Monday, December 21, 2009

More Health Care Musings

Let's be completely honest with ourselves here: the Senate version of health care reform sucks. Whether that's the fault of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the Obama administration or any number of other factors is up for debate -- and somewhat pointless now.

The bill cleared a major hurdle early Monday morning with a 60-40 vote that split along party lines. Two more such votes are expected before the bill would be able to move forward for conference negotiations with the House of Representatives.

There is no public option in the Senate bill, nor is there a Medicare buy-in option for Americans aged 55 or older. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) made sure stricter anti-choice language was included in the bill -- all of these moves essentially showcased just how ineffective the Senate really is, and how one or two disgruntled and self-serving Senators can almost derail any piece of major legislation.

So what we're left with is a bill that requires Americans to buy insurance, offers subsidies for citizens who can't afford coverage of their own and puts in place insurance industry regulations that might be easily circumvented. A lot of progressive voices -- including former DNC chair Howard Dean -- have called for the bill to be killed, and while part of me has agreed (I've been a loud public option advocate from the beginning), I realize this isn't the final version.

Even with the progressive cry of "Kill the bill!," not one Democrat voted against the bill on Monday. But I've got my own theory with regards to that.

When Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) voted for the health care reform bill that came out of the Senate Finance Committee back in September, she wasn't necessarily voting for the bill. In all actuality, Snowe was voting simply to move the process forward; when she cast her vote, she said she was voting to bring the bill to the full Senate, and that her vote then wouldn't influence her vote now.

For those of you keeping score, Snowe voted against the bill on Monday.

Maybe progressives in the Senate are doing the same thing; maybe they were simply voting for the bill not because they liked it, but because they knew it would move the process along. Progressives are perhaps heartened by the fact that the House bill is more liberal than the Senate bill -- it includes a public option, has more generous subsidies, offers tighter industry regulations and even removes the insurance industry's anti-trust exemption.

By moving the bill to conference, progressives are hoping they can improve the final product -- especially since some in the House have intimated that the Senate bill as it stood would never pass the House. Lieberman and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) have said they would filibuster the final product if it was more liberal than what we currently have in the Senate, but at this point, there's no telling if that will actually come to pass.

Progressives have lost the message regarding health care reform at every step; the mainstream media instead has focused on the loud anti-reform protests, the GOP obstructionists and the centrist Democrats who are given far too much power by inane and convoluted Senate procedural rules. A president reluctant to butt heads and twist arms hasn't helped matters, and progressives who stand up publicly and call for real reform (like, say, Dean) are brushed aside and mocked.

This is our chance to finally be heard.

Petitions are making the rounds all over the Internet, thanks to the likes of the PCCC, Democracy for America, CREDO Action and FireDogLake. Sign them. Call your elected representatives, in every chamber. Call the White House. Write emails to all of them, write letters to all of them. Visit their offices if you can.

We must be heard.

Threaten to take away your vote, threaten to take away your donations. Change voter registration if you so desire. Stop donating to the DNC, but instead donate, if you can, to individual candidates. Come the next election cycle, support and vote for more progressive primary candidates -- or even third-party candidates.

But we cannot be silent, and we cannot stay home from the polls. That's exactly what the GOP wants, and if you think the White House's agenda is having a hard time passing now ... imagine how hard it would be if Republicans gained seats.

This is our time. This is our cause. If the health care bill is to be improved in conference, it must be in part because we got loud and put the pressure on the government officials we put into office. We gave Democrats a huge mandate for change last year, not a pass to make us buy expensive and ineffective products from an industry that would rather pocket our money than provide the service for which we've been paying.

We are the change we are looking for. It's time we start acting like it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Countdown Special Comment: Kill the Bill

I know I've repeatedly cautioned on this site not to give in to emotional reactionism every time there's a development in Washington with regards to health care reform. I know I've constantly reminded the two or three people who actually read this blog that the process isn't over, that we may yet get the reform we want.

But alas, if all we're left with in the Senate is a watered-down bill that forces us to buy private insurance without really holding those companies accountable, I'm afraid I might have to reluctantly agree with the likes of former Vermont governor and DNC chair Howard Dean:

Maybe it's best to kill the bill.

Keith Olbermann, one of the media's most outspoken health care reform advocates (whose views I've posted numerous times on this blog), delivered a Special Comment on Countdown Wednesday night, in which he echoed the feelings I must now admit I feel with regards to this issue. With the bill as watered-down as it is, and the debate as muddled and incoherent as it is, maybe we are better off cutting our losses and starting over.

Problem is, I don't really want to. Olbermann's Special Comment below:

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Single-Payer Headed For Senate Vote

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will introduce an amendment to the health care reform bill either Tuesday or Wednesday that would establish a federally-regulated single-payer system that would be administered by states. This will mark the first time a single-payer system has ever come up for a vote in the Senate; it's not expected to pass, or even receive many votes.

Still, the fact that this amendment -- written in conjunction with Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Roland Burris (D-Ill.) -- is coming to a vote is a victory of sorts.

Read the amendment here. Read the fact sheet from Sanders' website here.

If HCR Falls ... What's Next?

When Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said over the summer that he wanted to make health care reform President Obama's "Waterloo," the comment was met with chuckles and eye rolls from the left, but given recent developments, the question begs asking ... if reform fails, would that in fact happen?

First, Senate Democrats struck a tentative deal last week that jettisoned the public option in favor of expanding Medicare to people aged 55 or older. Only now, in an inexplicable effort to placate Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the Medicare buy-in could be on the chopping block. The compromise of the compromise of the compromise has left some liberals wondering if we're all better off just killing the bill.

Progressives might have a point: if we're left with a bill that requires Americans to buy insurance without really controlling costs and premiums, then are we really getting anything better than we have now?

To some degree, yes; the bill would still do away with pre-existing condition denials and policy recission, and there's still the matter of the House bill containing a public option and a provision that would require insurance companies to spend at least 85 cents out of every dollar it receives in premiums on health care.

Assuming the Senate bill actually gets passed, it would have to be merged with the House bill in conference committee, and you better believe progressives in Congress are going to be fighting mad that they've already had to give up as much as they have. A lot of progressives are single-payer advocates -- or at least vocal supporters of a public option that is available to everyone and has rates tied to Medicare -- so voting on a health care bill that features none of these things wouldn't be appetizing to them.

For example: Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), a longtime single-payer advocate who co-sponsored H.R. 676, voted against the House bill because he saw it as nothing more than a giveaway to the insuance industry ... and this was with a public option, insurance cost provision and an anti-trust exemption removal.

The Senate bill has none of those things.

Let's assume for a moment that the Senate bill dies -- either because Lieberman doesn't get his way or because progressives in the caucus decide the status quo is better than a shell of reform. How does this potentially affect President Obama? Would it in fact be his Waterloo?

That's hard to say; President Clinton failed to pass health care reform in the 1990s, yet he still managed a second term of office and actually left office with a massive surplus -- of course, a sex scandal helped a lot of people forget his health care failure. But reform failed back then in part because Congress didn't appreciate the Clintons telling them what to put in the bill; does the fact that Obama has been almost completely hands-off through the entire process change things?

The landscape of Congress will likely change in 2010, whether reform passes or not. And as much as progressives might want to think otherwise, both chambers aren't going to get more liberal; sure, conservative Democrats might face liberal primary challengers, but the likelihood of a significant number of those challengers winning is low. If anything, the GOP will probably pick up seats in 2010 -- simply because incumbents rarely fare well in the first midterm elections following a presidential race.

The Democrats' collective failure with regards to health care reform -- a signature policy of Obama's campaign -- won't help matters. I don't see Republicans gaining a majority in either chamber, but there'll probably be more red than blue next November.

But what of Obama? Would he face a primary challenger is 2012? Would whoever the GOP trots out there (short of Sarah Palin) beat Obama in 2012 simply because of the public outrage over what's occurred -- or hasn't occurred -- over the past year? We know that progressive tend not to turn out on Election Day if they're upset or disenfranchised, while GOP voters always turn out, no matter what.

But looking more short-term, would a health care failure make it more difficult for Obama to pass his other legislative agendas? Climate change, job creation, civil rights issues ... if Congress ultimately rebuffs Obama on health care, would they do the same on other issues? It's hard to say; though Lieberman is proving to be a giant pain in the ass on health care, he could prove beneficial on other issues.

Though few things in Washington can be viewed in a vacuum, legislative issues generally can be. Just because a Senator is trying to block health care reform doesn't necessarily mean he or she would try to block a bill repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell. They're separate issues; unless the Senator is question has a personal vendetta against President Obama (looking at you, GOP), a vote on one doesn't affect a vote on the other.

The effects of a health care reform failure are hard to predict; I'm not even willing to consider it a failure yet. Anyone who reads this blog knows I don't fly off the handle like message board reactionaries, willing to let things play out before ultimately making up my mind. I know what I want with regards to health care reform -- Medicare For All is my preference -- but I understand how legislating works (or doesn't).

But if reform does fail, it will be labeled a failure for President Obama ... fairly or otherwise.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Balancing Disappointment and Hope

Thanks to a deal struck on Tuesday by a group on 10 Senators -- and Thursday's concession from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) -- it appears whatever health care reform ultimately passes into law will not include a public option.

But what will it include?

On top of a ban on insurance industry practices as denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions and a dropping of coverage when one gets sick; an individual mandate that would force people to buy insurance; along with limited subsidies to help those who can't afford coverage buy it, the basic outline of the compromise includes the following:

-An expansion of Medicare, meaning Americans aged 55 or older would have the option to buy into the program. Keith Olbermann reported on Wednesday night that this would start in 2011, and subsidies would not be used for Medicare buy-ins until 2014. Still, the Medicare buy-in has received support from liberal and moderate Democratic Senators alike.

-An extended version of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan to consumers in the exchanges. Insurance companies will have the option of creating nationally-based non-profit insurance plans that would be offered on the exchanges in every state. However, according to TPM's report, if insurance companies don't step up to the plate to offer such plans, that would trigger a national public option.

-There may or may not be an expansion of Medicaid; the current bill expands it to those making above 133 percent of the current poverty level. Some liberals have fought for expansion to 150 percent, or even 300 percent of poverty. Pending Congressional Budget Office reports might determine which direction this fight takes. There's also an idea being tossed around -- and advocated by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) --fashioned after Washington state's program.

Am I disappointed in the presumed loss of the public option. Yes; as it stood, the public option was a compromise. Instead of fighting for single-payer from the start, progressives in Congress began trumpeting the public option. The fight over the months has been contentious and ugly -- in part because advocates did a poor job of explaining just what the public option was and what it was designed to accomplish.

Even so, the public option that was in the Senate bill was weak; rates were not tied into Medicare, and the option was only available to roughly 2 or 3 million people -- assuming states didn't opt out of it (which the Senate bill said they could). So in a way, completely mourning the death of a poor shell of a wanted policy is kind of hard.

The point remains, though: if this bill is going to force us to buy insurance -- and as of 2014, it very well could -- what does the bill do to make insurance more affordable? Do any of the plans outlined above accomplish that? Do the subsidies accomplish that? Are there industry regulations being discussed that we don't know about that would make private insurance more affordable and more efficient?

Maybe the individual mandate, coupled with the ban on pre-existing condition denials, would lower costs -- with so many more customers, of varying degrees of health, coming into the system, maybe that offsets costs.

Maybe it doesn't.

The reactionaries on the Internet message boards and in the media will likely frame this as a disastrous development and lay the failure at President Obama's feet; I refuse to do that at this stage, since the bill is nowhere near final yet. Debate is still raging, and the Senate has yet to vote on it. The House and Senate will then likely go to conference, where more amendments will be presented, and two more votes will be cast before the bill even sniffs Obama's desk.

So there's still plenty of time for us to tell our Senators, Representatives and the White House what we want. My main theme: cost control and affordability.

We've sadly become a nation of reactionaries, and sometimes I think we suffer from a societal version of ADD; rather than let things play out and analyze the final product for its merits, we fly off the handle at every little rumor or development, crying out in victory or ruin depending on which side we sit. That does nothing for our political process or discourse, and it really does a disservice to this country.

As does threatening Senators by withholding votes and campaign donations on this one issue. Republicans are often one-issue voters: they either fight over abortion or gay rights or defense spending or tax cuts. As Democrats, we really can't afford to do this -- because for all the angst centrist Democrats are causing with regards to health care reform, there may be other issues in which we agree.

Take one of my Senators, for instance. I'm frustrated by Sen. Jim Webb's refusal to support existing legislation, including the public option -- but I have a hard time outright saying I would vote against him, because 1) that might help the Republican candidate running against him, and 2) he's done some really good things in the Senate. I applaud Sen. Webb's work on the new GI Bill, and I appreciate his efforts to help local VA hospitals receive more funding and resources.

If I punish him for just his health care stance, what else do I potentially remove from the Senate? These politicians -- and these issues -- do not exist in a vacuum, even if we wished they did. Things would be much better if that were the case, but it's not.

Besides, if we kick out all the Democrats, who's left? Likely, more Republicans -- and the only way they would touch health care reform would be to try and repeal whatever the Democrats do pass.

Analytical thinking and perspective goes a long way; sadly, we're sorely lacking in both these days.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Senate Doesn't Work

Don't believe me? Just look at the health care debate.

Not just over the past few weeks; I'm talking through the entire process. While the House wasn't exactly expedient in passing its version of health care reform, it hasn't fallen victim to the arcane trappings that the Senate has.


-When health care reform was still in committee, the Senate Finance Committee stole the show, hijacking the press and making it seem as if that committee's reform bill was the only bill, even though the Senate's HELP Committee had already passed a reform bill and there were three bills in various House committees.

Even worse, Finance Committee chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.) didn't involve the entire committee in crafting the legislation. He created a "Gang of Six" -- a group of three Republicans and three conservative Democrats -- to write a bill that lacked a public option or anything else that truly reformed the health care system. Only once the bill was put before committee for amendments did the rest of the committee get a say -- not that it ultimately mattered.

-Once the Baucus bill passed committee, Baucus, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and HELP Committee chair Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) met with White House officials (read: Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel) to combine the two bills. That lasted roughly a few weeks longer than it should've, during which time talk of a filibuster began.

The GOP, which had long ago positioned itself as unspoken defenders of the status quo (read: they weren't actively saying things are fine, but their tactic of "delay to death" effectively intimated as much), was long ago going to threaten a filibuster, but since there are 60 Senators who caucus with the Democrats, Republicans would need one of those members to cross the line and join them.

Enter Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). And Mary Landrieu (D-La.). And Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.). And Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). All, at one point or another, threatened to filibuster the bill for one reason or another -- mostly the public option.

The House has no such rules. Once bills are out of their respective committees in that chamber, the legislative body meets to combine the bills through debate and amendments. The Speaker of the House -- in this case, California's Nancy Pelosi -- could end debate at any time and bring the bill to a vote. Everyone votes, the bill either passes or fails.

Not so in the Senate, where you have horribly outdated and arcane rules originally designed to serve as a system of checks and balances. Instead, such procedural matters as the filibuster have mutated into potential legislation-killers. Not agreeing with a bill doesn't simply mean you vote against it in the Senate; instead, you talk yourself to death in an effort to prevent a vote -- or even debate -- from ever happening.

-The Democrats have to defeat filibuster attempts twice -- they did so two weeks ago, when they beat back a GOP filibuster attempt to block debate. If all 60 Democrats hadn't blocked it, the full Senate would've never even discussed the health care reform bill. Once Reid wants to bring the bill to a final vote, the Democrats will need to block the filibuster again.

Lieberman's threat still stands, and Nelson had threatened to filibuster reform if his anti-abortion amendment failed ... which it did on Tuesday (see below). While Landrieu and Lincoln have not explicitly said they might filibuster, their opposition to such ideas as the public option make that possibility a reality.

In light of Tuesday's report that a gang of 10 Senators -- five liberal Democrats and five conservative Democrats -- reached a tentative deal to jettison the public option in favor of other ideas, a new filibuster threat has emerged ... from the left.

Illinois' Roland Burris.

While liberals in the Senate -- such as Ohio's Sherrod Brown and Vermont's Bernie Sanders -- have long been championing the public option, Burris is the first to step up and actually threaten to derail the bill over it. Is it an empty threat? Maybe, but progressives will surely like the fact that one of their own is stepping up.

In a lot of ways, the public option was a compromise. When President Barack Obama decided to forgo single-payer at the outset of the debate, the public option -- a government-run insurance plan operating completely off premiums designed to compete with private companies -- became the progressives' rallying cry. But conservative Democrats have balked at the idea, citing fiscal conservatism -- even as the Congressional Budget Office repeatedly asserted that the public option would save money.

In reality, the conservative Democrats were looking out for the insurance companies, who had contributed heavily to their campaigns.

Am I dismayed at the potential loss of the public option? Sure (more on that in a later post), but that's not the point here. The point is ... the Senate just doesn't work. It's a quagmire mixed in with a clusterfuck rolled up into a never-ending maze of confusion and frustration. We would be much better off if Reid could just craft a bill, bring it to the vote and let the proverbial chips fall where they may.

But all this talk of filibusters and cloture and deal-making in an effort to get 60 votes only serves two purposes: delaying the process and watering down the final product ... which, for those who haven't been paying attention, is exactly what the GOP wants.

The House, in terms of procedures and membership, is far more representative of the American people; in the Senate, the minority (in this case, super minority) party has far too much power.

Make no mistake: if health care reform fails, I put this at the feet of Democrats, not Republicans. The GOP cannot kill this effort on their own; they need a Democrat to join them, and there are a few who have threatened to do just that. If health care reform fails, the Democrats will lose big in 2010, and they might just lose in 2012.

But if reform fails because a vote never even gets cast, then we'll see just how illogical and corrupt our federal government truly is.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Anti-Abortion Amendment Killed

Senator Ben Nelson's amendment to further restrict a woman's right to choose has been killed by a 54-45 vote. Nelson, a Democrat from Nebraska, teamed with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to impose restrictions on abortion funding similar to those found in the Stupak amendment in the House health care reform bill.

In essence, the amendment would've not only prevented federal funding from being used to pay for abortions -- which is the current law -- but it would've barred anyone receiving government subsidies for private insurance from having abortion coverage ... along with preventing insurance companies participating in the federal exchange from offering such coverage.

Under the amendment, a completely legal and protected medical procedure (Roe v. Wade, anyone?) would've been virtually out of reach for middle-class women. Score one for the pro-choice crowd.

The vote serves as a victory for the progressive angle of the health care reform debate; while progressives are faced with compromising such facets as the public option -- to the point now that some in the Senate are considering other ideas in its place -- the defeat of Sen. Nelson's amendment is a victory.

Well, unless the Senator threatens to filibuster. That's where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would come in.

Make of that what you will.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Small Health Care Victory

Even though the health care reform debate is still working its way -- very slowly -- through the Senate, a small victory in the name of health care has already been achieved ... and women could be among the largest beneficiaries.

Some of the debate in Washington has centered around women: the fact that women often pay higher premiums than men for insurance, the fact that some states consider pregnancy a pre-existing condition, the fact that some states can even consider domestic violence as a pre-existing condition.

Then there's the stink over the Stupak amendment in the House bill that further restricts a woman's right to choose, and the fact that Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) is threatening to derail reform if the Senate bill doesn't follow suit.

But Dianna Hunt of McClatchy/Tribune Newspapers wrote an article detailing a new law that would help women avoid discrimination at the hands of insurance companies. In 2008, Congress passed the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, which as of this week prohibits insurance companies from using family medical histories or genetic testing to deny insurance or set premium rates.

That means that if a woman has a family history of breast or ovarian cancer -- or she has a genetic test conducted to see if she was at risk for such diseases -- insurance companies could not use that fact to dent women coverage or raise they rates.

The law would also prevent employers from letting family histories or genetic markers dictate hiring practices.

Given the partisan bickering in Washington over the issue of health care reform -- and its potential implications on women -- it's hard sometimes to see the small victories along the way. While this law would prove small in the grand scheme of things, it is a victory in America's pursuit for gender equality when it comes to health care.

The issues of rates based on gender, pregnancy and domestic violence as pre-existing conditions and abortions will have to be resolved -- and the latter might very well tank the whole reform effort -- but at least now a woman can find out if she has a genetic disposition to breast or ovarian cancer without worrying if an insurance company will turn her away.

We take the victories where we can get them.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Gay Rights Extravaganza!

Pretty sure the title of this blog post will be far more scandalous than the content. But hey, whatever gets people reading ...

-Bad news out of New York, as state lawmakers on Wednesday voted to reject a bill that would've made New York the sixth state in the country to legalize same-sex marriage. The measure passed the state Assembly earlier and Gov. David Paterson had pledged to sign it -- which meant momentum seemed to be on the side of equality advocates.

Then again, we thought the same thing in Maine, and look how that turned out.

Still, the news did have an unexpected side story ... a straight couple in Brooklyn has applied to have their marriage annuled. Not because they can't get along or because they realized they made a mistake; no, Rachel Murch D'Olimpio and Matthew D'Olimpio are trying to annul their marriage in order to make a statement about marriage rights:

If the government won't allow same-sex couples the right to a civil contract (which, from a legal standpoint, is a exactly what marriage is), then they didn't feel that same government should recognize their civil contract, either.

How much of an effect this will have on the debate remains to be seen -- and the state might not even grant the couple their annulment request -- but the statement has been made. Granting heterosexual couples a right not available to same-sex couples is not right, and it violates equal protection laws.

Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut and Massachusetts already see this -- as did California and Maine, before a well-funded advocate of bigotry proceeded to scare the electorate into taking away those equal rights.

However the debate unfolds in New York, I applaud the D'Olimpios for their sacrifice and their conviction.

-Even worse news, potentially, out of Uganda, as the legislature in that country is considering legislation that would essentially make homosexuality a crime punishable by either jail time or death.

No, you did not read that wrong.

The bill doesn't even try to hide its goal behind a convoluted title or complicated legal language; it's called "The Anti-Homosexuality Bill," and states the bill is designed to "protect the traditional family by prohibiting (i) any form of sexual relations between persons of the same sex; and (ii) the promotion or recognition of such sexual relations in public institutions and other places through or with the support of any Govenment entity in Uganda or any non-governmental organization inside or outside the country."

The bill "further recognizes the fact that same-sex attraction is not an innate and immutable characteristic."

The punishments are outlined as follows:

-Attempting to commit homosexuality will be a felony subject to a seven-year prison sentence. Just being gay could land you seven years in jail.

-Attempting to commit "aggravated homosexuality" will also be a felony subject to life imprisonment. This constitutes homosexual acts with persons under 18 years of age, homosexual acts in which the offender is HIV-positive and other such factors.

Cases of aggravated homosexuality will also be subject to capital punishment. Considering one of the definitions of aggravated homosexuality is "serial offence," chances are Uganda could execute someone for simply being gay even after an initial conviction.

-Victims of homosexuality (the bill's language, not mine) will not be charged, and in some cases, the offender might be required to pay the victim. But I wanna know ... who's the victim in the case of a consensual same-sex couple?

-Aiding homosexuals (like, say, knowing someone is gay and keeping quiet about it) will also be a felony subject to a seven-year prison sentence.

-One can also be sentence to seven years in prison for keeping someone detained for the purpose of committing a homosexual act, or for maintaining a brothel. On the surface, this provision doesn't seem so bad, but considering the blatant hatred and disregard in the rest of this bill, I seriously question the intentions.

-Individuals who purport a contract of marriage with members of the same sex will be subject to life imprisonment.

The bill also includes a provision essentially outlawing any language that might legitimize homosexuality: "Any International legal instrument whose provisions are contradictory to the spirit and provisions enshrined in this Act , are null and void to the extent of their inconsistency.

"Definitions of 'sexual orientation,' 'sexual rights,' 'sexual minorities,' 'gender identity' shall not be used in any way to legitimize homosexuality, gender identity disorders and related practices in Uganda."

I wish I was making all of this up; I wish there weren't countries out there that were still so neanderthal-like in their thinking that prosecuting homosexuality seemed like a good idea. Even worse, there are those in this country who have ties to the Ugandan government -- namely our favorite little secret fundamentalist group called The Family.

Rachel Maddow explains:

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And here I thought we had it really bad because we're fighting for homosexuals to have the same rights we do in this country. The fight is important, don't get me wrong; but we are talking about legislation that would make being gay illegal. If this bill passes in Uganda, simply being in love could send someone to jail -- or even death.

More of our allies in Washington need to speak up about this, and the State Department needs to get involved and make sure Uganda knows this is unacceptable. Gay rights is not just an issue in America; it's a worldwide issue, and if this bill passes, what's to stop other nations throughout the world following suit?

We can't allow this to happen. We have to do something.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Apparently ...

... I severely understated it when I mentioned earlier this afternoon that the situation in Afghanistan was complicated and difficult (for me) to understand.

Watching The Rachel Maddow Show tonight, I saw this being a lot more complicated than even I thought. Richard Engel of NBC News, who's currently embedded with troops in Afghanistan, posted to his blog on Wednesday morning about how complicated the counterinsurgency strategy (called COIN for short) that Gen. Stanley McChrystal has been advocating for quite some time.

The verbal description, which Engel lays out here, seems simple enough. But when one examines the unclassified document from the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that explains the strategy, seemingly simple gives way to mind-numbingly confusing.

I'm talking more complicated than a J.J. Abrams TV drama.

The 30-page document breaks the strategy down in steps, with page 22 putting the whole thing together for the first time. Don't believe me? See for yourself by clicking here.

Seriously. The current health care debate seems downright elementary by comparison.

Dems Threaten Christmas

Well, not really -- but the headline sure caught your attention, didn't it?

In light of the past three days' worth of debate, in which Republicans such as John McCain of Arizona griped about cost and wanting desperately to protect the same Medicare program that the GOP has traditionally railed against, Democrat Chris Dodd of Connecticut on Wednesday offered this threat:

If the GOP keeps delaying the process -- with endless debate and other obstruction tactics -- then, Dodd told Jeff Muskus of The Huffington Post, they should say bye-bye to their Christmas vacation.

The Senate is scheduled to break on Dec. 18, and Republicans have hoped to stall the health care debate through the New Year. But if Dodd -- and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) -- makes good on his threat, the Senate could be working on Christmas Eve trying to iron out health care details while the children sleep and Santa jet-sets around the world to bestow the world's youth with gifts.

Whether the threat stands remains to be seen; Senate Democrats -- along with those in the House -- made a similar threat over the summer, saying they would forgo the August recess in order to work on the bill. Such a thing never happened, and the fiasco of the August town halls ensued.

(To be fair, much of the fiasco was a result of the mainstream media focusing incessantly on the faux-grassroots, anti-reform screamers who were nothing more than a well-funded, extremely loud minority. If the media had given equal focus and air time to those who were at the town halls in favor of reform, the debate might look different today.)

Chances are, Senator Dodd is grandstanding for the sake of a progressive base that is growing more and more concerned with regards to this issue. As people in Washington hail health care reform passing the House and coming up for debate in the Senate as a victory, some are worried the bill doesn't go far enough in terms of cost control or expansion of coverage -- and the abortion amendment that was snuck into the House bill has brought its own set of heavy baggage into the debate.

But if making threats is what gets the Republican minority to stop trying to derail a domestic initiative without at least letting it come to a vote -- if a bill falls because 51 Senators vote against it, then so be it -- then I applaud Senator Dodd for what he said. That said, I want him and other Senate Democrats to live up to his word.

And while he's at it, I would love it if he would actually do something about his colleague, Joe Lieberman. If I'm Dodd -- or Reid -- I start dangling that committee chairmanship in Lieberman's face and tell him to behave or see his favorite little toy handed to someone else.

But I've already written about that before.

President Obama Announces New Afghan Strategy

As President Barack Obama gave a national address Tuesday night at West Point, where he laid out his new strategy for the war in Afghanistan, one prevailing thought kept creeping into my head:

How many of the young cadets sitting in that audience were going to die as a result of this decision?

I don't ask that question to be glib or cute or sarcastic; I realize that war, justified or otherwise, always has a price, and I understand that those who choose to serve in the military during wartime understand that sacrifice and what might ultimately happen; that's one of the things that makes their service -- and the decision of the cadets in that room Tuesday night -- so admirable. We may disagree about the necessity of war or the correct strategy, but I think we can all agree that the men and women we send to fight these wars are a fine example of this country's strength and grace, and they are far greater Americans than I will ever be.

As expected, President Obama announced on Tuesday that he would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan over the next six months, while also hoping for additional resources from some of his NATO allies.

NATO allies have, to this point, not wholeheartedly embraced the move.

This country has been at war in Afghanistan since 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, and what was once a justified offensive aimed at bringing down a terroristic mastermind has become a qaugmire that seems to have no pleasant way out.

When most presidents make the case for war, they are bombastic, waving the American flag to rally the masses behind the cause without really diving into the all too stark realities of military combat. President Obama did not give such a speech on Tuesday; he was realistic, frank and acted as if he truly understood what he was asking of his armed forces.

After eight years of cavalier isolationism and "staying the course," Obama's mature pragmatism was welcome. Now, about the details ...

As he announced the troop increase, President Obama said that he wanted to begin troop withdrawals by July 2011. While the timetable for ending the war is welcome (if for no other reason than it would theoretically prevent military commanders from repeatedly asking for more troops and resources to keep the conflict going with no end in sight), it is neither set in stone nor is it without its own set of heavy-handed questions:

Do we begin leaving in July 2011, even if we haven't done what we set out to do?

What constitutes victory in this war?

Why announce a timetable for withdrawal in the same breath that you're telling the country you're adding troops?

President Obama was consistent throughout the campaign in saying Afghanistan was where our military focus should be; while he believed Iraq was no longer in America's best interest, and promised to bring that conflict to an end, the president claimed Afghanistan was the "right war" and the "war of necessity."

Remember why we went to Afghanistan in the first place; in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we went in to bring down al Qaeda, break up the Taliban and apprehend -- or kill -- Osama bin Laden. Initially, the offensive was a success ... but as a recent Senate report reveals, the previous administration had bin Laden in its sights, only to let him flee, presumably into Pakistan.

According to the report, bin Laden was stationed in Tora Bora, and American military forces were ready to pounce on him before former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and ground commander Tommy Franks intervened.

Some might view that as the Bush administration making a strategic move to justify a coming war in Iraq. The thinking goes that the administration knew capturing or killing bin Laden -- the entire point of the Afghan campaign -- would make military action in Iraq largely unjustifiable. There are those who believe Rumsfeld, Franks and even former Vice President Dick Cheney willingly let bin Laden escape into Pakistan so they could justify invading Iraq.

As some expected then, going to war in Iraq left Afghanistan without much in the way of focus and resources. I won't say whether the Bush administration knowingly did this -- though it wouldn't surprise me -- but the Iraq offensive is a large reason why Afghanistan is the mess it is now ... and why President Obama was faced with making a difficult and very unpopular decision.

Other questions beg asking:

At what point do we determine that Afghanistan is ready to take over on its own, both in a political and military sense? Part of our strategy is to train Afghan soldiers so they can handle the Taliban and other extremists, which is all well and good ... but when do we decide that they're ready?

How do we handle the Afghan government, which faces serious legitimacy questions and just came off a presidential election marred by fraud and corruption? President Harmid Karzai could prove to be a huge stumbling block in America's effort to strengthen Afghanistan outside of military occupation, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will have her hands full trying to walk the tight rope of supporting Karzai's administration while making it clear that America will not tolerate corruption and greed.

What about Pakistan? Intelligence suggests that bin Laden and top al Qaeda officials are hiding out on the other side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, which on the surface makes the decision to escalate in Afghanistan a head-scratcher. Vice President Joe Biden has intimated as such, and America's relations with Pakistan -- combined with the fact that Pakistan is home to several nuclear weapons -- make a military presence in that country untenable.

Still ... if bin Laden is in Pakistan (allegedly), how can we get him in Afghanistan?

I don't doubt that President Obama took this decision seriously, understanding none of the options given to him were particularly appetizing. He has faced criticism from the right for taking so long to make his decision and announcing a timetable for withdrawal, while the left is against the troop increase and threatening not to allow funding for the increase to pass.

Still, even as pragmatic and adult as the president sounded on Tuesday, his reasoning isn't all that different from President George W. Bush's when he argued in favor of a troop surge in Iraq in 2007. Rachel Maddow also pointed out after the speech on Tuesday that President Obama wasn't deviating all that much from the "Bush Doctrine," which President Bush outlined in a speech at West Point in 2002.

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When it comes to war, I'm not much of a liberal -- even though I opposed the war in Iraq from day one (last I checked, the people who knocked down our buildings and killed almost 3,000 people in 2001 weren't in Iraq). I believe the war in Afghanistan, at first, was a necessary war designed to keep us safe and get back at those who attacked us.

But as time passes, I find the war in Afghanistan far less appealing. Our strategy and focus has eroded beyond recognition over the past eight years, and while I appreciate that President Obama has presented an actual strategy -- and respect him for informing future troops in-person of the job he would ask them to perform -- I'm worried that it won't help much at this point.

Has Afghanistan become such a quagmire that any strategy aside from pulling out will be doomed to fail?

How do we pay for this escalation, even as we fight a recession and try to bring about sweeping changes to such aspects of domestic policy as health care, climate change and Wall Street? People talk of nation-building in Afghanistan, but isn't President Obama's first responsibility to help rebuild this country?

If we do capture or kill bin Laden or his top commanders, is that the end of it? The organization that attacked us eight years ago is not isolated to Afghanistan and Pakistan -- the 9/11 plot was hatched in Germany, and I'm sure al Qaeda has cells and operatives all over the world. I want us to bring down bin Laden, but we shouldn't be so naive as to think that'll be the end of our "war on terror."

We won't be able to bring out the "Mission Accomplished" banner, even if this strategy works. I trust that President Obama and his advisers have access to information with regards to this war to which we, as the general public, are not privy, but a troop escalation -- from a strategic and financial standpoint -- is a risky move at best at this point.

President Obama's legacy and chances for a second term could very well hinge on this decision. I hope this strategy proves successful, that we can capture or kill bin Laden and that our troops can finally come home safe and sound -- and I'll be honest in admitting that I don't understand much of what's going on in this war. But the questions outlined above are too heavy for me to ignore.

President Obama campaigned on focusing more on Afghanistan, which was what we apparently wanted as a nation at the time. But public opinion has shifted the longer this messy conflict goes on, and now focusing on Afghanistan doesn't seem like such a sure bet.

I'm not for the new strategy, but I'm not completely against it; I'm just a concerned American with serious questions about the outcome and cost -- financial and human -- of this war.