Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Daily Strike-7/14/09-The Hearings: Day 2/Health in the House

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. It was a very busy day in politics, and I want to catch the MLB All Star Game (where President Obama will throw out the first pitch) so let's get to the day in politics.

SUMMARY: The two big stories today were the second day of confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, and the unveiling of the House's health-care plan. We'll spend most of the entry on those two issues, but let's give a quick summary of what else happened in the world of politics:

-President Obama made another nomination today, this time tapping Aaron Williams, currently the Vice President of for International Business Development at RTI International. Apparently, he has 25 years of experience with "worldwide assistance activity." Not exactly a household name, but I see nothing wrong with the pick.

-The President held an event in Macomb, Michigan to announce a 10 year effort to support community colleges. The plan calls for investments in into both community colleges themselves, and for research into effective job training programs. The President deviated from his prepared remarks to address the issues of the day. He attacked critics of his economic program who have "carped and griped" without offering constructive ideas of their own.

-No major action today in the Senate or House. The Senate continues to debate the Defense Authorization Bill (not appropriations, as we erroneously reported earlier), and the House will move on to two more appropriations bills starting tomorrow morning.

SOTOMAYOR: Today was the second day of hearings for Sonia Sotomayor, and the first day she had to answer questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee. Overall, Sotomayor had a tough, but very strong day. She answered sometimes harsh, and often personal questions with patience and candor. On questions pertaining to specific issues likely to confront the court, she was pretty vague, mostly expressing her support for stare decisis, the idea that court precedent must be respected whenever possible. When your chances of being confirmed are as high as Sotomayor's, there's no reason to stir up any unnecessary controversy.

As you can imagine, the tone of questions varied greatly between the two parties. Democrats lobbed a few softballs. Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (VT) started the hearing by asking about Sotomayor's "successful" prosecution of a notorious Bronx serial criminal. New York Senator Charles Schumer first asked a series of questions to show the committee that Sotomayor has ruled against her own personal sympathies in a variety of cases, and then asked her if she was a Yankees fan.

Democrats did ask their share of substantive questions. Senator Herb Kohl of Wisconsin asked the obligatory question as to whether Sotomayor believes in a constitutional right to privacy. She answered in the affirmative and told the committee that she believed Roe v. Wade is settled precedent. Most nominees say something to this effect, but it was still music to the ears of pro-choice activists. Senator Feingold (WI) spent his allotted time asking about post 9/11 executive power cases, including those where the court overruled the Bush administration and sided with Guantanamo detainees. Both Leahy and Feingold asked about gun rights. Sotomayor said that she respects the precedent the court set in last year's District of Columbia v. Heller case, but she noted that the right had not been deemed "fundamental" and therefore did not yet apply to the states under the 14th amendment. Democrats asking questions today included Leahy (VT), Kohl (WI), Feinstein (CA), Feingold (WI), Schumer (NY) and Durbin (IL). Tomorrow, we'll hear from the remaining six Democrats on the committee, Senators Cardin (MD), Whitehouse (RI), Klobuchar (MN), Kaufman (DE), Specter (PA) and Franken.

Republicans came into the hearing saying they would be respectful of the nominee, yet their questions for the most part did not live up to this standard. Ranking Republican Jeff Sessions spent most of his question time focusing not on any cases, nor on Sotomayor's judicial history, but rather on comments she made 8 years ago about making decisions as a "wise Latina judge." He also accused her several times of letting her personal background influence her decisions on the bench. Sotomayor patiently repeated that one need only examine her 17 year record on the federal bench, and they will see that she is a fair and impartial jurist. Senator Sessions had one cringe-worthy moment. Talking about when Sotomayor voted not to hear an appeal to her decision in the now infamous Ricci reverse discrimination case, Sessions said that, "Had you voted with Judge Cabranes, himself of Puerto Rican ancestry, had you voted with him, you could’ve changed that case." I don't know why he said that, but it seemed to suggest that she should have come to the same ruling as a fellow Puerto Rican.

The most aggressive questioning I saw today came from Lindsay Graham (SC), who I think many liberals might want to punch in the face after his display this afternoon. In the course of a half hour, Graham brought up a) anonymous quotes from lawyers who said that Sotomayor was overly aggressive, b) he suggested that as a member of the board Puerto Rico Legal Defense Fund she implicitly endorsed one of their past positions that denying government support for abortion was the equivalent to slavery, c) asked Sotomayor if she had a temperament problem and d) suggested that her speeches were so troubling that Sotomayor should not "become a speech writer if this law thing doesn’t work out." Who ARE you Lindsay Graham to be rudely attacking her like this?

Ultimately, the antics of Sessions and Graham matter little. Sotomayor did not say anything today that would jeopardize what now seems like her inevitable nomination. I just hope Graham's brusque questioning helps to further discredit Republicans' already poor standing among women and minorities.

The hearings will continue tomorrow morning, and are scheduled to conclude on Thursday afternoon. Presumably, the committee will vote at that time whether to send her nomination to the full Senate. With a large Democratic advantage on the committee, Sotomayor will almost certainly be sent to the Senate. It remains to be seen whether she'll get any Republican votes on the committee.

HEALTH CARE: House Democrats today unveiled their version of comprehensive health reform in a move that should be celebrated by all health reform advocates. The bill includes a robust public insurance option as part of a new health insurance exchange, a mandate enforced by a fee equal 2.5% of modified gross income above a certain threshold, and provides sliding scale affordability to credits to individuals who can't afford insurance. You should read the bill's summary here, it is very encouraging. To pay for the bill, Democrats are introducing a surtax on the wealthiest Americans (individuals earning $280,000 and couples earning $350,000) to add to other cuts within the system. President Obama offered effusive praise for the bill and it's House architects. The three committees of jurisdiction, Energy and Commerce, Ways and Means, and Education and Labor, will begin marking up their portions of the bill this week. House leaders say that passage of the bill, with changes, is still in track by the end of the month.

Even though a lot of work needs to be done to secure a majority in favor of this strong bill, I'm thrilled about the bill's release. The Big Picture summed it up quite well:

Great, great, great!! Arguably the best moment so far in this whole effort. As you said yesterday, Clinton's plan never even reached this point. If the f--in' Senate didn't exist, as it should not, then we could pass the bill by the end of the month. It says something when the two institutions far more connected to the popular will, the House and the Presidency, as well as the Senators first elected in the most recent elections, also more attuned to the popular will, are behind this program. The only people out of step are the people out of step with the times.

I think it's really good to have this bill out here now, the House and Obama united behind it, get the activist community behind it, and now you've really got something positive as the benchmark, puts into much clearer focus what health care reform really IS. Now the Senate has to define its plan against this benchmark of the Obama-House plan, if there are differences the onus should be on them to explain why. Good timing as Obama plans on spending these three weeks devoted to health care - now it's time to take to the country with this plan, challenging opponents, get our people out there selling it, deriding any critics, crank it into GEAR!

The biggest obstacle to passing a bill right now would appear to be the moderate Blue Dog Democrats, who sent a letter full of various objections to the proposed bill last week. Nate Silver of 538.com had a great article today showing that it is in fact the Blue Dogs who represent districts with the highest rates of uninsured. The Big Picture offers a thoughtful response worth reading:

Great point, potentially, but unfortunately politics is constructed in such a way for that type of fact to matter as little as possible. The kind of people who don't have health insurance don't vote at high rates, and they definitely don't contribute money. And more importantly, if these districts had made it clear that their prime concern was universal access to health care, they probably wouldn't vote Republican for President! Unfortunately there is no evidence that in Conservative parts of the country the 80% who have health insurance give a rat's ass about the 20% of people in their community who don't. More likely they say "serves them right for being lazy bums".

And then even if all that mattered, few of these people face competitive re-elections, and fewer still have any fear of a primary threat from the left that could threaten them a la Sestak. They base their decisions on how to get contributors' money, how not to piss off the opinion-leaders who set the tone for how the mass of less-informed people vote, and probably on how to be on good terms to be a lobbyist after they leave the House, or for their wife or kids to be lobbyists. Or their decisions are really made by their staffs, who want to be lobbyists or have been lobbyists. And in their meetings to form opinions on the issue, they only hear from the lobbyists, so even if they're not acting out of self-interest, they're getting a perspective completely colored by the lobbyists' agenda.
Now, if you built up a true movement, show how it would benefit most people in the districts, have them find credible challengers to put pressure like Sestak ... then you'd be talking. But until then gotta remember how things actually work.

We will keep the conversation on health care going in the coming days as the House considers consideration of the bill. But I have to say, with the release of the House bill today, I'm more optimistic than I've been in quite awhile.

That's it for tonight, see you tomorrow!

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