Wisconsin Labor Unrest Could Go National

Democrats and Unions Badger GOP in Wisconsin

“I've said all along the thousands of people who are storming the capitol have every right to be heard, but I'm not going to let them overshadow the voices of the millions of taxpayers in the state of Wisconsin who deserve to be heard, as well.”

-- Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wisc., “On the Record with Greta Van Susteren

Union protesters and Democrat lawmakers will attempt to prevent for a second day a vote in the Wisconsin Senate that would increase public employees’ contributions to retirement and health benefits and strip unions of the power to bargain for higher salaries.

The battle in Madison has become the epicenter of a national fight between newly empowered small-government conservatives and Democrats backed by government worker unions.

The grassroots political operation of President Obama, who on Wednesday denounced the austerity legislation as an “attack on unions,” has swung in behind the government workers. Organizing for America, the activist organizing wing of the Democratic National Committee is helping keep the pressure on Republican lawmakers who plan to pass the legislation today.

Members of the Service Employees International Union, the most influential union in national Democratic circles, have also joined the fray in support of the government workers. The SEIU is helping man an around-the-clock occupation of the central halls of the state capital.

Tea Party groups, meanwhile, have planned a counter demonstration for Saturday at the capitol in support of the measure, raising the prospect of a clash between the activist groups.

Thousands of union activists have tried to shut down the process at the statehouse, which swung to the GOP in the 2010 elections. The efforts to block access to the state Senate and disrupt debates have been described as “mostly peaceful,” though union groups have expanded their protests to the homes of individual lawmakers.

Nine protesters have been arrested so far for disorderly conduct.

The holdup in the vote is due to the fact that the Democratic members of the Senate are on the lam, denying Republicans a quorum and the chance to vote. The Democrats are holed up at a resort just across the Illinois border, putting them beyond the reach of Wisconsin law enforcement agencies that could otherwise compel at least one Democrat to appear in the Senate so a vote could take place.

So far, the hideout seems to be backfiring. Moderate Republicans who had been on the fence over the legislation are denouncing the shutdown as undemocratic.

The lower chamber of the legislature may take up the bill today if Senate Democrats remain in hiding.

The measure would increase the contributions of public employees to their own retirement and medical benefits. The plan, put forward by new Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wisc., would have public workers make equal contributions to their retirement funds (teachers currently contribute $1 for every $56.94 from the state) and increase workers’ share of health insurance premiums to 12.6 percent. Teachers in most districts currently pay less than 5 percent of their insurance costs. The national average for workers is 27 percent.

While the increased contributions are a sore spot, the greatest anger among demonstrators is over the portion of the bill that would strip public workers of the right to bargain for higher wages, benefits and changes to job duties. Pay raises for public workers would be subject to voter approval. Under the law, the state would also stop withholding union dues from government paychecks and make due payments strictly voluntary.

There are similar measures under consideration around the nation, including in Ohio where protests are picking up steam.

National Democrats and their labor allies are hoping to cause maximum political damage with the increasingly likely passage of the measure in an effort to discourage other states and congressional Republicans from moving to crack down on government unions.

Boehner, Reid Trade Shutdown Threats as Spending Debate Turns Ugly

“I'm one of those women he talked about just now. I had a procedure at 17-weeks pregnant with a child….”

-- Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., on the House floor talking about her own abortion in defending federal funding for abortion provider Planned Parenthood

House Republicans are beginning a fourth day of debate on a spending plan for the remaining seven months of the fiscal year that would cut $100 billion from President Obama’s requested appropriations.

Today will likely see a vote on the Republican measure to end federal funding for abortion provider Planned Parenthood. The group gets about $350 million a year in taxpayer subsidies, money that officials say is used for encouraging contraceptive use and other population control efforts but not abortions. Republicans argue that the funding keeps the group afloat and able to provide abortions.

The vote comes at a bad time for the group, which is conducting an internal review after a sting by pro-life activists found Planned Parenthood workers advising a man posing as a pimp in ways to get an abortion for an underage prostitute.

But the floorshow in the House is really only the warm-up act for the larger drama about to play out. Whenever Republicans finish work on their austerity spending plan – likely Saturday or Monday – it will be up to the Democratic-controlled Senate to take up the issue.

Current federal funding expires two weeks from today, and Speaker John Boehner said Thursday that he is not interested in passing another stopgap funding measure at current levels to provide more time for debate.

President Obama has already threatened to veto any spending plans that cut too deeply. While Obama’s own proposal to actually increase spending has sputtered out amid deepening concerns over a projected $1.65 trillion deficit for the current fiscal year, Obama is trying to hold the line against Republican cuts.

Democrats warn that the Republican plan will mean many government workers will lose their jobs, and accuse Boehner of insensitivity (a surprising claim against the tearful speaker) to government workers for saying “so be it” when asked about possible government layoffs. In a show of solidarity with red-clad union protesters in Wisconsin, House Democrats have fashioned red “so be it” buttons to wear in protest.

After Boehner made clear that the House would insist on cuts and wasn’t interested in extending current levels to allow for a longer debate, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid took to the microphones with a brief, angry statement saying Boehner’s threat of a shutdown was “not permissible” and that “(Senate Democrats) will not stand for that.”

But Reid is going to have to soon put forward a counterproposal to Boehner’s. Reid is technically backing the Obama plan for increased spending on public transportation and government research, but certainly lacks the support for more deficit spending.

Reid and Obama will have to decide what level of cuts they can stomach and then try to work a bill through the Senate. The most plausible scenario in the Senate would be a bill that splits the difference between Obama’s request and the Republican cuts – something like $30 billion off current spending levels rather than the more than $60 billion in reductions sought by House Republicans.

But first, Obama and Reid must decide whether they will try to pass a short-term extension to avoid a shutdown in two weeks. The House has no stomach for a continuation of current spending for any length of time, meaning even a short extension would have to include cuts.

Some House Republicans are working up a plan that would provide emergency funding for the government at drastically reduced rates in the event of a House-Senate impasse. That would put Reid in the unhappy position of either being responsible for a shutdown or accepting as a fist stage in a negotiation a plan that provides only essential functions and nothing more.

Such an austerity measure, even if it were only for a matter of days or weeks, would be a bad way to begin negotiations.

Obama is on a West Coast swing in support of what he calls “investments” in government programs and in support of government workers, but that’s not going anywhere. Obama will now have to decide what kind of cuts he will accept and what kind of cuts are worth shutting down the government for.

What else to watch for as the deadline draws near: Wisconsin-style protests by government workers in Washington.

American Assets at Risk in Middle East Uprising

"Could we find some other place to put a fleet headquarters? Probably we could. But if Bahrain becomes unstable, if it comes under Iranian influence... [that] threatens the entire structure of world oil markets."

-- Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, talking to the Wall Street Journal

Little Bahrain is causing big problems for America as the royal family of the island kingdom – moderate Sunni Muslims who have welcomed the U.S. military there for 40 years – continue to crack down on protestors from the Iranian-backed Shiite majority.

Beyond its friendliness to American interests, Bahrain has a good track record on human rights and individual freedoms, especially given the repressive standards of the region. But the royals there are having no luck with the Shiite protesters and continue to enforce a ban on public protests.

The Saudis and others in the region support the ban on the grounds that having Iranian-backed Shiites in control of such a strategic spot would be untenable to the more religiously moderate regimes of the region.

Bahrain is to the Persian Gulf as Governors Island is to New York Harbor – a strategic spot that you don’t want controlled by your enemies.

Meanwhile strategic U.S. partners in Libya and Yemen – bad actors that provide good services to the U.S. and its allies – remain under assault by mobs of protesters demanding regime change. In Egypt, the glorious revolution of last week has given way to deepening uncertainty and the threat of new unrest.

The Iranians are considering executing opposition leaders and continue reprisals against an abortive effort to renew the 2009 Green Revolution. That deepens worries about what might happen if Bahrain were to become a Shiite client of Tehran.

The Obama administration has lately put great emphasis on the notion that the protesters in the Middle East are on the “right side of history” and is calling on allies to allow demonstrations to continue. Bahrain is testing the administration sorely on this point.

U.S.-Pakistan Rift Jeopardizes Afghan War Effort

"They don't ask us before they fire their missiles."

-- A senior Pakistani official explaining to the Wall Street Journal why his country’s intelligence services have stopped supplying information for CIA drone strikes

Things have been getting worse between the U.S. and Pakistan for months and the current diplomatic flap over a U.S. embassy security contractor being held on murder charges is only the latest, albeit worst, manifestation of the breakdown.

The central problem is that the U.S.-backed government of President Asif Ali Zardari is losing control of the nation to Islamists and their allies inside the military and security forces. This is a nation of 170 million Muslims with 100 nuclear warheads. Not a good place to become a failed state.

One of the major stressors in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is the escalation of the secret war America is waging in the lawless border provinces of Pakistan. The hunt for Islamists and terrorists in the Pakistani mountains by unmanned drones and American military advisers has become a source of rage in the nation.

Zardari’s foes claim that he is allowing the U.S. to violate the country’s sovereignty and to conspire with India against Pakistani interests.

President Obama has dramatically stepped up the covert war in Pakistan as part of his Afghan surge effort, but the Wall Street Journal reports today that Pakistani military partners have become increasingly unwilling to help with American attacks.

The paper says that the nearly constant U.S. strikes of the recent past have stopped entirely for a month because of a lack of intelligence from Pakistan.

While the White House says that the covert war continues regardless of the frayed relations between the two countries, there is no question that the quickening descent of Pakistan into Islamism poses huge problems for American efforts.

If Pakistan again provides a safe haven for the Taliban and al Qaeda, the hugely difficult efforts in Afghanistan become somewhat moot.

Inflation Fears Follow Bernanke to France

“…the Fed is pouring oil on the commodity fire, ignoring commodity and asset price signals, and risking another boom-bust cycle.”

-- Economist Jeffrey Sachs, an expert on development in poor nations, writing in the Financial Times

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is standing behind his decision to print money to absorb U.S. debt as the top bankers and finance ministers of the 20 largest economies gather in Paris to discuss threats to the tepid recovery.

Europeans are especially critical of Bernanke’s decision to keep the dollar weak in order to facilitate U.S. borrowing. The charge is that he is helping drive a worldwide spike in already increasing commodities prices.

Higher prices for food and fuel have already helped spark unrest in the Middle East and are helping to drive recovery-killing inflation in developed nations.

Bernanke, though, says it is too soon to stop stimulating the U.S. economy and that the mild inflation now hitting the U.S. is too serious a concern. Like President Obama, Bernake holds that eliminating government stimulus now could restart the recession.

The counter argument is that like in the 1970s, once inflation takes hold, it is nearly impossible to beat. An economy can grow its way out of a recession, but not inflation.

From the 2012 Campaign Quote File

“I look at those poll numbers and I say well, if I’m going to do this, then obviously I got to get out there and let people know who I am, what I stand for, and what my record is. I can’t rely on a liberal-leaning press.”

-- Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin at a luncheon hosted by a Long Island, N.Y. civic group answering a question about her decline in support among Republicans

And Now, A Word From Charles

“You look at the video, and it looks like the demonstrators have a sense it's an Egypt moment. There is a difference between Egypt and Wisconsin. Egypt doesn't have open, free elections, a bicameral legislature and elected governor with multiple parties. What you really have is a lot of intimidation.”

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier