McConnell’s test: Can he do more than obstruct?

(CNN)Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is facing a major test this week. Since revealing the details of the Republican health care plan, McConnell has watched as a number of important senators in his own party announced their concerns or opposition. Some, such as Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, have urged him to postpone the vote based on the assumption that, at this moment, it would not pass the upper chamber where the majority only has a slim 52 seats.

Meanwhile, on Monday, the Congressional Budget Office announced that under the Senate bill there would be 22 million more uninsured Americans by 2026, making McConnell’s efforts to pass the bill that much more difficult.
But McConnell’s supporters believe he can make this happen. They see McConnell as a modern-day Lyndon Johnson, who has served as both Senate minority and majority leader, an old-school legislator who can twist arms and cut deals to bring his party together. They are confident that despite all the potential problems with this bill, McConnell must have enough tricks up his sleeve to defy conventional wisdom.
    But the truth is it’s nearly impossible to predict if McConnell will succeed. To many, he has defined his career as an obstructionist rather than as someone who creates new policies. The challenge he faces this week is fundamentally different than much of what he has confronted in his time as a party leader.
    Most of McConnell’s skills have come as a member of the congressional minority or as a majority leader facing a president from the other party. Under those conditions, McConnell could be brilliant and devastating. Shortly after President Obama’s inauguration, Utah Republican Bob Bennett recalled McConnell telling a retreat of Republicans: “We have a new president with an approval rating in the 70% area. We do not take him on frontally. We find issues where we can win, and we begin to take him down, one issue at a time.”
    His track record as an agent of obstruction is legendary. Throughout the Obama presidency, McConnell proved to be extremely effective at blocking many key legislative initiatives, from immigration reform to climate change regulations to criminal justice reform, that sometimes even commanded bipartisan support. The senator proved he knew how to whip up a no vote and to stand firm against intense political pressure to act.
    He demonstrated the same savvy with judicial and executive branch appointments. McConnell was more than willing to let seats remain empty. Never was his ability to hold the party together as clear as when Justice Antonin Scalia died during President Obama’s term. The Senate majority leader refused to even hold hearings on the nomination of Merrick Garland, based on the spurious argument that the next president should have the right to decide on the appointment. The seat remained vacant until a Republican controlled the White House.
    As an obstructionist, McConnell demonstrated he was able to ignore the scrutiny of the media no matter how hot it became. When pundits and policymakers took to the airwaves to lambast the Republicans for failing to govern or for creating a constitutional crisis, McConnell didn’t flinch. The breaking news cycle didn’t faze him. He plays, as he titled his memoir, the “Long Game” with an eye on the needs of his party. Between 2009 and 2017, he kept up the pressure on his colleagues in the Senate to stick to their guns, and it worked.
    Now the situation is different. For the first time in his career as a party leader (other than the brief moment he was selected as Senate majority leader in 2006), the public will see just how well he can perform in making things happen rather than blocking progress.
    But the skills are different on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
    Part of the job of the majority leader in times of united government is to bring disparate parts of the party together around proposals to change the status quo. “Trumpcare” would do just that. This is legislation that will strip away the health care benefits for millions of Americans and create a period of great uncertainty for health care markets.
    Some conservatives want Congress to do much more in dismantling government. To them, the government would still be spending too much money subsidizing markets and leaving too many regulations in place. Others in the GOP are not willing to make such grandiose changes, realizing the effects it will have on their electorate. In particular, they fear the effects of the rollback of Medicaid on their populations as well as the higher deductibles that people with more illnesses will face.
    Can McConnell bring these sides together, and work with the intransigent Freedom Caucus in the House, around legislation that will change the status quo and where Republicans will likely be blamed for any negative outcome?
    In the modern era, part of the job of the majority leader has also been to sell ideas to the public. This is where the job of the obstructionist is very different than the job of the policy creator. Unlike some recent Senate majority leaders, McConnell doesn’t really like to be on television and he tends to avoid reporters whenever possible. In this case, that comes at a cost since the natural face of the party is not out there convincing Americans why this is a good idea. That task is left to others, and right now his fellow salesmen, as reflected in public opinion polls about the health care bills, are doing a poor job.
    Until now, President Trump has not tested McConnell, since he has focused almost exclusively on executive actions and avoided the legislative front on large-scale issues.
    It is worth noting that McConnell does not really have many legislative issues that he is known for, other than his fierce opposition in the 1990s to campaign finance reform. This week he is dealing with a major issue that would have his signature in the history books.

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    Can McConnell deliver on this controversial legislation? Can he play the part of leaders like Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, who delivered when Democrats controlled the White House and Congress in the mid-1960s? Or, is this problematic bill something that is just too hot for this legislative leader to deliver?
    This is a question that will be answered as the week unfolds.

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    No tapes? Trump has us through the looking glass

    (CNN)As the Mad Hatter of the White House tweeted his response to Congress’s questions on Thursday about the existence of audiotapes related to James B. Comey’s firing as FBI director, he stayed true to character. “I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings,” President Trump announced. But he also added that “with all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information, I have no idea…”

    Trapped in a controversy of his own creation after tormenting Comey, the Congress, the press and the American public with the implication that he might have bugged the White House, Donald Trump fell back on one of his regular tricks, offering a unclear clarification and acting more like a bad magician than President of the United States.
    In the immediate term, all this craziness may well divert the nation from revelations of the Senate’s heretofore secret health care legislation and the fact that it would do grievous harm to Donald Trump’s own promise to leave the Medicaid system intact.
      In the long term, the actions of President Trump and his team will inspire an even more dogged pursuit of the truth by Congress and the special prosecutor, Robert Mueller — who, it must be remembered, would have never been named if Donald Trump had left James Comey alone in the first place.
      By speaking of “tapes,” the President cavalierly evoked the Watergate scandal and the worst political crisis in the history of the presidency in order to hint that he, like Nixon, was capable of secretly recording his visitors.
      Richard Nixon fought the release of his tapes because he knew that the system had caught him planning and ordering the post-Watergate cover-up that drove him from office. Donald Trump, on the other hand, made the false claim that he possessed tapes because he understood the power of merely making the suggestion that recordings exist.
      In this game, the President implied that he possessed valuable evidence to support his own position and discredit and intimidate James Comey, the man who knew more than anyone about the possibility of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives. He hoped, in this gambit, to benefit from two factors: the idea that people would assume that no President would take the risk of bluffing on such a matter and his belief that he could get away with anything. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” was how Trump put it during the 2016 campaign.
      The problem for Trump, when it came to Comey, was that the former FBI director couldn’t be bluffed. “Lordy I hope there are tapes,” Comey said when he testified before a Senate committee, because he believed that accurate recordings of his conversations with Trump would support his contention that the President had pressured him on the Russia matters.
      President Trump would have known that his bullying bluff would fail if he understood how principled people like Comey work. During decades of service, Comey had built a reputation for integrity and made it clear to almost everyone in Washington that he was not a man to mess with. In 2004, it was Comey who successfully defied President Bush when he tried to get hospitalized Attorney General John Ashcroft to sign an order reauthorizing a domestic spying program. When Scott Pelley of CBS News asked him in 2014 if his loyalty belonged to the President, Comey said no. “I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” he said.
      Never one for deep reflection, Donald Trump missed the signs of Comey’s true character and deemed him a “showboat.” He’s made this kind of mistake of misjudging people before. In the early 1990s, he underestimated the strength of his first wife, Ivana, as she fought him, leak for leak, in the war of the tabloids that accompanied their divorce. Later he underestimated author Tim O’Brien and his publisher when he sued over O’Brien’s book. The defendants prevailed and the record created by the case made Donald Trump look irrational, as he claimed that his net worth depended, in part, on his level of self-esteem.
      These are just two examples — in many cases, Donald Trump’s miscalculations are followed by intense efforts by underlings and hirelings to somehow shape reality to conform to the big man’s impulsive remarks and actions. Those who stick with him through these exercises do so because they lack the gumption to say no. Their efforts, unfortunately, only bolster his belief that people generally act out of self-interest and not on the basis of any higher moral values.

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      So when Donald Trump made the mistake of musing about “tapes,” and left the door hanging open with his tweets, he once again put both his legal team and his White House staff in the awful position of trying to explain his actions and contain their damage. It’s no wonder that Sarah Huckabee Sanders fell back on a Trumpian trope when pressed by reporters to address the President’s relationship to facts, saying, “Look, the President won the election.” While generally true, this statement has nothing to do with the problem of a President who refuses to offer straight answers to a host of questions, including whether he believes in the science that shows the world’s climate is changing due to human activity or that Russia attempted to influence the 2016 election.
      Huckabee Sanders and the press office intensified the Wonderland atmospherics at the White House when they refused to let her appearance be shown on video and then described an announcement of this refusal as “NONREPORTABLE.” In other words, journalists were barred from distributing images of Huckabee Sanders, then told, in Red Queen style, that they better not say why.
      In the story of Wonderland, Alice eventually left behind the Mad Hatter and all of the other unruly and unsavory characters who lived there and shared with the world what she had seen. In Washington, Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller now occupies the Alice role. And like her, he will likely emerge from his investigation with quite a tale to tell.

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      Would Trump make a good royal?

      (CNN)The power of the British monarchy has been on display during recent tragedies.

      Whether comforting victims of the Grenfell tower block fire or unveiling the priorities of her government in the state opening of Parliament, Queen Elizabeth II has demonstrated the sort of steady, dignified endurance that rises above the chaos of a divisive Brexit vote and an inconclusive general election.
      Leave it to Prince Harry to spoil it all.
        In a revealing interview with Newsweek, the Queen’s most rebellious grandson let slip the secret at the heart of his family.
        “We are involved in modernizing the British monarchy. We are not doing this for ourselves but for the greater good of the people…. Is there any one of the royal family who wants to be king or queen? I don’t think so, but we will carry out our duties at the right time,” he said.
        Prince Harry’s words are extraordinary. But he should know better than anyone if his father Charles and brother William, both groomed for the job since birth, do not even want the throne.

          Prince Harry opens up about Diana’s funeral

        Who, after all, could survive the nonstop attention and demand for selfies? Who would thrive under such scrutiny, and do it all while wearing a gold crown weighing more than three pounds?
        It would take a certain type of person. The sort of person who fills his court with relatives, perhaps, who thinks the separation of powers is a foreign concept, and who would quite fancy himself as the head of a church.
        Anyone coming to mind here?
        President Donald Trump may be struggling to navigate power in the world’s greatest democracy. But how about the top job in a smaller, dustier administration?
        There may be centuries of convention about how the monarch is supposed to relate to Parliament (keep quiet and sign the bills when they arrive), but an unwritten constitution means there is nothing to stop him doing whatever he wants.
        These days, marrying a Catholic is not even a problem, so Melania is safe.
        It is, of course, a stupid idea. A poor joke deployed by a Brit in America (yours truly) trying to make sense of Prince Harry’s comments and the truth about duty.
        Harry’s point is that nobody should want the crown. Nobody should want the awesome responsibilities that come with it. The accident of birth has rather ruled him out of contention anyway. Prince Harry now stands fifth in line to the throne.

          Prince Harry hosts Obama at Kensington Palace

        But it is easy to understand how a fun-loving 30-something would balk at the idea.
        His mother died in a car accident in a French road tunnel as she was pursued by paparazzi, photographers trying to sate the massive interest in the Royals’ real-life soap opera.
        A photo of Harry walking in his mother’s funeral cortege became the public’s defining image of the young prince.
        “My mother had just died, and I had to walk a long way behind her coffin, surrounded by thousands of people watching me while millions more did on television,” he said in the Newsweek interview.
        “I don’t think any child should be asked to do that, under any circumstances. I don’t think it would happen.”
        It got worse as Harry got older and became fair game for the tabloids. Now every girlfriend is scrutinized by a public that knows him only from a distance.
        When he dressed up as a Nazi for a fancy dress party, photographs turned up on newspaper front pages.

          UK royals talk candidly about losing Diana

        And as his brother William will one day find out, being king rather makes showing up at a Colonials and Natives themed party a bit of a no-no. (Although his choice of outfit at that notorious 2005 party — a lion costume — shows the way he has been groomed from a young age to avoid accidentally triggering outrage by dressing up as a murderous fascist.)
        We have all watched the crown and marveled at the way Princess Elizabeth blossomed into a young queen as she grappled with her new burden and the duties she learned at her father’s side.
        How much more difficult that transition would be today, in our nonstop world of Twitter, hot takes and rolling news.

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        Anyone lusting after the position of sovereign would possess not just an unhealthy masochism, but a level of narcissism at odds with the humility displayed by the Queen during this past week.
        What kind of monster would want that life?

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        Wenstrup: Baseball aside, we’re all playing for the same team

        (CNN)I never expected a baseball field in America to feel like being back in a combat zone, but Wednesday morning it did.

        For months, a group of my colleagues and I have been heading to Alexandria early in the morning before work to practice for the charity baseball game that Democrats and Republicans have participated in since 1909.
        I was pulling on my batting gloves and heading to the batting cages along the first base line when I heard the crack of a rifle shot. I turned — only to hear my Mississippi colleague and fellow Iraq War veteran Trent Kelly yell, “shooter!”
          Everyone started dashing for cover. I saw House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, at second base, drop. The minutes ticked by as we watched the gunman, who started out near the third base line, move steadily around the diamond. Shot after shot ripped through the air. It felt like being back in Iraq, only without my weapon or any infantry.
          What happened could have been far worse, had it not been for the courage of the Capitol Police who ultimately took down the shooter. Steve may have taken the bullet, but his presence — he’s one of the few lawmakers in Congress with a security detail — saved all of us. Without his security detail, we would have been completely defenseless. Special Agents Crystal Griner and David Bailey are the true heroes of the hour.
          As soon as the shooter was down, I ran alongside Jeff Flake and Mo Brooks, and others, to provide emergency medical attention to Steve and stanch the bleeding until the medics could arrive. In the following hours, reporters kept asking me: “What were you thinking out there? Were you afraid you were going to die?” But in the flash of the moment you don’t think. Instincts kick in. I simply did what I had been trained to do. Only after it was over and I was back at the Capitol hugging my wife and 3-year-old son did I really think about how blessed I was to have made it out alive.
          Later, as we learned more about the individual behind the shooting, it became clear the act was politically motivated, fueled by hatred of our President, Republicans, and anyone with a political ideology that differed from his own. It is a single event, but it provides a piercing commentary on today’s political climate — both in Washington and across the country.
          Blame it on social media’s anonymity, the 24-hour news cycle, the vitriol of the campaign trail, or a dozen other factors, but it is undeniable that there is a chilling undercurrent to political discourse in our country today. It is not simply the presence of anger or frustration, which are often well-deserved when it comes to our bloated government and the arrogance of Washington-knows-best-policies. Beyond that, though, our political dialogue has become tainted with a stunning lack of civility that points to an even deeper problem: a lack of humanity.
          It might be politically effective to demonize and dehumanize our opponents — it is certainly easier than taking time to empathize, listen closely, research the facts, and understand the other side’s arguments. But what is easy isn’t always what is right. We have tremendous freedom in this country to speak and act as we wish, but that liberty requires responsibility. As Pope John Paul II said, “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” As we passionately debate policy and argue our ideas, we need to hold on to our humanity. We need to rediscover the lost art of civil disagreement, the ability to hold opposing viewpoints without resorting to hate.
          Perhaps most sobering is the fact that by demonizing one another, we have effectively forgotten who our true enemies are. While we are bogged down in partisanship, our adversaries across the globe are not so easily distracted. Whether it is Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, or radical Islamic terrorists — there are actors around the world who are actively working to undermine, diminish, and ultimately destroy the security and democracy of the United States of America. As long as our strength is segmented into factions and our political process consumed by partisan theatrics, we are playing directly into their hands.

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          Ultimately, the attacker in Alexandria was an example of the worst in this country, but the response afterwards represents what is best about this country. That same morning, the House floor was packed as members of Congress stood shoulder to shoulder, hands over hearts, pledging allegiance to our flag. One nation, under God. Democrats huddled in prayer for their colleagues across the aisle. It was an important reminder that our unity is our strength. We’ve seen it before — let’s not forget it. Despite all the disagreements and differences, at the end of the day, we’re all Americans. It’s this communal bond and American spirit that spurs us to greatness. It’s what sets us apart from the others. It’s what will move us forward.
          Because, baseball games aside, we’re all playing for the same team.

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          Trump’s doublespeak in Saudi Arabia

          (CNN)If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Donald Trump, it is that he has no qualms about contradicting himself to get what he wants. In Saudi Arabia, he wanted a $110 billion arms deal — not to promote peace and tolerance, as he later proclaimed in his Sunday speech.

          Thus, his speech will not “be remembered as the beginning of peace in the Middle East,” as he loftily put it, but rather a boost to the war that is ravaging it. Nor will Trump’s speech put an end to the Islamophobia and bigotry that he has spent the past two years inciting. After all, he needs scapegoats to blame when the terrorism in the Middle East inevitably reaches the United States.
          Given Trump’s opportunistic leadership style — what he calls “principled realism”– we can expect more contradictions between his rhetoric and his actions. Four specific contradictions warrant exploring to predict what is in store for American foreign policy in the Middle East, as well as for the treatment of Muslims in the United States.
            First, Trump preaches peace and prosperity in his speech, but then sells weapons to the Saudis, which will inevitably fuel war. Trump treats terrorism in the Middle East as a business opportunity to create jobs at home and enrich defense industry tycoons.
            While addressing the world’s longest-ruling dictators about terrorism, Trump failed to mention how state violence and repression feeds ISIS and al Qaeda’s propaganda campaigns. Instead, he proclaims the Arab leaders to be defenders of the people’s freedom. As he advised his allies to allow “young Muslim boys and girls (to) be able to grow up free from fear, safe from violence and innocent of hatred,” he disingenuously pretended that the Arab Spring never occurred. The people revolted against their authoritarian governments seeking just those things, but found themselves abandoned by the United States and violently repressed by Arab regimes — which he is once again arming.

              Trump to Muslim world: Drive out terrorists

            Thus, we should not expect any meaningful attempts by the Trump administration to decrease terrorism in the region. Rather, the focus of US counterterrorism strategy will be to geographically contain the violence within the Middle East and prevent it from crossing the Atlantic.
            This brings us to the second of Trump’s contradictions — deliberately disconnecting Islam from terrorism in his speech to his Saudi arms purchasers while bolstering Islamophobia in the United States. Over the past two years, Trump has repeatedly stated that “Islam hates us” and Islam is a “hateful foreign ideology,” a kind of rhetoric that has emboldened his white nationalist supporters to discriminate against and attack Muslims. The growing anti-Muslim bigotry could give his administration free rein to disproportionately target Muslims in counterterrorism investigations, surveillance and prosecutions.
            Third, there is little evidence Trump is willing to participate in the global effort to “counter extremist ideology,” a new term he strategically coined instead of “radical Islamic terrorism” that he’s been peddling to his right-wing base. As Trump announced a “groundbreaking new center (that) represent(ed) a clear declaration that Muslim-majority countries must take the lead in combatting radicalization,” he took no responsibility for his own divisive rhetoric that radicalizes the political right in the United States. Indeed, over the past five years, extremist ideology from the right has risen at troubling levels.
            Accordingly, we should expect the continued use of “radical Islamic terrorism” in his speeches to American audiences and willful blindness to the rise in violence of the alt-right, right-wing militia groups, and the Ku Klux Klan.
            Finally, Trump stated that in “the scenes of destruction, in the wake of terror, we see no signs that those murdered were Jewish or Christian, Shia or Sunni.” Here he intimates sympathy for Muslims, even as his domestic policies single out and discriminate against Muslims. His first executive order barred millions of people from Muslim-majority countries from lawfully entering the United States. The refugee clause in the order applied only to Muslim Syrian refugees while exempting Christian Syrian refugees — as if the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Muslim Syrians killed were of no value. And in all of his speeches warning about terrorism committed by Muslims, he has never acknowledged the rise in hate crimes, mosque vandalizations and bullying suffered by Muslims in the United States. For Trump, there is a major difference between Muslims and everyone else.

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            While citizens in the Middle East and America may find his contradictions repugnant, his audience in Saudi Arabia will not. On the contrary, Middle East authoritarians see Trump as a fellow demagogue who will do whatever it takes to get what he wants. And what he wants has little to do with peace, stability and prosperity for the people of the Middle East.

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            Who gets hurt by GOP’s ‘pro-life’ hypocrisy

            (CNN)What does it mean to be pro-life? In today’s GOP, one thing: restricting access to safe abortion.

            Even if this doesn’t actually decrease the number of abortions, but just makes them more dangerous. Even if it means women and their children remain poor and vulnerable. Even if it means cutting off other necessary health care and aid. Even if it means women are injured. Even if it means women and babies die.
            It’s the “pro-life” performance that matters more than actual lives.
              Case in point: Republicans in Texas are now begging for the Medicaid dollars they gave up in order to defund Planned Parenthood four years ago.
              Should the Trump administration give Texas the Medicaid money it wants, it will open the door for other states to defund Planned Parenthood, too, a favorite cause of the anti-abortion right.
              Never mind that Planned Parenthood primarily prevents the unintended pregnancies that often end in abortion by providing affordable (and often free) contraception to women in need. Never mind the HIV and STI tests and the cancer screenings Planned Parenthood provides, and that there are many women for whom Planned Parenthood is the closest high-quality provider of health care.

                Women of faith and their abortions

              In the name of being “pro-life,” Texas Republicans cut those women off from the care they trust. And not just them — to punish Planned Parenthood for offering a legal medical procedure (and not a dollar of Medicaid or other federal funds pays for elective abortions), Texas Republicans were happy to refuse millions of Medicaid dollars to care for the poorest women in their state.
              This is in a state where 27% of births are funded by Medicaid — a number that rose after Texas defunded Planned Parenthood and poor women found it more challenging to access contraception and legal abortion.
              This bizarre definition of “pro-life” extends overseas, too. In what is largely seen as a gift to his anti-abortion base, Trump expanded the Gag Rule, and this week his State Department broadened the order, which strips US funds from any organization abroad that so much as mentions abortion as an option for women — even groups that don’t provide abortions at all but simply tell women their legal rights.
              Under previous Republican presidents, the Gag Rule applied only to family planning funds (about $600 million under George W. Bush). Now it applies to $8.8 billion in US global health funding, including programs for HIV and malaria. Because American dollars have been barred from funding abortions since the 1970s, none of the funding subject to this rule was paying for abortions in the first place.
              Studies of the Gag Rule have shown that it doesn’t actually decrease abortions, but because it does cut off access to contraception, it actually makes abortion rates go up. Who knows what will happen when the rule cuts off access to HIV drugs or vaccines.
              I’ve reported on the Global Gag Rule from Ghana, one of the countries hit hardest by Bush’s version of the rule. What most pro-lifers in America don’t seem to realize — or don’t care about — is that the health systems in developing countries are fragile and still being built, often in places that have seen recent conflict, and where there are low levels of public trust and long histories of trauma.

                Donald Trump’s evolving stance on abortion

              Many millions of people still lack access to basic health care, usually because of poverty or lack of proximity to a clinic. Health providers have done their best to centralize care, so a person can get contraception, HIV treatment, malaria pills and vaccinations from a single clinic or a mobile midwife going door to door in the village. And they’ve tried to build trust in that system. The Gag Rule undermines all of that.
              Trump also froze funding to UNFPA, a group that doesn’t provide abortions but does provide education and contraception. In Niger, where women have an average of seven children apiece, UNFPA works where few others do: The group runs “husband schools” to help educate men about getting their children in school, being respectful of their wives and spacing pregnancies so their wives and babies don’t die.
              In Nigeria, UNFPA is in refugee camps, tending to girls who have been kidnapped, raped and often impregnated by Boko Haram militants. But despite caring for so many rape victims, a UNFPA spokeswoman told me last year, they don’t offer abortions.

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              Women around the world, from Texas to Tanzania, being cut off from modern family-planning tools. Children in some of the world’s poorest corners losing their vaccinations and malaria medicine. People with HIV finding that the local NGO delivering their medicine must shutter for lack of funds. Health care providers forced to lie to their patients, and women doing what desperate women have always done — taking matters in to their own hands, and sometimes not living to tell about it.
              This is pro-life?

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              Rand Paul: Sessions’ sentencing plan would ruin lives

              (CNN)The attorney general on Friday made an unfortunate announcement that will impact the lives of millions of Americans: he issued new instructions for prosecutors to charge suspects with the most serious provable offenses, “those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences.”

              Mandatory minimum sentences have unfairly and disproportionately incarcerated a generation of minorities. Eric Holder, the attorney general under President Obama, issued guidelines to U.S. Attorneys that they should refrain from seeking long sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
              I agreed with him then and still do. In fact, I’m the author of a bipartisan bill with Senator Leahy to change the law on this matter. Until we pass that bill, though, the discretion on enforcement — and the lives of many young drug offenders — lies with the current attorney general
                The attorney general’s new guidelines, a reversal of a policy that was working, will accentuate the injustice in our criminal justice system. We should be treating our nation’s drug epidemic for what it is — a public health crisis, not an excuse to send people to prison and turn a mistake into a tragedy.
                And make no mistake, the lives of many drug offenders are ruined the day they receive that long sentence the attorney general wants them to have.
                If I told you that one out of three African-American males is forbidden by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow 50 years ago.
                Yet today, a third of African-American males are still prevented from voting, primarily because of the War on Drugs.
                The War on Drugs has disproportionately affected young black males.
                The ACLU reports that blacks are four to five times likelier to be convicted for drug possession, although surveys indicate that blacks and whites use drugs at similar rates. The majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, but three-fourths of all people in prison for drug offenses are African American or Latino.
                Why are the arrest rates so lopsided? Because it is easier to go into urban areas and make arrests than suburban areas. Arrest statistics matter when cities apply for federal grants. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand that it’s easier to round up, arrest, and convict poor kids than it is to convict rich kids.
                The San Jose Mercury News reviewed nearly 700,000 criminal cases that were matched by crime and criminal history of the defendant. Their analysis showed that whites of similar situation were far more successful in the plea bargaining process and “virtually every stage of pretrial negotiation” than their African-American and Latino counterparts.
                I know a guy about my age in Kentucky who was arrested and convicted for growing marijuana plants in his apartment closet in college.
                Thirty years later, he still can’t vote, can’t own a gun, and, when he looks for work, he must check the box — the box that basically says, “I’m a convicted felon, and I guess I’ll always be one.”
                He hasn’t been arrested or convicted for 30 years — but still can’t vote or have his Second Amendment rights. Getting a job is nearly impossible for him.
                Mandatory sentencing automatically imposes a minimum number of years in prison for specific crimes — usually related to drugs.
                By design, mandatory sentencing laws take discretion away from judges so as to impose harsh sentences, regardless of circumstances. Our prison population, meanwhile, has increased by over 700% since the 1980s, and 90% of them are nonviolent offenders. The costs of our prison system now approach nearly $100 billion a year. It costs too much, in both the impact on people’s lives and on our tax dollars.
                I want to go the opposite way from the attorney general. That’s why I’ve partnered with Senator Leahy and once again will be reintroducing the Justice Safety Valve Act.
                This isn’t about legalizing drugs. It is about making the punishment more fitting and not ruining more lives.
                The legislation is short and simple. It amends current law to grant judges authority to impose a sentence below a statutory mandatory minimum.
                In other words, we are not repealing mandatory minimums on the books — we are merely allowing a judge to issue a sentence below a mandatory minimum if certain requirements are met.
                We need this legislation because while there is an existing safety valve in current law, it is very limited. It has a strict five-part test, and only about 23% of all drug offenders qualified for the safety valve.
                The injustice of mandatory minimum sentences is impossible to ignore when you hear the stories of the victims.
                John Horner was a 46-year-old father of three when he sold some of his prescription painkillers to a friend.
                His friend turned out to be a police informant, and he was charged with dealing drugs. Horner pleaded guilty and was later sentenced to the mandatory minimum of 25 years in jail.
                As I testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Edward Clay was an 18-year-old and a first-time offender when he was caught with less than 2 ounces of cocaine. He received 10 years in jail from a mandatory minimum sentence.
                Weldon Angelos was a 24-year-old who was sentenced to 55 years in prison for selling marijuana three times.
                Former federal judge Timothy Lewis recalls a case where he had to send a 19-year-old to prison for 10 years for conspiracy. What was the “conspiracy”?
                This young man had been in a car where drugs were found. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure one of us might have been in a car in our youth where someone might have had drugs. Before the arrest, according to news reports, this young man was going to be the first in his family to go to college.
                Each case should be judged on its own merits. Mandatory minimums prevent this from happening.

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                Mandatory minimum sentencing has done little to address the very real problem of drug abuse while also doing great damage by destroying so many lives, and most Americans now realize it.
                Proposition 47 recently passed in California, and it has spurred a cultural change in the way nonviolent drug offenders are treated, resulting in more than 13,000 fewer prisoners and a savings of $150 million, according to a Stanford Law School study.
                Pew Research found that 67% of Americans want drug offenders to get treatment, not prison, and over 60% want an end to mandatory minimum sentences.
                I urge the attorney general to reconsider his recent action. But even more importantly, I urge my colleagues to consider bipartisan legislation to fix this problem in the law where it should be handled. Congress can end this injustice, and I look forward to leading this fight for justice.

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                Comey’s firing was Trump’s nuclear option on Russia probe

                (CNN)President Trump dropped a bombshell Tuesday with the announcement that he had fired FBI Director James Comey — just days after Comey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about, among other things, the bureau’s investigation into Russian meddling in the election that propelled Trump to the presidency.

                Trump has stunned the political world once again by issuing the orders to remove one of the most important figures in this entire investigation.
                Ironically, the announcement comes at a time when former secretary of state and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has been telling audiences that Comey was a key factor behind her loss in November. His infamous announcement in late October that the FBI was looking into new emails revived the specter of the earlier probe into Clinton’s emails just before voters went to the polls. Many experts agree that the announcement cost her points with voters.

                    Toobin: Firing Comey grotesque abuse of power

                  But then Comey turned into a problem for President Trump. The Russia investigation has hung over Trump like a dark cloud since his first days in office. Even as congressional committees have stumbled over partisanship in their own probes of Russia’s interference, the FBI seems to have been driving forward at an aggressive pace, continuing to give strong indications about evidence that Trump campaign officials were in contact with Russian officials during the campaign.
                  While Trump has continually denied any collusion and has lobbed accusations of his own, the FBI appears to have been keeping its eye on the ball.
                  President Trump’s decision to fire Comey is the second such dismissal to rock the administration. When the President announced the resignation of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates in January for refusing to implement the administration’s refugee ban, the comparison to President Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” instantly lit up the headlines.

                    Clapper: Putin sought to advantage Trump

                  In that 1973 event, Nixon fired independent prosecutor Archibald Cox for his aggressive inquiry into Watergate. It turns out that was nothing, compared with the firing of Comey in the middle of this inquiry. It is a stunning blow to any attempt to obtain legitimate, non-partisan information about what went wrong in the campaign and why.
                  The justification provided in the administration’s memorandum on the firing — that it came in response to Comey’s mishandling of the Clinton investigation — doesn’t pass the laugh test.
                  While it is true that candidate Trump has complained that Comey gave Clinton “a free pass” in his decision not to bring criminal charges against her, Trump and his surrogates capitalized on that investigation more than anyone else. The President refused to take any action on that front until now. This is not about Hillary Clinton.
                  There is no reason that the public should trust the congressional committees to do the job any longer. Indeed the House investigation completely broke down when it became clear that the chair of the committee, Congressman Devin Nunes, displayed more loyalty to the party and President than to finding out the truth.
                  The Senate committee then stalled and delayed until criticism finally pushed it toward doing its job. But the power of partisanship remains strong, and many observers are skeptical that Senate Republicans, like Texas’ Ted Cruz, are willing to go where the facts take them.

                    Who is James Comey?

                  From the start, President Trump has showed little interest in finding out what happened during the election. This has been one of the most suspicious aspects of his response. He has attacked President Barack Obama with false allegations of wiretapping, he has dismissed all the evidence and accusations coming out about campaign officials, and he has taken a strident stand against all the institutions that show any sign of standing up to him.
                  The reason that the Saturday Night Massacre stung President Nixon so badly was because the firing proved to the public that the President really was frightened that the truth would come out. He was unwilling to let the institutions of government do their job, and the decision to get rid of Archibald Cox demonstrated that the President would do anything to protect his interests.
                  This part of the Watergate cover-up, and, even worse, the effort to actively fight the investigation, turned public opinion against him.
                  The question now is whether Trump has enough Teflon support from his base to keep even this from hurting his standing. His public approval ratings are low; it’s unclear how much lower they can sink. But there are several other ways in which he is vulnerable.
                  Firing Comey could begin to make a dent in the strong support that he has enjoyed among Republicans, who will recognize this as a blatant effort to circumvent the law and cover up the truth. The firing will also put Congress — both parties — on notice that this is a President who will do almost anything to protect himself. Today’s firing could encourage the leaders of both parties to double down with their investigations.
                  More than anything else thus far, this announcement fuels the perception that President Trump is scared about something. There was no obvious reason for the administration to take this step and it’s hard not to be skeptical about the reasons for it to be taken at this moment.

                    Fallon calling for special counsel at DOJ

                  From the day he stepped into the White House, President Trump has raised concerns that he does not adequately respect the boundaries of power. He has dismissed concerns about the conflicts of interest with his family business, he has openly attacked judges and Congress as illegitimate, and he has attempted to use executive power in an aggressive fashion.
                  Firing James Comey right in the middle of the Russia debate looks like President Trump’s nuclear option to dealing with an investigation into the very foundations of his power.
                  The Senate has a big job to do, and Senate Republicans will need to insist, through the power of confirmation, that President Trump appoint someone of the highest standing to replace James Comey and to see that this investigation is allowed to go wherever it might take the agency.
                  Senate Republicans must show that they are more loyal to the nation than their party. Democrats, who have little love for Comey after his pronouncements about Clinton before the election, need to show that they can work with the GOP on this issue to make sure someone strong takes over the job. Better yet would be to take up Senator Chuck Schumer’s plan to appoint a special prosecutor, which is now the only way to move forward with a serious investigation.
                  Without such action, the legitimacy of the 2016 election and the legitimacy of this President will remain a question. Congress must rectifying this imperial act — or the health of our democracy will continue to hang in the balance.

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                  Removing gender from MTV awards: a start, but not equality

                  (CNN)The 2017 MTV Movie & TV Awards were clearly designed to highlight diversity in terms of race, gender and sexual orientation. The Best Kiss award went to the two young black men who starred in the second act of “Moonlight,” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” won best reality show. Maxine Waters, Donald Trump’s most outspoken congressional opponent, presented the Best Fight Against the System award with Tracee Ellis Ross. Acceptance speeches stressed unity and diverse representation in movies and TV.

                  But the most significant development at this year’s awards was the debut of genderless acting awards, replacing the conventional “best actor” or “best actress” categories. Emma Watson and Millie Bobby Brown took home the two major acting awards, best actor in a movie and best actor in a TV show, respectively, for “Beauty and the Beast” and “Stranger Things.”
                  Are genderless acting awards the answer to achieving gender parity in Hollywood? Actor Asia Kate Dillon thinks so. Dillon, who identifies as gender non-binary and who uses the gender-neutral pronoun “they,” presented the award to Watson in a symbolic gesture whose meaning was lost on no one. “Binaries, whether it’s ‘man’ or ‘woman,’ or ‘black’ and ‘white,’ were created to separate us,” they were recently quoted as saying. “So without (them), there is only ‘us,’ which makes us all equal.”
                    The notion of genderless acting categories — just like the notion of a color-blind society — is a nice idea. But we can’t just pretend that patriarchy and male privilege don’t exist anymore, that women will magically have the same chance at recognition that men do, especially when they still earn 80 cents to the male dollar on average.
                    By featuring genderless acting categories and casting Dillon as a presenter, MTV obviously wanted to make a statement about gender identity. Abolishing gender-specific acting categories also seemed to be MTV’s effort to show greater respect for women in Hollywood. In his acceptance speech, “Beauty and the Beast” director Bill Condon reinforced this line of thinking by thanking “women,” a huge and powerful audience, he said, who were going to change the movie business.
                    The overwhelmingly Pollyanna-ish tone of the show notwithstanding — and, let’s be honest, this is a feature of most awards shows — I take issue with Condon’s statement, and with the whole premise of genderless acting categories as a step toward gender parity. First, women have always been a huge segment of moviegoing audiences and currently hold a slight majority, and yet, they still hold very few positions of power as top executives, directors and producers. Not that much has changed at the top of the Hollywood hierarchy since the days of the Bette Davis-Joan Crawford rivalry that was just dramatized in Ryan Murphy’s FX show “Feud.” Like the incredible animated opening montage of that show, male executives and male-dominated writing rooms are still pulling the strings.
                    We shouldn’t take it on faith that, because these two genderless acting awards went to women, this will become a trend — especially at more prestigious, serious awards shows like the Oscars, Golden Globes and Emmys. As April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign proved, Hollywood’s “wokeness” is not a constant, and the Academy had to be shamed into diversifying its membership and nominations. Back in 2002, when Denzel Washington and Halle Berry took home the most important acting awards, many thought the problem of racially diverse representation had been solved. And yet, in 2015 and 2016, no actors of color were nominated at all. 2017’s windfall of nominated black actors (which, notably, included no Latino actors and only one South Asian actor) was clearly a response to this failure.
                    Beyond the reach of Hollywood, we are also living in a moment when, as many thinkpieces have asserted, the “The Handmaid’s Tale” — the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopic novel in which women under a brutally misogynist regime are reduced to their biological and domestic functions — feels too close to our current reality for comfort, and we cannot afford to buy into the idea that genderless acting categories will help achieve substantive gender parity. Women are facing restriction, and even criminalization, of reproductive rights, decreased access to affordable contraception and preventative health services, and a rampant culture of sexual assault where perpetrators are rarely held accountable and survivors often made to feel that they are at fault. Trans and gender nonconforming people face particular prejudice and violence, and the stigma they face is not going to simply melt away if awards shows cut their categories in half.

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                    As Watson acknowledged in her acceptance speech, MTV’s genderless acting category will mean different things to different people — and perhaps, like Dillon, most gender nonconforming people will see it as an important step. Unfortunately, I don’t foresee this move heralding a genderless future. Before we dispense with gender (and race), we need equity, and in a world where — as we saw after last week’s healthcare vote — a room full of old, straight white men can still make decisions about women’s bodies, we aren’t there yet.

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                    Obamacare repeal would give wealthy even more of a tax break

                    (CNN)To understand what today’s news of the House voting to repeal and not quite replace Obamacare really means, let’s think back to World War II for a moment.

                    The federal government was worried about war-time inflation, and so proposed wage and price controls. Labor unions objected. To satisfy workers, the National War Labor Board agreed to exempt employer-provided health care from both wage controls and income tax.
                    That tax benefit was supposed to be temporary. Nearly 75 years is a lot of “temporary.”
                      The tax break for employer-provided health care is worth more the higher one’s income tax rate, which means it is worth nothing at all to the bottom half of the population, which doesn’t have a positive income tax rate.
                      The break has led to a world in which the well-paid and well-employed are well-insured, and the marginally employed — lower-pay workers, part-time and temp workers, the rest of the roughly 30 million Americans under the age of 65 in this category — still have no health insurance.
                      Flash forward to today. The non-taxation of employer-provided health care is a tax break worth $250 billion a year, nearly $3 trillion over a 10-year period, to the top half. Were we to repeal this tax break, alone, America could more than pay to insure all uninsured Americans with the resulting revenues.
                      What does this have to do with today’s news?
                      Today, the House, aided and abetted by President Trump, did not vote to change, repeal or limit the tax break for health insurance for the upper half of Americans, in order to continue Obamacare’s promise to bring health care to all.
                      Instead, the House, aided and abetted by President Trump, voted to cut taxes on the upper half in order to seriously gut the promise of universal health care.
                      As it happens, the taxes cut were only a third of the value of the tax break that was not changed (roughly $900 billion compared to $2.7 trillion).
                      In sum, the top earners get to keep their full $250 billion a year of health care tax breaks, the thing that was supposed to be temporary.
                      The people at the top also get back the $80 billion in taxes they were paying to help the people at the bottom of the income scale get some insurance, the thing that was supposed to be permanent. (Among these taxes are increases in Medicare charges and a 3.8 percent additional tax on investment income, both being collected exclusively from individuals earning $200,000 or families earning $250,000 or more annually.)
                      These are taxpaying households that have benefited and continue to benefit significantly from tax-free healthcare.

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                      That only sounds inconsistent, until one sees who wins every time: the top.
                      The fundamental things apply.
                      And so now, looking to the future, death may be coming sooner to some after today’s news, as 24 million more might join the rolls of the uninsured. But it seems like Americans can all count on this fundamental thing applying: Trump, Ryan and like-minded Republicans everywhere will work their hardest to get rid of death taxes, so that the heirs of billionaires will never, ever, have to worry about paying taxes again.
                      Health and taxes may be forever joined at the hip for the most fortunate Americans, and soon the tax man won’t even be calling to disturb the billionaires’ blissful peace.

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