Interview: What drives Senator Jeff Merkley

“We need to use every tool we have to reclaim our country,” U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley told me during his latest visit to Des Moines. “We are at the verge of a tipping point, and maybe we’re almost past it, in which the power of the mega-wealthy is so profound that we can’t tip the balance back in to we the people.”

The senator from Oregon spent much of Labor Day weekend in central Iowa supporting Democratic candidates for the state legislature. His fifth trip here since the 2016 election won’t be his last: he will be a featured speaker at the Polk County Steak Fry later this month. During our September 2 interview, I asked Merkley about the most important matters pending in the U.S. Senate, prospects for Democrats in November, and his possible presidential candidacy.

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Throwback Thursday: Ed Fallon reflects on endorsing Ralph Nader for president

Before #BernieOrBust or any other hashtag existed to convey some activists’ feelings about the Democratic Party’s establishment candidate, there was Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign.

Iowa’s best-known politician to endorse Nader rather than Al Gore was State Representative Ed Fallon. The Des Moines Democrat had found himself at odds with the rest of his Iowa House colleagues before. Some of his politically inexpedient decisions have aged well, most famously his heartfelt speech before voting against our state’s Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.

Supporting Nader caused more intense fallout.

Though Fallon no longer considers himself a Democrat and has devoted most of his energy lately to environmental activism, he still endorses some Democratic candidates, including Bernie Sanders before this year’s Iowa caucuses.

Fallon spoke with Bleeding Heartland recently about his decision to back Nader, how that choice affected his subsequent bids for public office, and his advice for activists drawn to Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein instead of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

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Panel will study how to end Don't Ask, Don't Tell

During his State of the Union speech last week, President Barack Obama promised, “This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.” Today the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing today on the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made headlines by saying he believes “the right thing to do” is to let gays serve openly:

Adm. Mike Mullen’s statement was the strongest yet from the uniformed military on this volatile issue, although he stressed that he was “speaking for myself and myself only.”

He told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday he is deeply troubled by a policy that forces people to “lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Senate committee he also supports ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. However, he is appointing a panel to study how to lift the ban for a full year, meaning that hundreds more men and women are likely to be discharged under the policy before it goes away. The Obama administration is expected to implement new rules on purging troops under this policy, but it’s not yet clear how much that will reduce the number of discharges while Gates’ panel studies the issue. According to MSNBC, “more than 10,900 troops have been fired under the policy” since 1993, but “The 2009 figure – 428 – was dramatically lower than the 2008 total of 619.”

Meanwhile, at today’s hearing Senator John McCain argued against reviewing the policy at this time, saying it boosts “cohesion” and “unit morale.” He also presented a letter signed by 1000 officers who support Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Come on, McCain. Even a jerk like Joe Lieberman understands why this policy is stupid.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin made the case for ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in this piece for the Politico, but it doesn’t sound like he’s in a big hurry:

So there is little reason to continue this policy. But as we proceed, it is vital that we are sensitive to any complications of this policy shift. Change is always hard, especially when it involves social issues or personal beliefs. Lack of care as we proceed might spark opposition from those who could be open to change, and inflame the opposition of those already against it. And I would encourage those who favor change not to mistake deliberation for undue delay.

Point taken, but I am concerned by the timetable Gates is setting with a yearlong study. I hope Congress will act this year, because if Republicans retake the House or the Senate this November, there will be no chance of ditching Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell for the forseeable future.

Daily Kos user TennesseeGurl notes that even if Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is repealed, LGBT Veterans will still get a raw deal. Unfortunately, I see no realistic path to fixing that problem.

UPDATE: Levin “said an amendment could be added to the must-pass Defense Authorization bill which outlines military policy for the year.” Taking that path would allow the Senate to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell with a simple majority (as opposed to the 60 votes required to break a Republican filibuster).

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Senate passes health reform bill 60-39

Senators approved the health care reform bill 60-39 as Vice President Joe Biden presided over the Senate’s first Christmas Eve session in at least four and a half decades. It was the expected party-line vote, with Republican Jim Bunning absent.

More updates and reaction to this vote to follow.

Yesterday Tom Harkin asked for unanimous consent to move up the final health care vote to make it easier for some members to spend Christmas with their families, but Republican David Vitter of Louisiana said no.

Speaking of health care maneuvering, Joe Lieberman’s brand has taken a hit this month. It’s no mystery why. As Nate Silver observed here and here, being at the center of the health care reform debate tends to bring senators’ approval ratings down.

Recent polls have shown Chuck Grassley still above 50 percent approval, but with far less support than he has enjoyed for most of his career. He has already been running some positive television ads, but I don’t think he’ll be able to get his numbers back up to the 70 percent range by next year’s election. Nevertheless, Grassley’s Democratic challenger will need to make a broad-based case against him, because his double-dealing on health care reform won’t be the focus of news coverage next fall.

After this morning’s health reform vote, the Senate moved on to raise the debt ceiling. Retiring Republican George Voinovich of Ohio voted yes, making up for the no vote by Democrat Evan Bayh of Indiana.

UPDATE: On Tuesday Chris Bowers previewed some of the key fights coming up as House and Senate members reconcile their bills in conference.

From a statement Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO released today:

At this historic moment, it is so important to the future of working Americans-and to our country-to get health care reform right. Despite doing some good things, the Senate bill remains inadequate. Substantial changes must be made in the final bill. […]

It makes no sense to tax the benefits of hard-working Americans to pay for health reform. The House bill curbs insurance companies and taxes the wealthy who benefited so richly from the Bush tax cuts. The Senate bill instead includes exorbitant new taxes on middle class health benefits that would affect one in five workers with employer-provided health coverage-or about 31 million people-in 2016. That’s the wrong way to pay for health care reform and it’s political suicide.

The House bill is the right model for reform. It covers more people, takes effect more quickly and is financed more fairly. The AFL-CIO is ready to fight on behalf of all working families to produce a final bill that can be called genuine reform. Working people cannot accept anything less.

SECOND UPDATE: This chart at the Washington Post site shows how each senator voted, how much he or she has received in campaign contributions from the health industry, and what percent of that state’s residents lack health insurance.

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