Japan Crisis Empowers U.S. Nuke Foes

"The level [of radiation] seems very high, and there is still a very high risk of more radiation coming out."

-- Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan

The primary containment vessel at the No. 2 reactor of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant may have been breached by overheated fuel.

The outer containment structure is still intact and risks of a calamity like the one at Chernobyl, which had no outer containment structure at all, are remote. But the risks are now somewhat higher of broader contamination and a worsening plight for the beleaguered island nation.

Power Play hates to add another analogy to the blur, but this one seems apt: a carton of eggs. The earthquake certainly broke the yoke inside one of the eggs, but now the fear is that one of the shells may be broken too. The carton will contain the mess, but not perfectly.

It is still remarkable that six reactors of about 40 years in age could withstand the worst earthquake ever recorded in seismically storied Japan as well as a massive tsunami without having more serious problems.

But the heightened levels of radiation, even if not deadly, mean deepening troubles for the ongoing humanitarian crisis and for recovery efforts. The time and energy that is spent on decontamination is time taken away from relief and rebuilding.

Plus, Japan was already in something of a political and economic stupor. There have been four prime ministers in four years thanks to a series of scandals and general dissatisfaction with the onetime economic powerhouse’s stagnant economy. A decade of stimulus efforts left the country with a national debt twice the size of its overall economy, limited borrowing potential and still weak growth.

In office for only nine months, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has a small margin for error in his handling of the disaster.

Opponents of the expanded use of nuclear energy in the U.S. have seized on the Japanese disaster. When you see the doomsday quotes about the situation in Japan, they are almost invariably from groups that are pushing against the broadening of U.S. nuclear capacity.

Whatever happens next at Fukushima Daiichi, the gathering bipartisan consensus on nuclear power has been badly damaged. The Obama administration has not yet backed away from the president’s tentative embrace of nuclear power, but some congressional Democrats have already reversed course.

Many environmentalists see nuclear power as a way to expand electrical capacity without contributing to what they believe is a manmade warming of the earth. Others, though, believe it is a crutch that will prevent the higher energy costs they believe are necessary to reduce overall consumption and make inefficient sources of power, like wind and solar, more competitive.

Those who are primarily concerned about global warming are apt to favor using more nuclear power, while those of more generalized ecological concern are likely to oppose it.

Thus, the tenuous accord among Democrats on nuclear power, reached after President Obama’s plan for charging global warming fees to American companies died in the Democratic Senate last year, has ended.

Meanwhile, the economic shocks from Japan continue to reverberate.

World markets seemed to turn a more pessimistic eye toward Japan’s recovery efforts in the second full day of trading after the disaster. And while economists predict a short-term drop in inflation and energy prices owing to decreased Japanese demand, the near-term outlook is for both to worsen as Japan looks to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars more and fires up a massive rebuilding effort.

Testy House Vote on Spending Today


-- The number of members of the 241-person House Republican Caucus who could defect and still have a short-term spending bill pass without any Democratic support

Last week Republicans forced Democrats to take a politically uncomfortable vote on spending in the Senate. Today it’s the House Republican’s turn to squirm.

House Speaker John Boehner’s leadership team is pushing for one more stopgap spending plan to keep the government operating while negotiations continue over appropriations for the final 25 weeks of the federal fiscal year.

Last week 11 members of the Senate Democratic caucus voted against a spending plan backed by President Obama and Majority Leader Harry Reid, most because it would have cut the projected $1.65 trillion budget deficit for the year by a paltry .52 percent.

Reid lost 21 percent of his caucus on the vote, a level Boehner cannot afford today.

The current emergency measure to fund the government kicked in on March 4 and runs until Friday. Team Boehner says it needs a three-week emergency measure to keep negotiations with the Senate and the White House going.

The three-week plan maintains the Republican-sought goal of cutting $61 billion from March 4 to Sept. 30, but an increasing number of House Republicans are opposed to more stopgap spending.

The concerns are twofold:

First, Senate Democrats are trying to push the debate over current funding into a pile up with debate over next year’s budget and a pending request from President Obama to increase the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt limit. Democrats hope to gain leverage and weaken Republican solidarity by making a hash. Republicans prefer to deal with the issues in order, maximizing their leverage on Obama for cuts.

Second, conservatives believe that controversial programs – like subsidies for abortion provider Planned Parenthood and for scandal-weary National Public Radio – may survive if the piecemeal funding approach is taken. The less time Planned Parenthood and NPR have to survive with reduced funding the more likely they are to weather the budgetary storm.

Democrats will be watching closely today to see how many House GOPers refuse to support the stopgap plan.

About half of House Democrats joined all but six House Republicans in support of the current two-week spending plan, but liberals have also expressed opposition to the stutter-step funding approach.

Not only do many of them want to force a government shutdown they believe will be politically damaging to Republicans, but they also resent having to accept even a prorated version of the Republican cuts plan.

But many if not most Democrats are expected to join Boehner in support of the bill today – both for the rope-a-dope strategy being supported by Reid’s team, and also for fear that there will be plenty of blame to go around if the government does, in fact, shut down.

So, the plan will likely pass. But how it passes will matter. If Boehner loses less than the 10 percent (24 members) he can afford to sacrifice and still pass measures on a party line vote, it means his core support is still holding strong. If Boehner has to rely on Democratic votes to get the measure through, it will weaken his bargaining position.

But there is an upside to Boehner “no” votes today. They will demonstrate that a sizeable chunk of his caucus is ready to shut down the government over spending. That threat will strengthen Boehner’s ability to demand deeper cuts than the nominal trims to which Obama has so far assented.

How Boehner’s caucus breaks today will say a lot about the shape of the battles to come.

Clinton in Egypt Amid Waning U.S. Influence in Region

“We’re calling on the Saudis… as well as the Bahraini government, to show restraint. And we believe that political dialogue is the way to address the unrest that has occurred in the region in Bahrain and in other countries, and not to, in any way, suppress it.”

-- White House Press Secretary Jay Carney when asked about the arrival of Saudi troops in Bahrain to help suppress an uprising there

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Egypt today to commend the military for preserving order during a transition from authoritarianism and to meet with the leaders of the country’s gathering political factions.

But while long-term concerns remain about Egypt’s stability and potential for radicalization, the real action in the region is elsewhere. Plus, she’s arriving two weeks behind British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Clinton had a secretive meeting with a Libyan opposition leader at her Paris hotel last night. He presumably told Clinton that his rebel brethren are on their last legs. President Obama may like to say that the U.S. is “tightening the noose” around Muammar al-Qaddafi, but it is the rebels who are in the most immediate danger of being hanged.

It is unknown whether Clinton told the rebel leader what is becoming evident to everyone watching the diplomatic tangle around the Libyan civil war: no action is forthcoming by the Western powers. It seems increasingly likely that the rebel’s will not be able to outlast the ability of the U.N. to bicker.

While the Obama administration weighs how to deal with what comes after the Libyan rebellion – a divided nation, a refugee crisis, a reunited nation with a crackdown by Qaddafi – one of the two most important U.S. alliances in the region is under serious strain.

You know that things are in a difficult place for U.S.-Saudi relations when the White House and Iran take the same position on a move by the Saudi military.

Having watched the U.S. drop Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak after a 30-year alliance, the House of Saud is taking no chances. The kingdom has imposed a strict ban on protests and has joined its Sunni royal cousins in Bahrain in an effort to squelch a Shiite-led revolt there.

The relationship with the Saudis – like those with the other key ally in the region, Israel – have grown chillier in recent weeks – but the Saudi decision to clamp down hard on dissent is getting tut-tutted by the Obama White House.

In a move that will surely make the Saudis less receptive to U.S. suggestions, senior administration figures dumped all over the Saudis in a story in today’s New York Times which suggests the Obama team doesn’t much care about Saudi anxiety.

The Iranians are banking on a Shiite uprising in the Arab world and hope to exploit the circumstances. The Saudis are increasingly committed to suppressing such an uprising and are not well disposed toward the advice of an American president who they do not believe is interested in their perpetuation.

Now imbued with the idea of seeing a democratic transformation sweep the region, the Obama foreign policy team is pushing hard on the Saudis. But holding the largest proven oil reserve in the world as well as the holy sites of Islam, the Saudis feel a unique sense of empowerment when it comes to telling the U.S. to buzz off.

And the royals in Riyadh must have gotten a laugh out of having their recent spate of welfare spending sneered at by a senior adviser to Obama in the Times as “stimulus funds motivated by self-preservation.”

Petraeus Faces Tough Crowd on Hill for Spending Plea

“19 percent”

-- Democrats who believe the Afghan war is worth fighting in a new Washington Post/ABC News poll

After a successful campaign in Taliban-held regions of Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus will be in front of Congress today asking for money to solidify the gains already made as his forces brace for an enemy counterattack.

Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Petraeus will make the case against cuts to the State Department budget and in favor of President Obama’s two-track, limited-time surge that includes military firepower and extensive nation building efforts.

It’s a highly nuanced case to be making when a general asks for money for diplomats. And that case reflects some of the reasons for the decline in American support for the Afghan war.

Democrats who every day are defending the domestic programs they cherish against Republican cuts are growing weary of the huge demands wrought by the Obama surge. Republicans, meanwhile, are skeptical of Obama’s emphasis on using American forces in a large-scale community organizing effort in Afghanistan and also resent the president’s timetable – a drawdown set to begin in June and then drag into 2014 – as a political contrivance that is unhelpful to war fighters.

This is Petraeus’ first testimony since assuming command in Afghanistan last year and his best chance so far to give a new rationale for a surge that Americans increasingly see as of dubious value.

A new Washington Post/ABC News poll suggests that 64 percent of Americans no longer believe the war is worth fighting, up from 52 percent a year ago. While half of Republicans are still on board, Democrats are fleeing Obama’s war.

Whatever concerns Obama has about Petraeus as a potential rival, the president needs his man in Afghanistan to do a good job on the Hill today.