Wooing the Blue Dogs

By Dan Froomkin
1:10 PM ET, 06/ 9/2009

When it comes to getting President Obama's health care overhaul through Congress, Republicans don't really matter. Even in the Senate, they can be circumvented, if it comes to that.

Liberal Democrats certainly don't matter. They're not about to withhold their votes, no matter how far from ideal they find the final legislation.

No, the only really important swing vote in Congress right now is those technically Democratic but often conservative-leaning members who, in the House, call themselves the Blue Dogs. Their capricious political philosophy has put them in the catbird seat -- and they know it.

So how will Obama play them? Will he let them dictate the terms of his most precious and defining legislative initiative? Or will he find some other way of stroking their egos so they don't feel like the only way to make themselves feel important is to derail some significant element of his proposed solution?

I'm thinking the latter: That Obama, the great conciliator, will be spending a lot of time in the next weeks and months lavishing positive attention on the Blue Dogs where it doesn't cost him anything more than maybe a little teeth-gritting.

Ergo, today's big event at the White House, at which Obama gave a speech about the need to adhere to the basic principle that new tax or entitlement policies should be paid for – often called PAYGO.

As the White House press office has been at pains to point out this morning, "Members of Congress, including members of the Blue Dog Coalition, will attend the event in the East Room."

Here is Obama, from his remarks as prepared for delivery:

Paying for what you spend is basic common sense. Perhaps that's why, here in Washington, it has been so elusive.

Of course, there have been those in Washington leading the charge to restore "pay as you go." Many of them are here. I want to recognize Congressman George Miller, who introduced the first PAYGO bill in the House. I also want to thank the House Blue Dogs and their leaders, especially Baron Hill, who has been a driving force in favor of PAYGO.

As Lori Montgomery wrote in The Washington Post this morning:

If approved by Congress, the rules would forbid lawmakers from expanding entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security, creating new entitlement programs or cutting taxes unless the cost is covered by spending cuts or tax increases. If lawmakers fail to pay for their initiatives, Obama's rules would subject entitlement programs to automatic cuts, said sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plan has yet to be announced.

The most contentious issue in the health-care debate is likely to come over as aspect dear to Obama's heart: the so-called "public plan." (Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein has a great "public plan" primer.) And, unless he neutralizes them, the Blue Dogs will be Obama's biggest obstacle.

Alex Wayne wrote last week for CQ about how the Blue Dogs set

strict conditions Thursday for any government-run insurance plan Congress creates as part of a health care overhaul, ruling out support for a plan that resembles Medicare — the option favored by many liberals.

And Daily Kos blogger McJoan yesterday described how the centrist Democratic group Third Way is trying to kill the public plan by advocating one that won't work.

Meanwhile, over on the Senate side, John Fritze writes for USA Today:

As Congress considers an overhaul of the nation's health care system, pressure is mounting on a small circle of Senate moderates who helped advance President Obama's economic stimulus this year.

Centrists in both parties, including Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. — both of whom played a critical role in shaping the stimulus — are being courted by interest groups and the White House as lawmakers seek a way to provide health care to 46 million uninsured people.

Finally, here come the lobbyists. David M. Drucker and Kate Ackley write for Roll Call (subscription required):

As health care reform takes shape in the House and Senate and shows signs of veering decidedly left, business lobbyists are considering joining their Republican allies and mounting a public relations offensive to put the brakes on President Barack Obama’s overhaul plans.

Advocates for health insurance companies, hospitals, provider groups and employers have so far been engaged in a marriage of convenience, hoping that by maintaining radio silence in exchange for a seat at the negotiating table they could influence the process and obtain a reform bill to their liking.

But as legislative details have emerged in recent days and suggested the business community could be stuck with costly mandates and a government-run, public plan option, lobbying groups are preparing to step up their opposition messaging.

Christopher Hayes wrote recently in the Nation:

It seems strange, almost surreal, to say this, but the Republican Party, and arguably the whole conservative movement, is not the left's biggest enemy at the moment. On keeping a public plan in healthcare reform; streamlining student lending; and passing the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), cap and trade, financial regulation and a host of other structural economic reforms progressives hope to enact, the GOP is more akin to the garbage men than the alderman....

While the Republican Party shrinks, corporate interests are deftly molting their old K Street Project skin and crawling en masse inside the big tent being pitched by the Democratic Party. These same corporate interests have always had a purchase on Democrats, of course. But for much of the last decade, business interests had the luxury of spending most of their resources aiding their allies in the GOP.

No more....So far in this cycle, Democrats have captured two-thirds of the donations from the healthcare industry.

If big business's old legislative strategy was centered on relentless opposition to progressive initiatives... the new strategy is to subvert legislation through co-optation... By converting themselves, ostensibly, from opponents to "partners," corporate lobbies are trying to have it both ways: to block reforms while changing overt power struggles over the future of the economy into seemingly cooperative negotiations. At these negotiations, to use the president's favorite phrase, "everyone has a seat at the table"--except, the lobbyists get by far the best seats.

In other health-care news, Robert Pear writes in the New York Times about how much Obama was influenced by an extraordinary New Yorker essay by Atul Gawande.

Ceci Connolly has the first in article in a Washington Post series on fixing the health care system: "Nowhere else in the world is so much money spent with such poor results," she writes, noting that the goal of health reform

is to finally get our money's worth, say industry leaders, policymakers, consumers and business executives.

They envision a health-care system that guarantees a basic level of care for everyone, shifts the emphasis to wellness and prevention, minimizes errors, and reduces unnecessary and unproved treatment. Such a system would coordinate care, track patients and doctor performance electronically, and reward good results.

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
1:05 PM ET, 06/ 9/2009

Michael Slackman writes in the New York Times: "There were many domestic reasons voters handed an American-backed coalition a victory in Lebanese parliamentary elections on Sunday — but political analysts also attribute it in part to President Obama's campaign of outreach to the Arab and Muslim world. Most analysts had predicted that the Hezbollah-led coalition, already a crucial power broker in the Lebanese government because of its support from Shiites who make up a large part of Lebanon's population, would win handily. In the end, though, the American-aligned coalition won 71 seats, while the Syria-Iranian aligned opposition, which includes Hezbollah, took only 57. It is hard to draw firm conclusions from one election. But for the first time in a long time, being aligned with the United States did not lead to defeat in the Middle East. And since Lebanon has always been a critical testing ground, that could mark a possibly significant shift in regional dynamics with another major election, in Iran, on Friday."

Aluf Benn writes for Haaretz: "Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes that U.S. President Barack Obama wants a confrontation with Israel, based on Obama's speech in Cairo last week, Netanyahu's confidants say. In Netanyahu's opinion, the Americans believe an open controversy with Israel would serve the Obama administration's main objective of improving U.S. relations with the Arab world, the aides say.... By telephone yesterday, Netanyahu told Obama of his intention to give a key policy speech on Sunday, in which he would outline his policy to achieve peace and security. Obama promised to listen to the address closely, and the two 'agreed to maintain open and continuous contact,' the Prime Minister's Bureau said."

Peter Baker writes in the New York Times: "More than four years after his predecessor declared it America's mission to end tyranny around the world, President Obama is trying to reformulate a lofty goal that has become tarnished in many circles. Mr. Obama used his address in Cairo last week to revive but recast the democracy agenda that was central to President George W. Bush's foreign policy. Yet even as he embraced the aspiration rhetorically, Mr. Obama left it uncertain how aggressively he planned to push repressive regimes that did not agree."

Caren Bohan writes for Reuters: "Obama is weighing whether to send either former U.S. Vice President Al Gore or New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to Pyongyang to try to negotiate the release" of two U.S. journalists jailed by North Korea."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "The rising unemployment rate is giving President Obama's critics an opportunity to raise questions about the effectiveness of his recovery plan and his economic leadership. The huge budget deficit is focusing fresh concern on the national debt. So Mr. Obama began a new effort on Monday to show that his stimulus plan was yielding concrete benefits, saying that his administration expects to save or create 600,000 more jobs this summer, as the federal government spends billions to expand care at health centers, spruce up national parks, hire teachers and improve military facilities."

But David Jackson writes for USA Today: "Obama's pledge Monday to speed up stimulus spending and 'create or save' 600,000 jobs drew a sharp attack from Republicans who argue the rising unemployment rate invalidates the claims from the White House."

And Alec MacGillis writes in The Washington Post: "The list of spending plans detailed under the road map amounted to little more than a restatement of plans already underway for the coming months, without any explanation of what steps, if any, the White House would take to accelerate the pace of spending."

Heidi Przybyla writes for Bloomberg: "Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said President Barack Obama's plan to fix the economy through stimulus spending and government intervention to boost companies like General Motors Corp. has 'already failed.'"

Andy Barr writes for Politico: "Alaska GOP Gov. Sarah Palin said Monday during an interview with Fox News' Sean Hannity that President Barack Obama's agenda 'defies any sensible economic policy any of us learned when we were in college.' Asked if she would call the president's policies 'socialism,' Palin responded: 'If we keep going down these roads.yes that is where we are headed.'"

Neocon Frank J. Gaffney Jr. writes in his Washington Times opinion column: "During his White House years, William Jefferson Clinton -- someone Judge Sonia Sotomayor might call a 'white male' -- was dubbed 'America's first black president' by a black admirer. Applying the standard of identity politics and pandering to a special interest that earned Mr. Clinton that distinction, Barack Hussein Obama would have to be considered America's first Muslim president.... The man now happy to have his Islamic-rooted middle name featured prominently has engaged in the most consequential bait-and-switch since Adolf Hitler duped Neville Chamberlain over Czechoslovakia at Munich.... Whether Mr. Obama actually is a Muslim or simply plays one in the presidency may, in the end, be irrelevant."

Firedoglake blogger Christy Hardin Smith has the Justice Department's new "Communications Guidelines for Contact with the White House and Congress." She writes: "What it does, essentially, is erect the proper 'Chinese walls' between the political units in the WH and the non-political DOJ needs on discretionary cases, but doesn't interfere with policy discussions that need to take place."

Richard Leiby writes in The Washington Post: "Although far better known as a hoops man, President Obama seems to be morphing into a golf nut these days. He's hit the course five times since late April -- rushing out to the links on Sunday afternoon just 90 minutes after returning to the White House from his overseas trip."

And Jocelyn Noveck writes for the Associated Press: "A juicy burger or a chili half-smoke in D.C., soul food in Chicago. Our new president eats something and the world wants to eat it, too. We've always cared about the words that emerge from a president's lips, but has there ever been such attention to the food that enters them?"

Too Embarrassing to Disclose?

By Dan Froomkin
11:05 AM ET, 06/ 9/2009

President Obama's approach to government transparency is disturbingly opaque in places, particularly when it comes to disclosing information about the Bush administration's torture legacy.

To his credit, Obama in mid-April released a handful of Justice Department memos that authorized and itemized extraordinary brutality.

But a month later, he decided to block the release of more photos depicting detainee abuse by the military.

And now, Obama's CIA director is arguing against the release of details about the torture of Abu Zubaydah in a secret prison -- details that would not only vividly expose precisely what the government did in our name, but could also go a long way to revealing the motives of the torturers, the copious guidance they received from the White House, and how ineffective and counterproductive their methods turned out to be.

In his May 21 national security address, Obama vowed that he would "not protect information merely because it reveals the violation of a law or embarrassment to the government."

But what's emerging is an exception to the rule. The Obama administration apparently won't hide things from the public just because they're embarrassing -- unless they're really, really embarrassing.

Here's how the ACLU's Jameel Jaffer, in an interview with The Washington Post yesterday, described the principle underlying the CIA's assertion: "[T]he greater the abuse, the more important it is that it should remain secret."

R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post:

The Obama administration objected yesterday to the release of certain Bush-era documents that detail the videotaped interrogations of CIA detainees, arguing to a federal judge that doing so would endanger national security and benefit al-Qaeda recruitment.

In a pointed affidavit, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta told a federal judge in New York that records describing the contents of the videotapes, which the CIA said it destroyed in 2005, and other documents containing what he called "sensitive operational information" about the interrogations, were properly classified.

Their forced disclosure to the American Civil Liberties Union "could be expected to result in exceptionally grave damage to the national security by informing our enemies of what we knew about them, and when, and in some instances, how we obtained the intelligence we possessed," Panetta argued....

He said that while the memos discussed harsh interrogation "in the abstract," the CIA information was "of a qualitatively different nature" because it described the interrogation techniques "as applied in actual operations."...

He also submitted a classified statement to the court that he said explains why detainees could use the contents to hide information in the future, even though Obama has promised that the United States will not use the harsh interrogation techniques again.

Here, via blogger Marcy Wheeler, is Panetta's full declaration. He explains that the majority of the documents being requested consist of top secret cables sent to and from the CIA secret prison where Zubaydah -- the first detainee tortured by the CIA -- was being held.

These Top Secret communications consist primarily of sensitive intelligence and operational information concerning Abu Zubaydah. Drafted during the timeframe the interrogations were being conducted, these communications are the most contemporaneous documents the CIA possesses concerning these interrogations. In addition to these Top Secret communications, there are also a small number of miscellaneous documents, which include the notes of CIA employees who reviewed the 92 videotoapes before they were destroyed, logbooks containing details of the interrogations, and a photograph.

His central argument:

[D]isclosure of explicit details of specific interrogations where EITs were applied would provide al-Qa'ida with propaganda it could use to recruit and raise funds... Information concerning the details of the EITs being applied would provide ready-made ammuntion for al-Qa'ida propaganda. The resultant damage to the national security would likely be exceptionally grave.

To which I have only one thing to say: the CIA should have thought of all this a long time ago -- ideally, before they embarked on actions whose disclosure alone would be enough to incite our enemies.

And here is Panetta's credibility-sapping finish:

[M]y determinations...are in no way driven by a desire to prevent embarrassment for the U.S. government or the CIA, or to suppress evidence of any unlawful conduct. My sole purpose is to prevent the exceptionally grave damage to the national security reasonably likely to occur from public disclosure of any portion of these documents, and to protect intelligence sources and methods.

The cable traffic, the logbooks and the written reports about the destroyed videotapes would give the American public a much better and more definitive view of not just what was going on in these CIA prisons, but where the pressure was really coming from to abandon tried-and-true interogation methods in favor of brutality.

Just a few weeks ago, for instance, NPR's Ari Shapiro reported that on a nearly daily basis in mid-2002, a CIA contractor would "write a top-secret cable to the CIA's counterterrorism center" requesting permission for various techniques to be used on Zubaydah. The CIA, Shapiro reported, "would then forward the request to the White House, where White House counsel Alberto Gonzales would sign off on the technique." It wasn't until months later, on August 1, 2002, that the Justice Department issued its official authorization. Comparing what was said in the cables to what the Justice Department lawyers presented as fact in their memos would also be telling.

But, as I wrote last month, the president who came into office promising to restore our international reputation and return responsibility to government now seems to be buying into the belief that covering up our sins is better than coming clean.

Late Night Humor

By Dan Froomkin
9:34 AM ET, 06/ 9/2009

Stephen Colbert, in Baghdad, declares that U.S. warriors have won the war in Iraq by turning chaos into triumph. He suggests that Obama now deploy them to General Motors.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Word - Why Are You Here?


President Obama makes a cameo on Colbert's show, ordering Iraq commanding Gen. Ray Odierno to shave Colbert's head.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Obama Orders Stephen's Haircut - Ray Odierno

And Jon Stewart on Fox News's continued insinuations that Obama is a 9/11 apologist.. and so on.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
"i" on News
Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:26 AM ET, 06/ 9/2009

Mike Luckovich on Osama on Obama, Tim Goheen on fence-mending, Rob Rogers on treating the Middle East like GM, Ken Catalino and Michael Ramirez claim to speak for the D-Day dead, Stuart Carlson on Obama's health-care allies, John Sherffius on "don't ask don't tell", and Tom Stiglich on Obama's cape.

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