Ongoing tales of Republican corruption have Democrats seeing opportunities in next year's congressional races. The GOP has 55 Senate seats and the Dems need to pick up six to regain control, but conventional wisdom is that Dems are at the disadvantage since they have two more seats up for next year's election (three if you count independent Jim Jeffords' seat in Vermont). But Republicans have had problems recruiting candidates to challenge Democratic incumbents while more GOP incumbents are looking vulnerable.

National Republicans failed to convince US Rep. Shelley Moore, R-W.V., to challenge Sen. Robert Byrd, N.D. Gov. John Hoeven (R) to challenge Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., to challenge Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. Chuck Todd wrote in the National Journal that with a breeze at the back of Democrats, they could pick up six or seven seats. "The key for the party that's got a little breeze at the end is putting enough races in play to win all those toss-ups," Todd wrote. Dems already have lined up competitive challengers to GOP incumbents, who are already polling below 45% against the Democrat, in five states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, Arizona and Rhode Island, Chris Bowers wrote at MyDD.com. In five more states -- Montana, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia and Mississippi -- GOP incumbents are either just above 50% or are leaving seats open. Republicans are mounting strong challenges of seats held by Dems in Minnesota, Washington and Maryland (Minnesota and Maryland will be open seats) and five states are listed as potentially competitive: Florida, New Jersey, Michigan, Nebraska and Vermont.

Democrats might luck out in Florida, where some of the state's strongest Republicans opted for the open governor's race, leaving polarizing US Rep. Katherine Harris, who as secretary of state ran the highly partisan election office in 2000, to challenge Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

Bowers notes that four of the eight vulnerable Democratic seats are in in Democratic-leaning states. "Still, currently Democrats only hold a five-to-three advantage in already competitive seats, meaning that we currently do not meet even the minimum requirements for a takeover in 2006 ... Of course, we still have a year to change things, and the recruiting [momentum] is definitely on our side," Bowers wrote.

David Weigel noted at Prospect.org 10/5/05 that George W. Bush's unpopularity over the war in Iraq and his campaign to privatize Social Security is a drag on Republican candidates. This year in Florida, Michigan, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Vermont -- all states with potentially hot Senate races -- his approval is mired in the 30s.

The race to replace Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) has attracted at least nine candidates. National Republicans hope Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, the party's highest-ranking African American, will emerge from the primary of at least four GOP candidates so that he can split the state's black vote. At least four candidates have lined up for the Democratic nomination, including US Rep. Ben Cardin, a liberal who has tried to straddle the support of business and labor, and former US Rep. Kweisi Mfume, former NAACP president, who was considered the frontrunner until he was embroiled in a sex scandal. And Kevin Zeese, former press secretary of Ralph Nader's 2004 presidential campaign and now director fo DemocracyRising.US, is exploring the possibility of putting together a "fusion" campaign of the Green Party, the Populist Party and the Libertarian Party.

In Ohio, progressive Rep. Sherrod Brown (D), changed his mind and announced he would run for the Senate seat held by Mike DeWine (R). That sets up a Democratic primary with Paul Hackett, a progressive populist lawyer and veteran of the Iraq war who narrowly lost a special election in the heavily Republican 2nd Congressional District east of Cincinnati in August. Hackett is a darling of Internet grassroots activists, raising $1 mln for his upstart congressional race, but Brown, a seven-term congressman who has long been a critic of corporate trade deals, is a former statewide official with $2 mln in the bank and a statewide organization.

In the House, where Republicans hold 231 of the 435 seats, the Washington Post reported 10/10/05 that US Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says 50 or more seats are in play and notes that his organization has recruited 40 candidates in competitive districts. His GOP counterpart, Rep. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), says 27 to 37 seats could be close fights.

HEALTH PREMIUMS UP: A new study by Hewitt Associates expects health-care costs for businesses to raise 9.9% on average in 2006, up from 9.2% in 2005. Skyrocketing health care costs are crippling companies like GM, which has cited the cost of providing health coverage for its workers and retirees as a main culprit in its $2.8 bln in losses so far this year. GM estimates its health-care bill will be $5.6 bln this year. ThinkProgress.org noted that workers also suffer, as their share of health care costs are projected to rise 11.6% while wage increases are expected to be about 3.6%. For a person who makes $40,000 per year, that increase in health-care costs would take out about 23% of their overall salary gains.

JUSTICE HOLDS BACK BANKRUPCY HAMMER: Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the House Judiciary chairman, opposed relief for Gulf Coast hurricane victims and said he would not hold hearings to consider changes in the punitive new bankruptcy law that was written by and for the credit industry. But the Justice Department has announced that it will not enforce some provisions for Louisiana and Mississippi residents. Hurrah for the Justice Department for saying they will back off this terrible bill," Elizabeth Warren, a professor of bankruptcy law at Harvard Law School, wrote at TPMCafe.com. "Notice that to provide even minimal protection for people following a catastrophe, the Justice Department must offer wholesale waiver of enforcement of multiple provisions that Congress specifically put into the bill. That's pretty strong evidence that the changes in the law are going to have a hard impact on families in trouble -- including those who don't get a special hurricane break." She also noted that the laws allow creditors to raise a host of objections if the debtor fails to comply with the new statutory provisions. "One shark (the Justice Department) just declared itself a vegetarian, but the others did not take the pledge."

Southeast Texas victims of Hurricane Rita also apparently are still on the hook, as their devastation has been largely overlooked by the national media. Two weeks after Rita blew through Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana, many residents were still unable to return to homes in Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange, where curfews remained in force and electricity was still out in nearly 20% of homes.

BANKRUPTCY NO BAR TO CORPORATIONS: While individual debtors must undergo a grueling process to reorder their financial affairs under the punitive new bankruptcy law that went into effect in October, the courts are still a haven for profligate corporations. Delphi is the latest business to turn to the bankruptcy court to shed troublesome obligations to workers and retirees, such as health care and pensions.

Steve Miller, CEO of Delphi, has warned that Delphi's bankruptcy is a foretaste of "inter-generational warfare" as the interests of the current workers is pitted against the interests of retirees. But while Delphi made generous commitments to retirees, economist Dean Baker noted at Maxspeak.org's blog, the corporation also paid substantial dividends to shareholders and rich salaries to its top executives. "In this way, Mr. Miller can tell the current generation of workers that the only place to get their paychecks is by taking back the benefits that retirees have already worked for. Were the benefits too generous? Believers in a free market don't ask such questions &endash; the benefits were part of a contract and would be honored by any honest libertarian. However, the law is structured so that many retiree benefits can be retaken (most importantly health care coverage) even as the past salaries of the executives that drove Delphi to bankruptcy remain beyond reach."

Baker added, "It is also important to note that much of the 'inter-generational war' is attributable to the fact that the United States has by far the most inefficient health care system in the world. We pay more than twice as much per person for health care, yet rank last among rich countries in life expectancy. If the US health care system were as efficient as the Japanese, Canadian, or even the French system, Delphi might not even be filing for bankruptcy. Unfortunately, the people who hold power in this country won't let health care reform be discussed. They would rather tell young workers to beat up on their parents and grandparents."

BUSH BIGGER PROBLEM THAN TERRORISTS: It's bad enough that a CBS poll found Bush's approval at 37%. But ThinkProgress.org noted that when asked to specify America's most important problem, more respondents pointed to Bush (5%) than to terrorism (4%). The biggest problems were the war in Iraq (18%), economy and jobs (16%) and the gas and oil crisis and Bush, both at 5%.

BUSH MILITARIZES BIRD FLU: Bush's proposal to expand his dictatorial powers to use the military to enforce quarantines in a bird flu pandemic is "dangerous" and "Draconian," Dr. Irwin Redlener, associate dean of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and director of its National Center for Disaster Preparedness, told the Associated Press. Giving the military a law enforcement role would be an "extraordinarily Draconian measure" that would be unnecessary if the nation had built the capability for rapid vaccine production, ensured a large supply of anti-virals like Tamiflu and not allowed the degradation of the public health system, he said.

Gene Healy, a senior editor at the conservative Cato Institute, said Bush would risk undermining "a fundamental principle of American law" by tinkering with the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which does not hinder the military's ability to respond to a crisis. "What it does is set a high bar for the use of federal troops in a policing role," he wrote in a commentary at Cato.org. "That reflects America's traditional distrust of using standing armies to enforce order at home, a distrust that's well-justified."

HOUSE GOP RAILROADS REFINERY BILL: House Republican leaders needed an extra 39 minutes to bully two Republicans to change their votes and allow a bill to pass that would ease enviornmental reviews and create more subsidies for oil refiners who already are seeing record profits. Democrats changed "Shame! Shame! Shame!" on 10/7/05 when the gavel finally fell 39 minutes after the five-minute period allotted for the roll call showed the GOP bill losing 210-212. "The chair is exercising its discretion as to when to close the vote," replied Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, the presiding officer. He insisted "the rules do not set a maximum duration" for a roll call, which at that point had lasted 14 minutes, Congresssional Quarterly reported. Democrats said the bill would do little to benefit US drivers.

UNION CREWS PROVE A BARGAIN: Joss Whedon, in making the sci-fi movie Serenity in Los Angeles for the comparitively low price of $50 mln, has made an explicit case for why union labor can beat non-union labor, Nathan Newman noted. The Los Angeles Times reported 10/8/05 that officials at Universal Pictures, which produced the movie, were anxious about Whedon's plans to keep the production in Los Angeles until the trained craftsmen created the main prop, a spaceship, in only 14 weeks and shot a 100-day picture in about half that time. "Because we had the very best people working for us," executive producer David Lester said. While the conventional wisdom is that it is cheaper to shoot in non-union locales, Lester said Los Angeles crafts people cost more than in other parts of the world because they know how to do things better and faster. Cinematographer Jack Green, a 40-year veteran, thinks runaway production is leading not only to a lot of wasted time and money but to a long-term disintegration among the various crafts. "So many crafts people are being hit so hard that they're going into other businesses or retiring early," he said.

MEDICARE DRUG DEBACLE: "If you think Bush is in trouble now, wait 'til people start experiencing the new Medicare drug benefit," Max Sawicky wrote at Maxspeak.org. "This is going to be a huge debacle." He noted that some drugs aren't covered at all; some generics have side effects, but the name brands without side effects won't be covered; late signups will be penalized. "Then there's the big donut hole -- what one person called 'an abyss.'" The plan, which Republicans rammed through Congress last year, was supposed to cut costs, but they're going through the roof anyway. "Democratic moral of the story, going into the '06 midterms: Don't let Republicans write social insurance legislation. ... Bigger moral: We need Medicare for all, with full coverage for drugs and mental health. Don't screw around with 'public-private partnerships' to save the health insurance industry."

CONGRESS SPLIT OVER TORTURE: The Senate set up a showdown with House Republicans over a $440 bln military spendng bill that, despite White House objections, would impose restrictions on the abuse of terrorism suspects and other prisoners of war. The GOP-controlled Senate voted 90-9 to back an amendment that would prohibit the use of "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" against anyone in US government custody, regardless of where they are held. Sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the proposal also would require all service members to follow procedures in the Army Field Manual when they detain and interrogate terrorism suspects. The White House say the legislation would limit the president's authority and flexibility in war, and threatened a veto of the spending bill if the prisoner provision is included in the version that goes to Bush's desk. Senators who voted to reserve the right to torture -- all Republicans -- included Wayne Allard, Colo.; Kit Bond, Mo.; Tom Coburn, Okla.; Thad Cochran, Miss.; John Cornyn, Texas; James Inhofe, Okla.; Pat Roberts; Kan.; Jeff Sessions, Ala.; and Ted Stevens, Alaska.

RURAL GROUP: SAVE OVER-AIR TV: Recent hurricane disasters show that old-fashioned over-the-air TV is still necessary. "The disaster events of the past month have shown clearly that citizens depend on and need over-the-air broadcast since there was no cable or satellite service after the storms started," said Alliance for Rural Television (ART) spokesman Larry Mitchell, who also is CEO of the American Corn Growers Association. The federal government plans to stop analog TV signals, replacing them with digital transmissions that will require cable or satellite connections or a set-top converter box, and ART wants to make sure that rural residents are not left behind. "Congress has made the decision to resell the public airwaves to the highest bidder," explained Mitchell. "All citizens should receive due compensation for this 'public takings.' Everyone who is currently dependent on over-the-air broadcasted television with analog receivers should be allowed a subsidy to acquire the set-top converters they will need when the transition occurs."

SECURITY CONCERNS STILL CLOUD E-VOTES: Five years after the US received a painful education on the perils of voting machines in Florida and almost a year after the 2004 election revealed irregularities in Ohio's vote tabulations, no uniform security standards exist for electronic voting machines, Declan McCullagh wrote at CNET News.com 10/6/05. "Even though they were used to tabulate a third of the votes in last year's presidential run, nearly all electronic voting machines in use today remain black boxes without external methods of verifying that the results have not been altered or sabotaged," he noted. "...In principle, there should be an easy solution: Require that e-voting machines include what's known as a voter-verifiable paper trail. That would permit a voter to review a physical printout with his or her selections -- perhaps under glass so the receipt can't be removed -- which would also provide a way to perform a manual recount, if necessary. But a complicated mix of partisan politics and the relative paucity of voter-verifiable products available today has delayed the switch to improved technology, according to election experts ..." Congress in 2002 handed $650 million, through the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), to help states buy electronic voting machines without imposing any voter-verifiable requirements. The money has already been spent, and federal politicians aren't eager to write a similar check again. In Congress, at least four bills requiring paper trails were introduced in 2005. All remain bottled up in committee, however, in part because key Republicans view e-vote reform as a Democratic ploy to cast doubt on the last two presidential races.

'FREE MARKETS' ONLY FOR BIG BIZ: [From the Internet, author unknown]: A car company can move its factories to Mexico and claim it's a free market.

A toy company can outsource to a Chinese subcontractor and claim it's a free market.

A major bank can incorporate in Bermuda to avoid taxes and claim it's a free market.

We can buy HP Printers made in Mexico. We can buy shirts made in Bangladesh. We can purchase almost anything we want from 20 different countries ...

But heaven help the elderly who dare to buy their prescription drugs from a Canadian pharmacy. That's called un-American! And you think the pharmaceutical companies don't have a powerful lobby? Think again!

LOBBYISTS ADVISE KATRINA RELIEF: Lobbyists representing transportation, energy and other special interests dominated panels that advised Louisiana's US senators crafting legislation to rebuild the storm-damaged Gulf Coast, the Los Angeles Times reported 10/10/05. The Louisiana Katrina Reconstruction Act -- introduced last month by Louisiana Sens. Mary L. Landrieu (D) and David Vitter (R) -- included billions of dollars' worth of business for clients of those lobbyists and a total price tag estimated as high as $250 billion. One advisory panel member, Ivor van Heerden, director of a hurricane public health research center at Louisiana State University, called the resulting legislation "a huge injustice" to the state. The result, he said, was a lost opportunity "to come up with something innovative, something the people of Louisiana and the nation could really endorse."

BRITS GET $8.89/HOUR MINIMUM: While the US minimum wage languishes at $5.15 per hour, the minimum wage in the United Kingdom increased to $8.89 per hour on 10/1/05. Nathan Newman noted that British business representatives are bleating about the costs and supposed employment effects, but studies have shown no adverse employment effects since Britain adopted an official minimum wage in 1999. In fact, the UK has seen better job growth than the US since then and in 2003 had a higher percentage of its working population employed than the US.

From The Progressive Populist, Nov. 1, 2005

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