Nick Baumann

Nick Baumann

Senior Editor

Nick is based in our DC bureau, where he covers national politics and civil liberties issues. Nick has also written for The Economist, The Atlantic, the Washington Monthly, and Commonweal. Email tips and insights to nbaumann [at] motherjones [dot] com. You can also follow him on Facebook.

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The Gitmo Rebellion

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 1:56 PM EST

It's not unusual to see Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman, (I-Conn.) complaining about President Barack Obama's conduct of the war on terror. 

But when they're openly joined by two Democratic senators—with more potentially hovering in the wings—that spells trouble for the administration's agenda. On Tuesday morning, Sens. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) teamed up with Graham for a press conference to announce a bill that would block funding for Obama's proposal to try 9/11 co-conspirators, including Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, in civilian courts.

By expressing full support for Graham's measure, Webb and Lincoln are essentially moving into open revolt against the White House's detainee policy. Lincoln, who faces a tough reelection fight in Arkansas this year, said she would be foolish if she didn't listen to her constituents and oppose the 9/11 trials. Webb insisted he was not opposing the trials because they could be held in his home state of Virginia if New York does not prove to be a feasible venue. "I wrote a column on 9/12" calling the conspirators war criminals, he reminded reporters, implying that he has always prefered the detainees to be tried in a military setting.

After the press conference, Graham didn't refute a suggestion from reporters that he also has the votes of Arkansas' Mark Pryor and Washington's Maria Cantwell. Pryor, Cantwell, and all 40 Republicans joined Webb and Lincoln in supporting a similar measure pushed by Graham in early November. The Senate rejected that measure, 55-45. But Graham said he was sure his bill would pass "overwhelmingly" this time around if it ever came up for a vote.

If Graham's gambit succeeds, it would upend the White House's promise to close down Guantanamo Bay. His legislation would require the 9/11 conspirators to be tried in military tribunals at Gitmo. That would make it close to impossible for Obama to close down the prison until after the trials were completed—a process that could take years.  

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Key Senator's Health Care Reform Booster Shot

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 7:01 PM EST

Democrats' efforts to pass health care reform depend on a filibuster-proof procedural maneuver called reconciliation. If Senate Democrats can use this process to pass a package of adjustments to their version of the health care bill, Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she can muster enough votes to approve the Senate legislation in the House. But for this to work, Sen. Kent Conrad has to be with the program. The centrist North Dakota Democrat chairs the Senate Budget Committee, which handles reconciliation measures. Other centrist Democrats, such as Missouri's Claire McCaskill, have  expressed qualms about the plan. But in a brief conversation with reporters on Thursday afternoon, Conrad slammed Republican obstructionism and vigorously defended the use of reconciliation to pass important legislation.

The Senate "was not designed to have everything require 60 votes," Conrad said. "It wasn't designed to prevent important action on the problems facing the country." If a supermajority is effectively necessary to pass any piece of legislation, he added, this "puts a great deal of pressure on going to more of a reconciliation process to deal with things."

Conrad argued that it's not possible to use reconciliation—which requires merely a straight majority vote—to win passage of an entire comprehensive health care bill, as some progressives have advocated. (There are assorted rules that prevent this.) But Conrad noted that he's open to using this legislative maneuver to make limited, though significant, changes to a measure the Senate has already passed—provided that certain procedural kinks could be ironed out.

Those procedural issues involve which body would take the opening step in this legislative dance—the House or the Senate. House Democrats want the Senate to pass its changes to its health care measure first. (Otherwise, they could end up voting for a Senate bill containing provisions they don't like and then get stuck with it, should reconciliation fizzle.) Senate Democrats, however, aren't sure they can approve through reconciliation changes to a bill that hasn't yet been approved by the House. "We are being asked to pass a piece of legislation that amends another piece of legislation which does not exist yet," a Senate aide told Greg Sargent yesterday. "We are having problems with the [Congressional Budget Office] and parliamentarian on that front." The Senate just wants the House to "back off," Sargent reported. Parliamentary experts for the Democratic leaders on each side of Capitol Hill are now trying to sort all this out.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama in his State of the Union speech didn't provide any guidance on how congressional Democrats should proceed. One House Democratic leadership aide told Mother Jones that the top Democrats on the House side assume that Obama is hesitant to tell the "touchy" Senate how to do its job at such a critical juncture. The absence of any reference to reconciliation in Obama's speech, he insists, was no indication it is off the table.

Conrad, for one, didn't sound like a man with doubts about the idea. He said, "Frankly I think we have to reconsider the rules by which this body is governed," because the Senate "is in danger of becoming dysfunctional," and "there's going to be a building demand in the country to change the system."

Can This Patient Be Saved?

| Wed Jan. 27, 2010 8:12 PM EST

Can health care reform be resuscitated? For weeks, it appeared that a stalemate over abortion politics could prevent the Democrats’ historic health care overhaul from becoming law. But according to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, while there are potential hurdles that could yet sink the effort, abortion’s not the big deal breaker that ought to worry supporters of reform.

The Democrats’ strategy, Pelosi told several columnists on Wednesday afternoon, hinges on getting the House to approve the Senate’s health care bill—while the Senate modifies its version through a procedure called reconciliation in order to address House Democrats' objections to certain provisions of the Senate bill. Pelosi said there is "very little support in the House" for passing the Senate’s measure untouched. But if the Senate makes changes via a a separate reconciliation measure—which would require only a majority and can’t be defeated by a filibuster—then, Pelosi said, she is confident "we can come up with something."

Reid Spokesman: Abortion Compromise a No-Go

| Wed Jan. 27, 2010 2:50 PM EST

The fate of health care reform depends on getting the House to pass the Senate's health care bill. But anti-abortion House Democrats have demanded changes to the abortion language in the Senate legislation in order to secure their votes. And altering those provisions could be impossible, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's spokesman said Tuesday.

That's because Democrats are considering modifying the Senate bill via reconciliation—a procedural maneuver that only needs a simple majority and thus can't be killed by a filibuster. But reconciliation rules forbid the inclusion of any provisions that have no effect on the budget. When the abortion language in the Senate bill was added as a last-minute compromise, the Congressional Budget Office actually certified that it had no budgetary effect. (Otherwise, the whole bill would have to be rescored.) That will make it very hard, if not impossible, to argue that the abortion provisions can be changed using the reconciliation process.

When I asked Reid's spokesman, Jim Manley, whether the Majority Leader's office understood the rules as preventing the Senate from altering the bill's abortion language, he emailed back immediately. "I believe that is correct," he wrote.

If Reid's office stands by that stance, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is in a real bind. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who pushed for the House bill's strict limits on abortion coverage, has warned that he has 10 to 12 Democrats (including himself) who voted for the House bill but are committed to opposing the Senate bill's abortion language. And without Stupak's 10 to 12 lawmakers, getting the votes to pass the Senate bill in the House—even if other fixes are made using reconciliation—will be very, very hard. The original House bill only passed 220-215. Of the yes votes, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) has since retired, and Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.), will probably vote against the final bill. Some progressives, like Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), voted against the House bill but might be convinced to support a final compromise. And some Blue Dogs who opposed the House bill might have a change of heart. But are there 10 to 12 Democrats who will switch their votes? Unless Stupak is bluffing about the number of votes he has in his corner, health care reform is in serious trouble.

Health Care Reform's Bleak Prognosis

| Wed Jan. 27, 2010 11:33 AM EST

After a meeting on Tuesday evening, House Democrats finally seem to be settling on a plan to move forward on health care reform. But there are some major roadblocks standing in the way of their preferred solution—including squeamish senators, uncompromising anti-abortion congressmen, the Democrats' own president, and, of course, the Republicans.

Here's the strategy that House Dems are coalescing around: First, pass the Senate bill. Then, attempt to address some of their members' concerns with that legislation through the reconciliation process—which would allow the Senate to pass adjusted legislation with a simple majority without the risk of a GOP filibuster.

The first big problem with this idea is President Barack Obama, who has so far refused to specifically endorse using reconciliation to move forward on health care. In fact, he has conspicuously refrained from pushing publicly for any particular strategy. All the administration has said is that passing some sort of reform is crucial. That leaves congressional Democrats wondering why they should stick their necks out for a gambit their own president won't endorse. And Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, refused to answer pointed questions on Tuesday about whether Obama would use his State of the Union address scheduled for Wednesday night to endorse any specific strategies for passing health care.

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