Senator Boxer Urges Tighter Coal Waste Regulations

In the wake of the massive east Tennessee toxic coal sludge spill, Senator Barbara Boxer held hearings this week looking into the issue of tightening of Federal coal waste regulations. The Clinton EPA in 2000 opted not to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste. According to the McClatchy News Service"the nation's hundreds of coal ash dumps contain millions of pounds of toxic metals such as arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury and chromium, which can cause cancer or damage the nervous system and lungs and other organs if people ingest them." The EPA has left regulation up to the states, but it's been debating whether to set national standards. Senator Boxer now thinks it is time to consider enacting national standards.

"For nearly three decades, EPA has been looking the issue of how to regulate combustion waste," Boxer said. "The federal government has the power to regulate these wastes, and inaction has allowed this enormous volume of toxic material to go largely unregulated."

However, she said she hoped the EPA would decide to regulate coal ash soon. Boxer said she planned to ask Lisa Jackson, President-elect Barack Obama's nominee to head the EPA, whether she agrees on the need for federal regulation at her confirmation hearings.

It's almost surreal to see government in action, after the lapse of the last eight years.

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The American Crisis

US payrolls were slashed by 524,000 jobs in December and by 1.9 million in the last four months of 2008. All told,  2.6 million jobs were lost in all of 2008. That's quite a dubious achievement but this didn't happen by accident, it happened by design. Conservative free market ideology and their devotion to a race to the bottom they call low taxes is the cause of all this. Let's not ever forget this. Conservatives profess to love their country and they profess to hate government. The pity is that, at times, they can't differentiate between the two. There is clearly a difference between the country and the government. The former is much larger if more nebulous than than latter but let's not forget that the government, in all its manifestations, is part of the visible edifice and the ledger of our country. In their zeal to drown the edifice of government in a bathtub, conservatives have managed to drown the country's ledger in a near eleven trillion dollar debt and throw at least 7.2% of us out of work.  It's not just the government that owes that lofty sum, it's the country. It's us. It's Americans who are now increasingly out of work thanks to the nefarious effects of an ideology that benefits the few at the expense of the many.

Conservatives so hate government that they can't seem to see that they are destroying the country in said pursuit. Even now. This is not a charge I say lightly. Even though conservatives have long impugned the patriotism of liberals for several generations now, we, as liberals, have failed to answer back. It's time we do. Conservatives wrap themselves in the flag even while they trample the rights, liberties and livelihoods of most Americans. Free markets are not free, there are costs. Witness AIG. There is no such thing as free trade, it too has costs. These are euphemisms for a perverse notion that conservatives call "economic liberty". By this, they mean unregulated markets, low taxes, the right to move capital across global markets (to call them countries is so 19th century) in pursuit of unholy profits based on tapping the cheap labour of the unprotected masses in the developing world. Backed by a devotion to a strong dollar and weak barriers to trade, they have dismantled brick by brick American manufacturing moving it to China, Bangladesh or wherever the lowest cost worker happens to be. I ask you is this patriotic? Is this love of country?

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Is Obama "Prepared to Talk to Hamas"?

The UK Guardian is reporting that the "incoming administration will abandon Bush's isolation of Islamist group (Hamas) to initiate low-level diplomacy" according to sources within the transition team.

The move to open contacts with Hamas, which could be initiated through the US intelligence services, would represent a definitive break with the Bush ­presidency's ostracising of the group. The state department has designated Hamas a terrorist organisation, and in 2006 ­Congress passed a law banning US financial aid to the group.

The Guardian has spoken to three ­people with knowledge of the discussions in the Obama camp. There is no talk of Obama approving direct diplomatic negotiations with Hamas early on, but he is being urged by advisers to initiate low-level or clandestine approaches, and there is growing recognition in Washington that the policy of ostracising Hamas is counter-productive.

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Nancy Pelosi's Moment of Clarity

"The opportunity calls for us in this country to invest in our children and their health and their education, and all of the -- to reduce the deficit, to reduce the deficit if we had those resources." Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi

Well, well, well, will wonders never cease? After being in a fog, and not the San Francisco kind, for the past two years, the Speaker of the House has a moment of clarity:

Pelosi told reporters today that she "couldn't be more clear" in opposing some Obama advisers' wish to wait for the tax cuts on the highest income earners to expire in two years, as they are set to do under current law. "Put me down as clearly as you possibly can as one who wants to have those tax cuts for the wealthiest in America repealed," she said.

Pelosi said the income tax cuts to the highest earning Americans -- which were decreased from 39.6 to 35 percent as part of the 2001 Bush tax plan -- have been "the biggest contributor to the budget deficit," which now stands at $1.2 trillion for fiscal year 2009. That deficit figure does not include the impact of the pending stimulus measure, which will cost around $800 billion, nor does it include estimates for supplemental spending bills that will come later this year to finance the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Put me down as well as one who supports rescinding the Bush tax cuts. Now. Economic fairness, fiscal discipline and economic growth are sometimes conflicting goals. But not in this instance, not at this moment. Repealing the Bush tax cuts immediately is not just the fairest policy option but also the most fiscally responsible given the severity of the deficits we confront but also the most efficient in terms of a progressive tax scheme.

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Apples and Oranges

The night before last, I could not sleep. My mind was stuck on a phrase uttered by the President-elect based on a report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), trillion dollar deficits. Plural. A trillion dollars and more per year for the next few years. I tried to picture just how much money that actually is. How many zeros? Well, I went a million is six, a billion nine, and a trillion thus twelve. A one followed by twelve zeros. Mind-boggling and sleep depriving.

It is some small consolation to hear that members of Congress are today in shock over the CBO projections. At least, we now know that they aren't asleep at the wheel though it is certainly not fair to blame the deficit sins of the past on the current 111th Congress. But now it seems the debate over the size of the fiscal stimulus is taking on new twist in light of the stunning deficit projections. Via the Christian Science Monitor:

Stunned at the prospect of a $1.2 trillion deficit this fiscal year, lawmakers in Congress are taking a harder look at how big a stimulus plan America can afford.

Until Wednesday's release of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimate, the main topic on Capitol Hill was how big the recovery package needs to be to reverse the economy's slide.

Now, there's a second theme: Is there a tipping point between the stimulus needed to revive the economy and a level of borrowing and debt that's too much for future generations to bear?

"There's a consensus among economists that we need to do something big," says House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "But we need to calibrate between creating jobs - green jobs, long-term jobs - and not getting weighed down with too much burdensome debt."

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The Boxer

I am just a poor boy, though my story is seldom told.
I have squandered my resistance,
For a pocketful of mumbles, such are promises.
All lies and jest.
Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest . . .

In the clearing stands a boxer and a fighter by his trade,
And he carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down,
Or cut him 'til he cried out in his anger and his shame,
"I am leaving, I am leaving."
But the fighter still remains.

Lie-la-lie ...

Who knew that Paul Simon was talking about Senator Harry Reid, our former pugilist turned Majority Leader?  For heaven's sake, Harry pick your fights better. This fight over Roland Burris is over. Behind on points and cut about the eye, it's a TKO in the second round.

Jane Hamsher has the rest of this sad tale over at Firedoglake. Otherwise, an open thread.

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Congressman Keith Ellison on Gaza

Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first and one of two Muslims now in the US Congress, talked to Al Jazeera's Shihab Rattansi about the Israeli offensive in Gaza and why he feels so few US politicians understand the Middle East. Whatever your views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I think it important to listen to alternative voices. Congressman Ellison is one such voice.

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DNI Pick Admiral Dennis Blair, Timor Leste and the ISI

In 1999, Indonesia still entertained hopes of holding onto the former Portuguese colony of Timor Leste (East Timor) which it invaded with Secretary of State Kissinger's consent in December 1975 formerly annexing the territory in July 1976. Strong resistance to Indonesian rule resulted in a brutal repression, forced resettlement and famine in which 200,000 (a quarter of the population) are believed to have died in the two decades that followed. But by early 1999, the Clinton Administration, the Portuguese government, the United Nations and world opinion had forced Indonesian government to allowing a referendum on independence. Still opposing this was the Indonesian military, the TNI, which viewed itself as the ultimate protector of the territorial integrity of the Republik Indonesia. Into this steps Admiral Dennis Blair, Obama's pick to be Director of National Intelligence (DNI), who in April 1999 is sent by the Clinton Administration to have a chat with General Wiranto, the commander of the TNI.

Writing in September 1999 for The Nation, Allan Nairin filed this report:

US officials say that this past April, as militia terror escalated, a top US officer was dispatched to give a message to Jakarta. Adm. Dennis Blair, the US Commander in Chief of the Pacific, leader of all US military forces in the Pacific region, was sent to meet with General Wiranto, the Indonesian armed forces commander, on April 8. Blair's mission, as one senior US official told me, was to tell Wiranto that the time had come to shut the militia operation down. The gravity of the meeting was heightened by the fact that two days before, the militias had committed a horrific machete massacre at the Catholic church in Liquiça, Timor. YAYASAN HAK, a Timorese human rights group, estimated that many dozens of civilians were murdered. Some of the victims' flesh was reportedly stuck to the walls of the church and a pastor's house. But Admiral Blair, fully briefed on Liquiça, quickly made clear at the meeting with Wiranto that he was there to reassure the TNI chief. According to a classified cable on the meeting, circulating at Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii, Blair, rather than telling Wiranto to shut the militias down, instead offered him a series of promises of new US assistance.

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Blessed Are the Gatekeepers

Blessed are the gatekeepers, for theirs is the power to getting things done.

If President-elect Obama thought that changing the way Washington works was going to be a breeze, he got his first lesson in comeuppance with his selection of Leon Panetta to head the Central Intelligence Agency. His mistake wasn't the choice per se but rather not checking with the gatekeepers, the Washington power brokers pertinent to this decision. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the incoming chairperson of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she was surprised by the pick and complained that she wasn't consulted. That's one gatekeeper with ruffled feathers. Another gatekeeper not reckoned with, and therefore not terribly amused, was the outgoing chairperson Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV). Through an aide, the long-serving member of the Intelligence Committee let it be known that while he "has tremendous respect for Leon Panetta" the aide said that Senator Rockefeller "believes the CIA director should go to someone who has significant intelligence experience and someone from outside the political world of Washington DC."

Had these gatekeepers been consulted prior to announcing the selection, I suspect their tone would have been more conciliatory and supportive. Certainly, we would have fewer ruffled feathers.

Even Senator 'for two more weeks' Joe Biden conceded it was a "mistake" in not consulting the Senate's gatekeepers before tapping Leon Panetta to head the CIA.

"I'm still a Senate man and I always think this way," he told reporters in the Capitol. "I think it's always good to talk to the requisite members of Congress."

Yup. It's always good to talk to those blessed gatekeepers. In doing so, President Obama will likely get his way more often than not but ruffle their features by pulling surprises seems like a recipe for not getting things accomplished. Blessed are the gatekeepers, for in their hands is the power of the gavel. Some aspects of Washington, it seems, will never change.

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DiFi and The Legality of the Burris Appointment

The old adage of "if at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again" might serve Roland Burris well in his attempt to become the junior Senator from Illinois. He may actually need only to try but once for it seems the unity of the Democrats in blocking the appointment has collapsed. Dianne Feinstein, the senior Senator from California, is urging the Senate to settle the matter and by settle she means sitting Burris.

"If you don't seat Mr. Burris, it has ramifications for gubernatorial appointments all over America," the California senator said. "Mr. Burris is a senior, experienced politician. He has been attorney general, he has been controller, and he is very well-respected. I am hopeful that this will be settled."

Senator Feinstein who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, which judges the credentials of senators argues that the governor has the power under the law to make the appointment. The matter, in her mind, seems settled.  

I am not a lawyer so I have no idea the legality of all this but as a political observer I can only say this entire episode is such a tragic comedy. If the appointment is, in fact, legal then there isn't any point in any further discussions that only serve to distract from the important business facing the nation. So is this appointment legal or not? To answer this question should not consume the nation.

More from MSNBC.

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