News, Straight to the Point

As the minority party in the 114th Congress, Senate Democrats are staking out specific policy areas to direct most of their focus.

Now that they no longer have a majority in either chamber, they're stuck with either blocking the Republican agenda or staking out positions of their own. Several key lawmakers have begun doing that.

"It's a smart way to bring new voices to the leadership table," Doug Thornell, a former top advisor to Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and former deputy political director at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee told TPM. "It also helps with accountability. It also helps people feel like they do have a role and that they're part of the team, rather than a top down leadership structure."

READ: Progressives Seek Control Of The Democratic Party Here are five policy areas and the Democrats who are going to have a laser focus on them going forward:

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The world looked on in horror Wednesday as three gunmen carried out out a deadly attack on the Paris offices of satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

At least 12 people were killed in the attack, including its editor, a cartoonist and two police officers. One of the police officers had been assigned to guard the deceased editor Stephane Charbonnier, also known as Charb, after he received threats.

The Catholic church, and French and world politicians were some of the publication's favorite punching bags. It also frequently aimed its satire at Islam, and its cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in particular caused trouble for Charlie Hebdo and its staff. The Associated Press reported that al-Qaeda published a threat to Charb in its magazine in 2013.

About 7.5 percent of France's population as of 2010 was Muslim, according to Pew. Depictions of the Prophet Muhammad are against Islamic law, and Charlie Hebdo angered that community over the last decade as it repeatedly turned to Muhammad to denounce terrorists in its cartoons.

Here are some of the keys to understanding Charlie Hebdo's place in French journalism and its history as a lightning rod for Muslims.

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Virginia ex-Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) is scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday morning on 11 public corruption convictions for which prosecutors are seeking at least 10 years of jail time.

The governor's fall from grace has been excruciating. A six-week trial that culminated in McDonnell's conviction in early September revealed an apparently broken marriage and dredged up unflattering details of former first lady Maureen McDonnell's mental health. The defense tried to leverage both revelations to prove McDonnell couldn't have conspired with his wife to trade the prestige of the governor's office for more than $165,000 in loans and luxurious gifts from a Virginia businessman.

McDonnell's lawyers previously indicated they would appeal the convictions. In the meantime, the former governor's defense team amassed nearly 450 letters of support from family members, political figures and friends asking U.S. District Judge James Spencer for leniency in sentencing.

Here are some of the more high-profile figures to go to bat for the convicted ex-governor.

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The new Congress will convene on Tuesday and elect a House Speaker. That means renewed drama and speculation as to whether conservatives will finally topple Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) and install one of their own to run the chamber.

It's highly unlikely. Here are five things to keep in mind.

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Harvard University faculty are distraught over changes being made to their health plan in part because of the Affordable Care Act, the New York Times reported Monday.

They groused that it was a sign of the "corporatization" of the most renowned institution of higher education in the United States and that its effect would be "taxing the sick."

Here is what you need to know, via the Times' Robert Pear:

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What a ride this year has been.

Obamacare began 2014 still sullied by its disastrous debut in October 2013 -- but now, 12 months later, what's most notable about its second open enrollment period is how unremarkable it's been.

Republicans have dealt with this reality in myriad ways. Sometimes, they have simply denied it. Otherwise, they have fixated on new scandals -- the case now before the Supreme Court and what became Gruber-gate -- that, in their minds, undermine any success that the law has had.

Here are the stages, if you will, of Republican grief over the law that they have spent the better part of a decade trying to destroy.

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House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) admitted this week that he spoke 12 years ago to a meeting of a white nationalist group founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.

However, the Louisiana Republican was adamant in a Monday interview with the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper that he had no knowledge of the group's hateful views when he spoke at its 2002 convention. An adviser to Duke said he personally invited Scalise to speak at the meeting. The adviser, Kenny Knight, insisted the congressman had not been not aware of the nature of Duke's group, the European-American Unity and Rights Organization.

Yet Duke was already notorious in Louisiana politics for mounting several unsuccessful bids for state office from the late 1970s to the 1990s. (He did pull off a runoff election victory for a state House seat in 1989).

Duke's nativist and anti-Semitic views were common knowledge nationwide before the 2002 EURO convention as well, which raises questions about how Scalise could have been ignorant about the kind of audience he was speaking to at the time.

As editor Erick Erickson wrote on Monday: "By 2002, everybody knew Duke was still the man he had claimed not to be. EVERYBODY."

Here's a sampling of the things that were widely known about Duke and his group at the time of the conference:

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Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) resigned in 2011 amid a particularly messy scandal that featured allegations that he slept with a top aide's wife and then lobbied to get the aide a cushy job in order to keep the affair secret.

The Justice Department decided not to indict Ensign and he has faded into relative obscurity working as a veterinarian in Las Vegas. But the revelations of new, though heavily redacted, documents from the investigation into his misdeeds has thrust Ensign back into the spotlight. They describe the "brazen" manner, in the words of one executive, that Ensign sought to save his career.

The New York Times and Las Vegas Review-Journal reported on the new documents, obtained by the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington through a lawsuit. Read the full documents at the Times. Here are the highlights.

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The 2014 elections were about as brutal for Democrats as they could have imagined. But it wasn't such a bad year for the party otherwise. President Barack Obama gave up on working with Republicans on big issues, and instead relied on his executive authority to implement a slew of important reforms.

Here are five big things he did this year without the help of Republicans.

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