Nov. 9 after revealing an extramarital affair with biographer Paula Broadwell, spoke Tuesday night at a dinner at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles for veterans and ROTC students.
Right up front, General Petraeus apologized for the affair, citing “extremely poor judgment.”
"I know that I can never fully assuage the pain that I inflicted on those closest to me and on a number of others," Petraeus said, according to news reports. "I can, however, try to move forward in a manner that is consistent with the values to which I subscribed before slipping my moorings and, as best as possible, to make amends to those I have hurt and let down."
And he signaled he’s ready to move on: “One learns after all that life doesn't stop with such a mistake. It can and must go on."
The question is, what is Petraeus’s next chapter and does it still possibly include politics? Before Petraeus’s dramatic fall, he was often mentioned as a potential candidate for president – a line of speculation he never fully discouraged. He may be thinking more along the lines of corporate boards and lucrative speeches, but history suggests he needn't rule out a run for office.
After all, there is a long, bipartisan tradition in American politics of sexual indiscretion followed by redemption. Take Republican Mark Sanford, who faced emotional turmoil in 2009 as governor of South Carolina when he revealed an extramarital affair with his Argentinian mistress (now fiancée). He served out the remainder of his term but was censured by the state legislature. He may well be on the verge of winning a special election for Congress, after coming in first in the GOP primary earlier this month.
There’s also Sen. David Vitter (R) of Louisiana, caught consorting with prostitutes in 2007, but won reelection anyway and could be his state’s next governor. Politico recently lauded his skill in reinventing himself as a Senate insider.
And then there’s former President Clinton, who survived impeachment after lying under oath about an affair, and, as an ex-president, enjoys an image as an elder statesman with public popularity ratings in the high 60s.
Petraeus, of course, has never run for office, and being a novice politician with personal baggage may be a heavy lift. But we still don’t rule out that he might give it a shot. He is still married to Holly Petraeus, admired in her own right for her work on behalf of veterans (and not present at the speech in L.A.). We can assume that she has a say in how they chart their future path. Another possibility is a high-level government appointment. But if he wants to avoid pesky reporters, he might find the private sector more agreeable.
Did we almost wind up with a President Gingrich and Vice President Santorum? Or President Santorum and Vice President Gingrich?
We learned Friday morning, via Bloomberg Businessweek's Josh Green, that a super-secret, and apparently quite serious, attempt was made to form a "unity ticket" last February between the campaigns of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, as a last-ditch attempt to wrest the Republican nomination away from Mitt Romney.
At the time, Mr. Romney appeared vulnerable, and the Gingrich and Santorum campaigns believed if they could stop splitting the conservative vote, they might be able to beat him. Tellingly, the plan was ultimately thwarted by the inability of the two candidates to decide which one of them would get to be president.
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It's an entertaining read, chock-full of quotes like this one from John Brabender, chief strategist to Mr. Santorum: "It would have sent shock waves through the establishment and the Romney campaign." Or this one from Santorum himself: "It could have changed the outcome of the primary. And more importantly, it could have changed the outcome of the general election."
But while it may be fun to hypothesize about, in reality we have to say there's little question this plan – had it somehow come to fruition – would almost certainly have failed.
True, Romney was a flawed candidate from the beginning, and was never much liked by the GOP's conservative base. But, seriously: he was far less flawed than either Gingrich or Santorum (or, frankly, any of the other candidates that took a shot at the nomination). Contrary to Texas Gov. Rick Perry's assertion last week at CPAC that Republicans lost the White House in 2012 because they failed to nominate a true conservative, we'd argue Republicans lost because they fielded an incredibly weak team of candidates.
Both Mr. Gingrich and Santorum had brief surges in the polls, but they also cratered as soon as the spotlight was fixed on them, amid scrutiny of – to name just a few examples – their consulting work and past indiscretions (Gingrich), or way-out-of-the-mainstream stances on issues like birth control and homosexuality (Santorum).
Not surprisingly, the math wouldn't have added up for them, either. As The Atlantic Wire's Philip Bump points out, if you went back and combined Gingrich's and Santorum's vote totals in all the GOP primary contests, they only would have taken an additional 125 delegates from Romney –meaning, he'd still have had well more than he needed to secure the nomination. And in the unlikely scenario that the Gingrich-Santorum "unity ticket" could have somehow improved on the combination of their individual performances and won the nomination, they almost certainly would have fared worse in the general election among independent voters, leading to a more lopsided loss.
Looking back at public opinion polling from the first few months of 2012, the lead for the GOP nomination bounced around frequently, but one area where Romney consistently dominated was "electability." And while that was often portrayed as a semi-problem for him – voters somehow voting with their heads instead of their hearts – well, we'd just point out that the head usually gets it right. Republican voters may not have liked Romney all that much, but they were smart enough to realize he would have the best shot against Obama.
As conservative columnist Noemie Emery put it this week, in a biting commentary in The Washington Examiner, Romney was "the last sane man standing in a field of conservatives whose credentials were lacking and whose personalities verged on bizarre." She went on: "Between Ronald Reagan (and Jack Kemp) and the new generation of Scott Walker and Marco Rubio, there were no appealing conservative figures, or none who could win on the national scene. Instead, against establishment types who were national figures, the conservative movement flung preachers and pundits (Pat Robertson, Alan Keyes, and Pat Buchanan), has-beens and losers (Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum), and others still worse (Herman Cain, for example), who on second thought lost even conservative primary voters."
The recent GOP "autopsy" report of what went wrong in 2012, and how the party can chart a path to victory going forward, may offer some sound policy suggestions for Republicans (it suggests, among other things, that they embrace immigration reform and take a more inclusive posture on gay marriage). But in many ways, the profile and charisma of the candidates matters as much – or more – than the platform.
The good news for Republicans is that the field for 2016 is already looking to be much stronger. From Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, the GOP has a deep bench of younger candidates with strong political skills and the potential to both excite the base and appeal to a broader audience.
In 2012, that just wasn't the case.
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Obamacare “kills.” That’s what Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) of Minnesota said Thursday on the floor of the House. In a fire-breathing speech, the tea party favorite and former GOP presidential hopeful urged her fellow lawmakers to “repeal this failure before it literally kills women, kills children, kills senior citizens."
Congress should not go along with that, said Representative Bachmann. “Let’s love people. Let’s care about people. Let’s repeal it now while we can.”
Later, she came back on the floor and added that Medicaid, the big federal/state health entitlement program for lower-income Americans, is a “ghetto."
OK, in terms of political rhetoric this is going pretty far. Bachmann has long been kind of a bomb thrower. But even in that context, this is nuclear, isn’t it?
Well, we’ve got a couple of comments here. The first is that political debate over the Affordable Care Act specifically and health care in general has long been rhetorically charged.
Remember when Sarah Palin and others in the GOP charged that President Obama’s reforms would create “death panels” ruling on which seniors get what care? It’s not far from that to “kills." So, in that sense, Bachmann is within the stream of her party’s thought, if not exactly the mainstream.
Liberals are outraged at what they feel are these exaggerations. The alleged “death panel” meme came from the law’s inclusion of various boards intended to judge the cost-effectiveness of certain treatments, for instance. But prior to the bill’s passage, a few Dems did edge out on that limb themselves, charging that people would die from lack of care, if it didn’t pass.
We’re not saying there is strict equivalence here. We’re just saying the law has, um, always raised strong feelings.
Second, the conservative wing of the Republican Party is pretty annoyed about the Affordable Care Act at the moment. In particular, they’re angry that many House and Senate Republicans, by voting for the short-term continuing resolution that funds the government for the rest of the fiscal year, have voted to continue Obamacare’s implementation.
They think it’s so important to block the law that the GOP, as a whole, should have shut down the government in that effort.
Influential conservative blogger Erick Erickson has been big on this, charging on the RedState blog that if a Republican voted for the CR’s final passage, that lawmaker voted to support Obamacare, even if, before that, he or she cast a ballot for an amendment that would have defunded the law.
On Friday he has reposted a list of senators who, he said, have done just that.
“If any one of those senators tells you they did not vote to fund Obamacare, or, in fact, voted against funding Obamacare, they are being mendacious,” writes Mr. Erickson.
Lastly, Bachmann may be trying to distract the political world from the other stuff she’s been saying recently. In a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, she charged that Mr. Obama has a “lavish lifestyle” in the White House that includes “five chefs on Air Force One,” as well as two live-in projectionists for the White House movie theater and that “we pay someone to walk the president’s dog."
The chefs and projectionists don’t exist. We wouldn’t rule out staffers holding Bo’s leash, but there is no pro pet sitter on the White House payroll.
Confronted by a CNN camera crew and asked to explain herself, Bachmann literally bolted. Conservative Fox News host Bill O’Reilly earlier this week slammed Bachmann for being trivial and distracting attention from the real problem of the national debt.
At CPAC, Bachmann also said that Alzheimer’s disease could be cured if not for government regulations, taxes, and lawyers. She added that 70 percent of every food stamp dollar goes to “bureaucrats."
Politifact.com rated the former claim “pants on fire” false, saying researchers blame the disease itself and lack of research funding for the fact that no cure yet exists.
And the food stamp assertion? Not true either. Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler assigned it “four Pinocchios," his worst rating.
“There really aren’t enough Pinocchios for such misleading use of statistics in a major speech,” he writes.
Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss is getting some blowback online for remarks he made to Politico about gay marriage. Asked if he might ever reconsider his opposition to marriage equality, Senator Chambliss is quoted as saying: "I'm not gay, so I'm not going to marry one."
Predictably, this has sparked a slew of mocking headlines and comments.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution, Chambliss's hometown paper, went with "Gay Marriage? Saxby Chambliss says he's taken." Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall posted simply: "Tough Hurdle: So Sen. Saxby Chambliss has to become gay apparently before he'll support marriage equality." New York Magazine's Jon Chait joked: "Given that personal experience seems to be how Republican senators change their minds on the issue, I would urge gay-rights groups to introduce some handsome, charming guys to Senator Chambliss and see if sparks fly."
What's interesting to us about Chambliss's "quip," however inartful, is that it doesn't really sound like strident opposition. Unlike previous election cycles, when most Republicans were actively promoting legislative measures to prevent gay marriage, these days they seem to be taking pains to emphasize that their opposition to it is strictly personal.
Policy-wise, they're no longer pushing for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, but increasingly arguing that it is an issue that should be left up to the states. And more and more GOP officials like Chambliss are describing their views with lines that sound almost like "this old dog can't learn new tricks." The implication: they're not really trying to fight the tide of history. They're just asking to be allowed to maintain their own views.
We heard the same kind of tone in House Speaker John Boehner's comments on the subject last weekend on ABC's "This Week." Asked about Ohio Sen. Rob Portman's recent announcement that he now supports gay marriage, Mr. Boehner said he could not envision himself having a similar change of heart. "Listen, I believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman," Boehner said. "It's what I grew up with. It's what I believe. It's what my church teaches me. And I can't imagine that position would ever change." Asked how he could justify denying Portman's son, who is gay, the right to marry, Boehner added: "Listen – I think that Rob can make up his – his own mind, take his own position."
This rhetorical shift seems in line with the conclusion in the Republican National Committee's recent "autopsy report" that Republicans must offer a more inclusive posture on issues like gay marriage, which, it said, is causing many young people to view the GOP as "totally intolerant of alternative views." According to the report: "there is a generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and the rights of gays — and for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the Party is a place they want to be. If our Party is not welcoming and inclusive, young people and increasingly other voters will continue to tune us out."
This week a new Washington Post/ABC poll found a record 58 percent of Americans now believe gay marriage should be legal, including 52 percent of Republicans between the ages of 18 and 29.
Still, actually supporting gay marriage remains a dicey stand for GOP elected officials. For many social conservatives – who play an active role in Republican primary contests – opposition to gay marriage is a strongly held plank. As The Family Research Council's Tony Perkins told The Hill this week, if the GOP abandons its opposition to gay marriage, "evangelicals will either sit the elections out completely – or move to create a third party. Either option puts Republicans on the path to a permanent minority."
So it's not surprising to see most Republican elected officials still saying they oppose gay marriage – while trying in general to shift focus away from the issue, and couching their opposition in increasingly personal, and far less political terms.
The House on Thursday approved a short-term funding bill that will pay for the operations of the US government through this September, the end of the 2013 fiscal year. The Senate had approved the bill Wednesday, meaning it has cleared Congress and now goes to President Obama, who has promised to sign it when he gets back from the Middle East.
Whew! Stop the presses! (Or in today’s digital journalism maybe we should say “stop the servers!”) Washington has just accomplished something many voters may have thought wasn’t possible: It has avoided a partisan budget battle. On purpose.
Yes, you might think that lawmakers today are fighting bitterly over fiscal matters. And in some ways they are. The House floor this week rang with arguments about fiscal 2014 budget outlines. On Thursday the GOP-controlled chamber also passed Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which aims to balance the nation’s books in a decade by sharply cutting safety-net programs and curtailing government agency spending.
But that’s about next year and the magical “out years” beyond. Those are far off and safer to dispute. The short-term funding bill is different. As we noted, it’s for 2013. In other words, it’s about what happens right now.
Here’s why the huge $984 billion short-term 2013 bill, also known as the “continuing resolution,” is notable.
The government stays open. The continuing resolution authorizes discretionary federal spending for the next six months. If Congress had not approved it by March 27, when the current CR expires, government agencies would have had to shut down. That’s happened before, of course, most notably in 1995 when then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton went toe to toe. But now neither party wants such a showdown. Agreement on the CR shows Washington can actually run the country when a real deadline looms.
The sequester gets locked in – and softened. Remember "the sequester"? It’s been almost four weeks since those automatic budget cuts kicked in due to congressional disagreement over other ways to reduce the US deficit.
The White House is still closed to tours. Airport security lines are longer. Acadia National Park in Maine will open a month late, and so forth.
The just-passed CR locks in government spending at a level that assumes those reductions will stay in place for the rest of the year. That means that despite White House warnings of the sequester’s effects, it’s here and it’s staying. Get used to it.
But the CR does soften some sequester cuts. It contains specific appropriations language for many (but not all) government agencies, and some of those details shift money around within agency budgets.
For instance, within the Defense Department budget, Congress has now authorized the shifting of billions to fill depleted operations accounts. The Agriculture Department can move $55 million to prevent furloughs among food inspectors.
Partisans are peeved. Both sides had to compromise to make the CR happen. This means there are Democratic and Republican partisans who are unhappy with what’s going on.
Some Democrats believe that by making the sequester reductions permanent the CR represents a defeat for the administration. President Obama made all those speeches about the dire nature of those reductions, traveling around the country to do so. Yet now they remain.
“That’s left Democrats resigned to malfunctioning and underfunded government in perpetuity, and Republicans confident they can weather the coming months and turn sequestration spending levels into a new normal,” writes Brian Beutler at Talking Points Memo.
In contrast, some Republicans aren’t happy that, in helping the CR pass, GOP leaders have in essence given up for now on getting rid of Mr. Obama’s health-care reforms, because funding for those reforms now stays in place.
At the conservative RedState website, for instance, editor Erick Erickson has posted a list of all the Republican senators who voted for the CR on final passage. Among those on the roll: Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky.
Senator McConnell has given fire-breathing speeches about the need to get rid of Obamacare, notes Mr. Erickson.
“Mitch McConnell excels at saying one thing and doing another. Yesterday, Mitch McConnell voted to fund Obamacare,” writes Erickson on Thursday.
Gun control legislation that the Senate will consider next month may be turn out to be much less sweeping than proponents originally envisioned.
It won’t contain a ban on assault weapons, for one thing. Majority leader Harry Reid said Tuesday that such a prohibition could be offered on the floor as an amendment, but that it doesn’t have enough support to be included from the start in the main bill.
It’s also possible the firearms bill won’t contain an expansion of background checks to cover private sales. Asked if background checks would make the cut, Senator Reid said he was working toward legislation that could win 60 votes and then noted that “there are a couple different background check proposals floating around."
In other words, he was noncommittal.
“I want something that will succeed. I think the worst of all worlds would be to bring something to the floor and it dies there,” Reid said.
For the Obama administration, loss of background checks would constitute a bigger political setback than the noninclusion of the assault weapons ban. The latter has been controversial from the start, among Democrats from gun-culture states as well as Republicans. The former, in contrast, has attracted some bipartisan support and is seen by many experts as the bigger item, both substantively and politically.
“This is the game, folks, and it’s always been the case: Background checks will define success or failure,” notes NBC’s “First Read” political blog Wednesday.
“First Read” adds that it is still likely that checks will be included when the bill hits the floor in April. The Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month approved background check legislation drawn up by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York, after all.
That bill, S. 374, would require all private gun sales between individuals to be run through the existing National Instant Criminal Background Check System. For that purpose, the people involved would have to take the gun to a federally licensed gun dealer, manufacturer, or importer.
S.374 makes exceptions for transfers between spouses, parents and children, siblings, and grandparents and grandchildren. It also contains language allowing the loan of firearms at a gun range or while hunting or otherwise for a short period of time.
But this legislation is likely just a place holder. It could not get 60 votes as it stands. Reid noted yesterday that Sens. Schumer, Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia, and Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois are working on “a couple different background check proposals."
While this group is nominally bipartisan, Senator Kirk is a moderate from a bluish state whose record on gun matters is rated “F” by the National Rifle Association. To stand a chance of reaching the 60-vote threshold, any background check bill must attract the support of a more conservative Republican.
Schumer has worked hard to attract the support of Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, who has sounded amenable. But this partnership has foundered over the basic background check problem: enforcement.
Specifically, those who want background checks have to resolve concerns for members from both sides of the aisle who don’t want to create a national gun registry.
This is a long-standing gun control divide. To Democrats and the moderate Republicans who want tighter gun restrictions, some kind of permanent record-keeping would be an integral part of background-check enforcement. Without it, the law would be just a suggestion. Police would have no way of knowing whether a particular firearm had been obtained legally or not.
The NRA is adamantly opposed to permanent recordkeeping, however. The organization sees that as the beginning of a federal gun registry.
In a fire-breathing speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre called universal background checks a “placebo” that will make no one safer and will “only serve as universal registration of lawful gun owners – the real goal they’ve been pushing for decades.”
“What’s the point of registering lawful gun owners anyway.... In the end, there are only two reasons for government to create that federal registry of gun owners – to tax them and to take them,” said Mr. LaPierre.
Current law prohibits the establishment of any federal electronic database of firearms owners or firearms transactions. The FBI is allowed to keep records from the existing dealer-based background check system for only a short period of time before destroying them, according to a Congressional Research Service survey of federal gun legislation.
“No other area of federal law enforcement suffers from so many legislative barriers to action,” concludes the liberal Center for American Progress, in a report on the ability of gun lobbyists to hobble firearms regulations.