The Note, 5/13/2009: Advise and Content — Dems face torture debate — not entirely on own terms

By Caitlin Taylor

May 13, 2009 8:16am

By RICK KLEIN As if there’s not enough out there to deal with — some noise from the Hill is set to preoccupy the Obama White House on Wednesday. This is the day President Obama is asking for advice — meeting with Democrats on healthcare reform and senators from both parties on Supreme Court vacancies. He’ll get consent eventually (probably). But he’s hearing discontent in the meantime — with new concerns over spending and deficits, old concerns over healthcare and energy policy, and old concerns that are new again on torture and Gitmo. Wednesday brings the first congressional hearing on enhanced interrogation techniques since the Bush-era memos were made public. Yet before we get to the core debate — what’s legal, what works, and what’s worth it — Democrats still have their own sideshow to close out involving the Speaker of the House. (And is there just a hint of an administration reversal on releasing the photos?) Then there’s former vice president Dick Cheney — whose appearances still prompt cheers on both the left and the right (maybe a little louder among the former group than the latter). He’s become the GOP’s Hack-A-Shaq defender: He doesn’t have to score points to force the other side’s offense to adjust. (And he’s sure annoying enough to fans of the opposing team — particularly when his daughter plays in the same line-up.) Who likes the odds of this match-up? “Democrats charged Tuesday that the CIA has released documents about congressional briefings on harsh interrogation techniques in order to deflect attention and blame away from itself,” Politico’s Manu Raju reports. “Asked whether the CIA was seeking political cover by releasing the documents, Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said: ‘Sure it is.’ ” How does this not involve House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., at this point? “The House majority leader said Tuesday that Congress should investigate whether the Bush administration authorized the torture of terrorism detainees, and he contended that the Republican focus on what Speaker Nancy Pelosi learned about harsh interrogation methods was a distraction,” Larry Margasak writes for the AP.  Said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., “What was said and when it was said, who said it, I think that is probably what ought to be on the record as well.” “As hearings begin Wednesday it was clear that questions about who knew and approved of enhanced interrogation techniques have expanded beyond the Bush administration to include Mrs. Pelosi and others in Congress,” S.A. Miller and Kara Rowland write in the Washington Times.  “In the end, it could all come down to Pelosi’s statements versus CIA notes,” Carolyn Lochhead writes for the San Francisco Chronicle. “This is the first traction Republicans have had against the speaker after their San Francisco liberal angle failed through at least two election cycles. Their message is also getting muddied by Dick Cheney’s tours through talk show land where he has been insisting that Obama release two secret CIA memos — what other kind are there — that he once had stashed in his desk but have since mysteriously disappeared.”  When she knew, could she act? Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to AFP’s Olivier Knox: “I was briefed on it, and I vehemently objected to it. We did the Detainee Treatment Act, which prohibited cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. So we felt, I certainly felt, I could act on it.”  Said Feinstein (does this help?): “I don’t want to make an apology for anybody, but in 2002, it wasn’t 2006, 07, 08 or 09. It was right after 9/11, and there were in fact discussions about a second wave of attacks.” On the Hill: “[Sen. Sheldon] Whitehouse, who chairs the Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts, said his hearing would dig into how the Bush Justice Department developed the legal opinions that were used to justify the use of harsh interrogation methods such as waterboarding, sensory deprivation, stress positions and other tactics regarded as torture in the international community,” Roll Call’s Emily Pierce writes.  A hint of equivocation to round out the issue: “The Obama administration signaled yesterday that it may be rethinking its promise to release several dozen photos depicting abuse or alleged abuse of detainees held in U.S. custody abroad,” Michael D. Shear writes for The Washington Post.  Said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs: “I’m not going to add much to that right now.” Bill Kristol, in The Weekly Standard: “This sounds to me as if the president is getting ready to reverse the decision of his Justice Department. I expect him to announce, perhaps citing his discussions today with General Odierno and Ambassador Chris Hill, that he’s decided it would be damaging to our soldiers and the nation to release these photos.”  As for the former veep: “The big contrast is not between Cheney and his predecessors but between Cheney and former top Bush administration officials who have quietly watched the Obama administration dismantle many of their policies,” ABC’s Jonathan Karl writes. “The silence of other former Bush administration officials, including Bush himself, goes a long way to explaining why the once camera-shy vice president has become such a visible former vice president.”  Cheney “seems to be on a one-man campaign fighting for his legacy, and — in his view — the safety of the nation,” ABC’s Jake Tapper reported on “Good Morning America” Wednesday. “Cheney’s on the ‘Barack Obama is making us less safe’ campaign.” “Cheney has replaced Sarah Palin as Rogue Diva. Just as Jeb Bush and other Republicans are trying to get kinder and gentler, Cheney has popped out of his dungeon, scary organ music blaring, to carry on his nasty campaign of fear and loathing,” Maureen Dowd writes in her New York Times column. “The man who never talked is now the man who won’t shut up.”  “Cheney, who championed the idea of pre-emptive attack doctrine as vice president, knows that in politics as well the best defense is often a good offense,” Time’s Michael Duffy writes.  Liz Cheney gets into the act, too: “I have heard from families of servicemembers, from families of 9/11 victims, this question about, you know, ‘When did it become so fashionable for us to side, really, with the terrorists?’ ” Ms. Cheney said on Fox News Channel, per ABC’s Jake Tapper. 

The New York Times’ Adam Nagourney makes the broader point: “The Republican Party’s difficulty in finding something forward-looking to say — as well as the right people to say it — has been on display for much of the six months since Mr. Obama defeated Senator John McCain. Yet recent days have underlined the extent to which Republicans have another challenge: How to say it.”  Amid the Charlie Crist cheer: “Now, the GOP has a chance to see whether a moderate can become a model for Republican resurgence, with Florida Gov. Charlie Crist announcing Tuesday that he will run for the U.S. Senate in that politically important state,” Peter Wallsten reports in the Los Angeles Times.  (And Crist was quick to get the establishment nod over Marco Rubio; somewhere, Pat Toomey is steaming.)  The president meets at 9:30 am ET with leading Democrats to talk healthcare, including Pelosi, Hoyer, and chairmen George Miller, Charlie Rangel, and Henry Waxman. It’s bipartisan Senate leadership at the White House at 11:15 am ET. And the president’s commencement season begins: He delivers the address at Arizona State University at 9 pm ET (remember the controversy over the honorary degree?). While Obama works on that “body of work” . . . on healthcare — in the absence of a plan, it’s time for ideas to fill the vacuum. Will this fly? “The Obama administration is digging deep into the tax code to find ways to help pay for its ambitious plans to cut taxes for middle-income families and small businesses while also overhauling the nation’s healthcare system,” Jim Puzzanghera and Mike Dorning write for the Los Angeles Times. “The Treasury Department plans to raise $58 billion in taxes over the next 10 years — targeting mainly securities dealers, life insurance firms and large estates — and to close $210 billion in tax loopholes for multinational corporations.”  How about this? “I think most people in this country would be happy to pay an increase in 10 cents to the gas tax if they knew they’d have health insurance no matter what happened,” former DNC chairman Howard Dean said Tuesday on’s “Top Line.”  Or this? “Lawmakers are considering a broad range of ideas — including a federal tax on sugary sodas,” per USA Today’s John Fritze.  Or this? “The idea of taxing employee health-care benefits to raise money for an overhaul of the health system is gaining strength in Congress, although it drew criticism from Barack Obama when he was campaigning for president,” The Wall Street Journal’s Janet Adamy writes. “Experts lined up Tuesday before the Senate Finance Committee and said it is one of the best ways to pay for a health-care overhaul. Many top Democrats support the concept.”  “Linda Douglass, a spokeswoman for the Obama administration, said Mr. Obama made clear during the campaign he was skeptical of taxing benefits, but in general he is open to ideas for overhauling health care other than the ones he put forth back then.” “Limiting the tax exclusion is one of the few options that could provide large amounts of revenue to expand health coverage,” The Boston Globe’s Lisa Wangsness writes. What will this look like when it’s all sorted out? A tax cut for the wealthy? ABC’s Alice Gomstyn and Matthew Jaffe: “The administration has proposed raising the country’s highest tax rate from 35 percent to 39.6 percent and its second-highest rate from 33 percent to 36 percent. But, because the second-highest tax income bracket includes some couples earning less than $250,000, the Obama administration is expanding eligibility for the third-highest tax income bracket — the 28 percent bracket — so that those couples would fall into that bracket instead, experts said.”  Maybe moving soon: “Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee agreed on a compromise measure to cut U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions 17 percent by 2020, Chairman Henry Waxman said,” Bloomberg’s Lorraine Woellert and Daniel Whitten report. “The accord, reached yesterday, exceeds the target sought by President Barack Obama.” (Just wait for the fine print.)  Poor timing, in a healthcare week: “Even as Congress hunted for ways to finance a major expansion of health insurance coverage, the Obama administration reported Tuesday that the financial condition of the two largest federal benefit programs, Medicare and Social Security, had deteriorated, in part because of the recession,” Robert Pear writes in The New York Times. “A resumption of economic growth is not expected to close the financing gap. The trustees’ bleak projections already assume that the economy will begin to recover late this year.”  Poor timing, for an administration that doesn’t want to be in the banking business: “As American International Group chief executive Edward M. Liddy returns to Washington to face Congress today, new details are emerging about how long federal officials were aware of the company’s recent bonus payments to its executives and of how inflammatory the payments could be,” David Cho and Brady Dennis write in The Washington Post.  “Documents show that senior officials at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York received details about the bonuses more than five months before the firestorm erupted and were deeply engaged with AIG as well as outside lawyers, auditors and public relations firms about the potential controversy,” they report. “But the New York Fed did not raise the alarm with the Obama administration until the end of February. Timothy F. Geithner, who became Treasury secretary early this year, was the head of the New York Fed when it became aware of the bonus details.” Maybe the administration does want to be in the banking business: “The Obama administration has begun serious talks about how it can change compensation practices across the financial-services industry, including at companies that did not receive federal bailout money, according to people familiar with the matter,” Deborah Solomon and Damian Paletta write in The Wall Street Journal. “The initiative, which is in its early stages, is part of an ambitious and likely controversial effort to broadly address the way financial companies pay employees and executives, including an attempt to more closely align pay with long-term performance.”  Republicans are loving: “The Federal Aviation Administration, after reviewing concerns about a project at a regional airport named after  Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), has decided to go forward with plans to use $800,000 in stimulus funds to repave the airport’s alternate runway,” Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post.  As for Wednesday’s White House meeting, on the Supreme Court vacancy: “President Obama and Senate leaders will meet on Wednesday to discuss how long it will take to approve his Supreme Court nominee, a question that could delay the president’s announcing his pick,” Alexander Bolton reports for The Hill.  ABC’s Jan Crawford Greenburg whittles down the short list, identifying three top contenders: Elena Kagan, Diane Wood and Sonia Sotomayor. “But my sources close to the process say there is growing support inside the White House for Kagan, especially on the legal team. Plotted out on the graph, right now, Kagan makes sense.”  Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Judiciary Committee’s new ranking Republican, defines the opposition’s role: “If the president nominates an individual who will allow personal preferences and political views to corrupt his or her decision making, he will put before the public a central question: Are we willing to trade America’s heritage of a fair and neutral judiciary — anchored in the rule of written law that applies equally to all people — for a high court composed of robed politicians who apply the law differently based on their personal feelings toward a particular person or issue?” Sessions, R-Ala., writes in a Washington Post op-ed.  Michael Gerson wants a broader policy tent: “Republicans have distinctive contributions to make on climate policy. They might support a carbon tax instead of a cumbersome cap-and-trade system. They should insist that all revenue gained from a carbon tax or the sale of pollution permits go back to the American people in lower taxes. But the main policy choice is binary: Should a cost be imposed on carbon emissions? If Republicans generally say no, they will not be viewed as belonging to an environmental party,” he writes in his Washington Post column.  New from the DNC Wednesday: “GOP Whack-A-Mole” — those stubborn old faces keep popping up, get it? Labor goes on offense in Pennsylvania, pressing Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., on (what else?) the Employee Free Choice Act: A new state-wide TV ad launching Wednesday asks, “Will Specter choose Wall Street or workers?” Per a spokesman, the ad will run at least through the next congressional recess — and will run longer depending on the legislative and semantic pace.  How often do you get to give away medals? From the DOT release: “On Wednesday, May 13, 2009, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will present Merchant Marine Outstanding Achievement Medals to civilian mariners who participated in the rescue of the passengers and crew of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson. The event will be held at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City.” Sarah Palin, the book (brokered, of course, by Bob Barnett): “Gov. Sarah Palin has signed a book deal with HarperCollins Publishers for what is described as her memoir,” the Anchorage Daily News’ Sean Cockerham writes. “Palin and HarperCollins would not say how much she was being paid. Asked why, the governor and former Republican nominee for vice president said she didn’t want to distract from the substance of the book.”  The Kicker: “It will be nice to put my journalism degree to work on this and get to tell my story, Alaska’s story.” — Gov. Sarah Palin, R-Alaska, on her new book deal. “OMG I’m at 666 followers. Am I doomed? Going to hell? Please, somebody, get me over 666 fast!!! LOL” — Former FEMA Director Michael Brown, on Twitter last week, per the Washington Examiner’s Jeff Dufour and Kiki Ryan. Today on “Top Line,”’s daily political Webcast: Senate candidate Ryan Frazier, R-Colo.; and Ana Marie Cox, of Air America and The Daily Beast. Noon ET.  Follow The Note on Twitter: For up-to-the-minute political updates check out The Note’s blog . . . all day every day:

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