It's been about a week since Senate Democrats unveiled their legislative response to the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby ruling: the "Protect Women's Health From Corporate Interference Act." Championed by Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), the bill would require insurance plans to cover birth control, just as the ACA intended, though houses of worship would be exempt and religious non-profits would be accommodated.
The bill was such a high priority for the Senate majority party, it reached the floor today. As Adam Serwer reported, the measure came up short against a Republican filibuster, though the margin matters.
Senate Republicans successfully filibustered a Democratic proposal Wednesday to reverse the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision holding that corporations could refuse to offer insurance coverage to their employees that covers contraception.
The bill was expected to fail.... Even if the bill would have passed the Senate, it would have faced an impossible road in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
There's a companion bill in the lower chamber, but the likelihood of House GOP leaders allowing a vote on it are roughly zero.
Still, it's worth appreciating the margin of today's Senate vote. Officially, it failed on a 56-43 vote, four shy of the supermajority Republicans require for practically all legislation. But take a closer look at the roll call -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) supported the measure but had to switch his vote for procedural reasons, and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), one of the chamber's most reliably progressive voices, supports the bill but missed today's vote.
In other words, the bill had 58 supporters, including the backing of three Republicans: Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
Sure, 42 out of 45 Republicans blocked the contraception-access measure, which is pretty overwhelming opposition, but just two more votes would have guaranteed Senate passage.
Looking ahead, the question is now whether Democrats and progressive organizations will use this as a campaign issue, but how much.
For a variety of Republicans, the Supreme Court's contraception ruling in the Hobby Lobby case poses a real challenge. Criticize the decision and GOP officials run the risk of infuriating the party's base. Endorse the decision and Republicans risk alienating the American mainstream, which doesn't like the idea of employers interfering with contraception access.
It's why New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), for example, went to unintentionally amusing lengths to avoid saying anything about the Hobby Lobby ruling. But as Paul Lewis reported, even Christie wasn't as evasive as former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), now on the campaign trail in New Hampshire.
I found Brown at a table at a restaurant called Priscilla's, introduced myself as a Guardian reporter and enquired if I could ask him some questions. Brown smiled nervously and replied: "What do you want to ask me about?"
"Hobby Lobby? That would be a start," I said.
"I'm all set," he replied. "We're enjoying ourselves right now."
"But you're standing for Senate. It is routine for journalists to ask you questions and usually the candidates answer."
"Not without notifying my office."
At that point, Brown reportedly "took shelter in the bathroom." When the reporter waited in the diner's parking lot to follow-up, the Republican candidate exited, ran into a car, and left.
As a rule, when politicians feel the need to literally run away from questions, it's not a good sign.
It's been an unusually difficult year for Republican governors. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, for example, is caught up in several ongoing scandals. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback's office has drawn the FBI's interest. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker may have been involved in a "criminal scheme" to bypass state election laws. Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) is involved in a legal controversy of his own, while former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) is currently facing corruption charges.
The head of the state ethics commission said she was threatened and pressured by Gov. Nathan Deal's office in 2012 to "make the complaints" against the governor "go away," according to a memo obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
While on vacation in July 2012, state ethics commission director Holly LaBerge says she received a call from Ryan Teague, Deal's chief counsel, and texts from chief of staff Chris Riley, according to the memo released by Attorney General Sam Olens' office in response to an Open Records Act request.
LaBerge claims Teague said, "It was not in the agency's best interest for these cases to go to a hearing ... nor was it in their best political interest either."
Allegations about Deal's ethical transgressions have been simmering for a long while and mostly involve questions stemming from the governor's 2010 campaign. The issues, including alleged misuse of campaign funds for legal expenses, certainly matter, but they never seemed like the kind of controversy that put Deal's career in real jeopardy.
But the story never really went away and it wasn't long before locals started wondering whether the alleged cover-up was worse than the alleged crime. Last year, the FBI even reportedly took an interest in the allegations. If there's evidence the governor's team applied not-so-subtle pressure on the state ethics commission, that raises the stakes yet again on the seriousness of the story.
Today's installment of campaign-related news items that won't necessarily generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers:
* As noted on the show last night, a group of 104 Kansas Republicans announced their support yesterday for Paul Davis, the Democrat running against Gov. Sam Brownback (R). The list of Republicans backing the Democrat includes two former lieutenant governors, the current state insurance commissioner, and many former members of the state legislature.
* In a runoff primary in Alabama yesterday, Gary Palmer defeated state Rep. Paul DeMarco and is now well positioned to replace retiring Rep. Spencer Bachus (R). It was a rare 2014 win for the Club for Growth.
* In Iowa's closely watching U.S. Senate race, a new NBC News/Marist poll shows Joni Ernst (R) and Bruce Braley (D) tied at 43% each.
* In New Hampshire, a NBC News/Marist poll shows Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) with an eight-point advantage over former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), 50% to 42%.
* Florida's Republican legislature has decided not to appeal the recent ruling on redistricting, meaning that state lawmakers will have to redraw the congressional-distract map. The changes are unlikely to affect the 2014 cycle.
* When it comes to this year's competitive gubernatorial races, keep an eye on South Carolina -- the Democratic Governors Association is launching a six-figure ad buy targeting incumbent Gov. Nikki Haley (R).
Looking solely at generic-ballot polls, Democrats look like they're in pretty good shape in 2014, enjoying consistent advantages over Republicans for most of the year. Of course, the problem is that the generic-ballot polls mask every pertinent detail: structural factors, geographic imbalance, gerrymandered districts, voter-suppression efforts, and the nagging fact that Democratic voters don't like to show up for midterm elections.
That last point appears to be an area of acute concern to party leaders. President Obama himself said last week that "one challenge that I always offered to Democrats is we do have one congenital disease, which is we're not very good during off-year elections."
And yet, with 111 days to go, congressional Democratic officials remain "absolutely" confident.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told The Washington Post Tuesday that her goal is to win 25 seats this November -- a bold statement given that historical trends suggest that the party of a sitting president usually loses seats in the sixth year of his term.
Political forecasters generally agree that Republicans will expand their majority in November.
Democrats will need a net gain of 17 seats, which is no small task given the circumstances.
"We're playing in about 70 districts," Pelosi told the Post. "Twenty-five is my goal -- I would like that. Seventeen is our must. I think we win 17 of those seats. We won 16 in the last election, but we lost eight. As [DCCC Chairman Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.)] says, you don't add by subtracting. Nobody knows. Nobody knows."
What Pelosi does know, however, is that there's probably value in letting voters know what Democrats would do with the ability to govern.
It's hard to complain when Congress actually prevents a disaster, but the resolution of the fight over the Highway Trust Fund isn't exactly a striking legislative achievement.
The House passed a bill on Tuesday that would keep federal highway and bridge construction funded through May, averting a funding crisis that would have stalled infrastructure projects across the country and cost construction jobs.
The $11 billion stopgap bill, which is expected to pass the Senate and receive the president's signature, is funded in part by a tweak to the federal pension system -- a workaround that both liberals and conservatives have criticized.
The final vote was 367 to 55, thanks to a a lopsided, bipartisan majority.
The one thing -- the only thing -- that all the relevant policymakers agreed on was that disaster wasn't an option and allowing the fund to exhaust all of its resources would not happen. This was itself an interesting twist, not only because bipartisan agreement is so usual, but also because far-right activist groups like Heritage Action condemned the bill, and pretty much everyone on Capitol Hill ignored them.
Why? Because voters in conservative districts like to drive on paved roads, bridges, and highways, too.
But the closer one looks, the messier this becomes. The House version kicks the can down the road -- Congress will have to tackle this same policy again next May -- by relying on a policy called "pension smoothing." I'll spare you the wonky details again -- read Josh Barro's explanation from the other day -- but note that Republicans condemned this exact same funding approach just a couple of months ago as an irresponsible gimmick.
GOP lawmakers this week changed their minds, not on the merits, but because the alternative was a tax hike the party refused to consider.
So why are Democrats going along with this? Because time is running out and they don't see any other credible alternative.
In October 2013, House Republicans demanded a briefing from the White House on the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, then skipped the White House briefing they requested. In June 2014, Senate Republicans demanded a information on Bowe Bergdahl's release, but skipped the classified briefing on Bowe Bergdahl's release.
All of which leads us to yesterday, when House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) demanded information from the White House Office of Political Strategy and Outreach, which the far-right lawmaker suspects of wrongdoing. Administration officials went to Capitol Hill yesterday to answer questions and provide a detailed account of the office's actions.
"Guess who didn't even bother to show-up? One guess. Correct, no Issa," a Democratic source said.
The Democratic source said staff briefed Issa's staff for an hour and 15 minutes and answered every question -- 45 in all -- until they stopped. "I do think it's fairly remarkable, that if Issa wants to be seen as genuinely caring about the issue (and not just cameras), that he didn't even bother to attend. I would love to know what his staff says he was doing instead," the source said.
The congressman's staff hasn't explained his decision to skip the briefing, which included the answers to questions Issa claims to want so desperately.
But making matters worse, Issa refused to drop the reckless subpoena of White House political adviser David Simas, even after administration officials answered literally every question Issa's aides had.
Two years ago, there probably wasn't too much Republicans could do to win over younger voters, who tend to be more progressive than other generations, but Mitt Romney certainly didn't help matters with his education platform.
As the GOP's presidential nominee told voters in 2012, young people who can't afford to go to the college of their choice should simply "shop around" for some other, cheaper institution: "I know it is very tempting as a politician to go out and say, 'You know what, I'll just give you some money. The government's just going to give you some money and pay back your loans for you.' I'm not going to tell you something that's not the truth."
In this scenario, young people would be on their own. If a student comes from a wealthy family, he or she would have the resources to pay for higher ed. If not, well, perhaps the student should have picked wealthier parents, because a Romney administration wouldn't help with Pell Grants or student loans.
President Obama won the youth vote by 23 points.
Two years later, the party's position doesn't seem to have changed much. Amanda Terkel reported yesterday:
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) seemed to have little sympathy for students who have accumulated massive amounts of student debt during a town hall with constituents last week. Instead of looking to the government to forgive their debt, he said, they should start looking at schools that are cheaper. [...]
"I think the best short-term solution is for parents to be very cost-conscious in shopping around for higher education alternatives. Not everybody needs to go to Yale. I don't know about you guys, but I went to a regular ol' Kentucky college. And some people would say I've done okay."
He added, "There are a lot of low-cost options that I hope more and more kids will take advantage of."
We are, in other words, back to the "shop around" plan.
An interesting intra-party debate has unfolded in Republican circles recently over whether or not to pursue impeachment against President Obama. At a distance, GOP officials appear to be divided into three separate groups.
The first is shouting, "Impeach!" without much regard for consequences or merit. The second is responding, "Sue him instead!" as an apparent attempt at placating Republican extremists. The third contingent agrees with the first group, and would love to impeach for reasons that no one seems able to explain, but fears political blowback and realizes the Senate wouldn't remove the president from office. For this faction, the crusade just isn't worth the effort.
But yesterday, one Texas congressman put a new spin on this third group's message, saying Obama "definitely deserves" to be impeached -- again, no one knows why -- but House Republicans can't pursue this because they don't have time.
Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX) was somewhat more sympathetic to the idea but even he opposed initiating impeachment proceedings "right now," arguing that the House is too busy to get to it.
"The president deserves to be impeached. Plain and simple," he said. "But ... we have so much on our plate that it's not practical."
This isn't a good argument. It is, however, an unintentionally hilarious argument.
Almost immediately after President Obama unveiled his plan to resolve the border crisis, congressional Republicans balked. There were, House Speaker John Boehner complained, no provisions in the plan about sending National Guard troops to the border.
A week later, the president was in Texas, where he met with a variety of state officials, including Gov. Rick Perry (R). The Republican governor emphasized one point above all others: he wants Obama to deploy National Guard troops to the border.
GOP policymakers may not have thought this one through. In fact, Greg Sargent talked to the head of the National Guard under the Bush/Cheney administration, who offered a valuable perspective.
[I]n an interview today, the head of the National Guard under George W. Bush said he had not yet heard a clear rationale for sending in the Guard and suggested it might not be the appropriate response to the problems at the core of the current crisis, though he did say he could envision the Guard playing some sort of part in a broader solution.
"Until mission requirements are clearly defined, it can't be determined whether this is an appropriate use of the Guard in this particular case," H. Steven Blum, who was the Chief of the National Guard Bureau from 2003 to 2009 and has been a career military man for decades, told me. "There may be many other organizations that might more appropriately be called upon. If you're talking about search and rescue, maintaining the rule of law or restoring conditions back to normal after a natural disaster or a catastrophe, the Guard is superbly suited to that. I'm not so sure that what we're dealing with in scope and causation right now would make it the ideal choice."
That seems to be an exceedingly polite way of saying, "Republican demands don't seem to make any sense."
Some of this seems to be the result of GOP confusion about the nature of the story itself. Many Republicans seem to believe this is a border-security crisis, which the National Guard can help address directly.
But that's not consistent with the facts on the ground.
Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) found herself in an awkward spot yesterday when a report surfaced quoting the congresswoman making some very controversial comments about women. At a forum on Republican "messaging," Ellmers reportedly said that men "talk about things on a much higher level," so GOP officials should "bring it down to a woman's level."
Soon after, the North Carolinian's office complained that Ellmers' comments had been "taken completely out of context" by "a liberal woman reporter."
The latter point was plainly untrue. The original report was published by the Washington Examiner, a conservative outlet, and written by Ashe Schow, a Republican and former Heritage Foundation staffer. Ellmers' office may not have liked Schow's report, but to dismiss her as "a liberal woman reporter" was wrong.
But what about the former? It seems like a knowable thing -- either Ellmers was "taken completely out of context" or she wasn't. With this in mind, Schow published a second report late yesterday with an audio clip and a lengthy transcript.
"Especially moms, you know we balance so many different things, you know. Or school. Think about what many of you are doing, you know, you're trying to maintain that job, you know, you've got to be moving up in your career. All these different things are coming in at the same time.
"Men do tend to talk about things on a much higher level. You know, one of the things that has always been one of my frustrations and I speak about this all the time -- many of my male colleagues, when they go to the House floor, you know, they've got some pie chart or graph behind them and they're talking about trillions of dollars and, you know, how the debt is awful and, you know, we all agree with that.
"But by starting off that discussion that way, we've already turned people away. Because it's like 'that doesn't affect my life, I don't understand how that affects my life.'"
From there, Ellmers said Republicans need to be "engaging individuals on their level," adding that GOP men should "bring it down to a woman's level."
Does this context make the quote less offensive? Well, it depends.
José Díaz-Balart, news anchor for Telemundo and MSNBC host, talks with Steve Kornacki about why the influx of immigrants from Central America should be treated as a humanitarian emergency ill served by political grandstanding. watch
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, co-author of the Women's Health Protection Act, talks with Steve Kornacki about why Republican claims that restrictive legislation targeting women's health options do more harm than good for women they claim to help. watch