Mojo - March 2010

Health Care: The Bart Stupak Show Continues

| Sun Mar. 21, 2010 2:23 PM EDT

Update: Bart Stupak has announced that a deal over abortion funding has been reached, and that he and his allies will vote for health care reform. He says Democrats "are well past 216"—referring to the number of votes needed to pass the bill.  The White House also just emailed to reporters the executive order that was authored to address Stupak's concerns that federal money would be used to fund abortions. Here's the text.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), a longtime holdout over abortion provisions in the health care reform bill, will vote yes when the bill comes to the floor, MSNBC reported Sunday afternoon. But Fox News and CNN's Dana Bash said "not so fast." And Stupak himself appeared outside the House chamber around 2:30 p.m. to tell reporters, including our Suzy Khimm, that he's still a "no." Now Stupak has a press conference scheduled for 4 p.m. So the Bart Stupak show continues.

Stupak, a 58-year-old former state trooper, has spent months at the head of a bloc of anti-abortion Democrats, and has repeatedly threatened to scuttle the health care bill if his preferred abortion language does not appear in the final package. Knowing they'll almost certainly need at least some of Stupak's bloc to vote "yes," President Barack Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and other Dem leaders have been working feverishly to appease him. On Saturday, a last-ditch attempt to add Stupak's language to the final bill via a little-used legislative maneuver fell victim to a combination of procedural difficulties and objections from Democrats who support abortion rights.

Late Saturday, Democratic leadership seemed to be focused on one last-ditch method to bring Stupak on board: an executive order from Obama that would clarify the bill's abortion language. Stupak scheduled a press conference for Sunday morning, but later called it off; there were reports throughout that afternoon that he was nearing a deal to switch his vote and bring his faction with him. Several purported members of the bloc broke off from the pack; Marcy Kaptur of Ohio and Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota both said they would vote for the bill.

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An Executive Order on Abortion?

| Sat Mar. 20, 2010 4:51 PM EDT

President Barack Obama is considering issuing an executive order on abortion as part of a last-ditch bid to convince members of Rep. Bart Stupak's anti-abortion bloc to vote for the Democrats' health care reform package. Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the Democrat in charge of "whipping" members to vote for the bill, told reporters on Saturday that while he hadn't yet read the proposed order, he was hopeful it might change some minds. "I understand the language is being read by various people," Clyburn said. 

The wording of the order is, of course, crucial. And it may not be enough to flip Stupak.

Tea Partiers Heckle Dems With Racist, Homophobic Slurs

| Sat Mar. 20, 2010 4:28 PM EDT

Tea Partiers protesting the health care bill in Washington hurled racist and homophobic epithets at two Democratic congressmen and spat on a black Democratic legislator prior to President Obama's speech before House Dems on Saturday afternoon.

Rep. John Lewis was called "the N-word" when he was on the floor of the House earlier today by "a heckler from the Tea Party, a protester," Kristie Greco, a press secretary for House Majority Whip James Clyburn, said this afternoon. Another protester spat at Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, another black Democrat, as he was walking from the Longsworth House building to attend Obama's speech. In a separate incident, Rep. Barney Frank, who is openly gay, was called "faggot," also as he was leaving the Longsworth building.

Clyburn, who spoke with Lewis after the incident, said that he outraged about the racist attacks on his colleagues. "I heard people saying things today I have not heard since March 15, 1960 when I was marching to try to get off the back of the bus," he said. "This is incredible, this is shocking." Tea Party leaders called their rally today "the last chance" to kill the health care bill, featuring speeches by Rep. Steve King, Mike Pence, and other Republican members of Congress.

Clyburn suggested, however, that he and his colleagues were not surprised that such racist sentiments were behind some of the public outrage against the Democratic health care bill.

"A lot of us have been saying for a long time that much of this is not about health care at all. And I think that a lot of people out there today demonstrated this," Clyburn said at the Capitol Vistors Center after the speech, where protesters continued to shout "vote no" at the passing members of Congress. Rather, he explained, the protesters' opposition was in reaction "to extend a basic fundamental right to people who are less powerful."

When asked whether he felt apprehensive as a result of the racist attacks, Clyburn replied: "As I said to one heckler, I'm the hardest person in the world to intimidate."

Update: Post was updated with confirmation of the spitting incident. Cleaver said that he would not press charges against the protester.

Deem and Pass Deemed Unnecessary

| Sat Mar. 20, 2010 2:35 PM EDT

One of Washington's most intriguing new celebrities, the congressional procedure known as "deem and pass," is now officially off DC's buzz list. DAP has been dropped by the House Dems as a means of getting health care reform through Congress. A setback for the Democrats? Probably not. House Democratic leaders turned to DAP, a rule which allows the House to declare a bill passed without a direct vote, as a way of accepting the Senate's version of health care reform, which contains provisions disliked by many House Democrats—without having to cast a distinct vote on the Senate bill. In other words, DAP was a dollop of grease.

But it was not uncontroversial. Republicans screamed that the Ds were using "deem and pass" as a trick, and some Democrats also muttered about this perhaps too-crafty usage of the rule. So on Saturday afternoon, the House Democratic leadership threw DAP under the bus and declared that on Sunday the House would vote first for the reconciliation bill that tweaks the Senate measure per House Democrats' desire and then vote on the Senate bill. Maybe we can call this "ammend and accept." In any event, this announcment was a signal that the House Democrats assume they have the 216 votes they need to end and win the health care debate in the House. "Clearly, we believe we have the votes," said House majority whip Steny Hoyer, as he headed to a meeting between President Obama and the House Democrats.

Farewell, "deem and pass." We hardly knew ye.

Bart Stupak's Last Stand

| Sat Mar. 20, 2010 9:36 AM EDT

It's decision time for Bart Stupak.

The Michigan Democrat has fought a long and public battle to include his preferred anti-abortion provisions in the final health care reform package. Now, as a final House vote looms on Sunday, Stupak may have lost.

Late Friday night, multiple outlets reported that Stupak had struck a deal with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to allow a vote that would add his language to the health care bill after it passed the House but before it was signed by the president. That maneuver is called the "enrollment corrections" procedure.

Many experts thought the unorthodox strategy was unworkable, because enrollment corrections are not generally used to make substantive changes to law. Using the procedure would probably lead to Stupak's adjustments being stripped from the bill in the Senate. And even if the procedure was theoretically workable, it might have actually cost Pelosi votes, because the House pro-choice caucus threatened to bolt over the rumored deal.

So now an enrollment vote seems to be out of play. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters shortly after noon on Saturday that there would be "no separate votes" on the health care bill—neither on Stupak, nor, it seems, on Rep. Alan Grayson's amendment reviving the public option. That suggests that Pelosi either 1) has the votes to pass the bill as-is, or 2) is hoping against hope that some of Stupak's bloc—and some Democrats who voted against the House health care bill in November—will flip.

Either way, an alternative deal with Stupak himself is still possible—if Stupak is willing to accept something less than his ideal outcome. Although two Republicans told National Review's Robert Costa that Stupak told them he's "finished with Pelosi," Stupak's spokeswoman told Politico Saturday morning that "discussions are continuing." Even the White House seems willing to cut a deal: The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn has reported that an executive order clarifying that federal money wouldn't be used to fund abortion is "on the table."

None of this necessarily means that Pelosi didn't want to make a deal with Stupak—it could be that she simply couldn't. The enrollment corrections procedure was deeply problematic at best, and perhaps entirely unworkable. It was going to be difficult to convince the pro-choice caucus to vote for the bill if changes were made this late in the game.

If Pelosi can't bring Stupak on board, the final vote is likely to be very tight. The fate of reform now largely depends on the ability of a few influential politicians—like pro-life Stupak friend Dale Kildee (D-Mich.) and Stupak mentor John Dingell (D-Mich.)—to peel off a few more members of Stupak's bloc. Kildee, as I reported yesterday, is working to convince his pro-life colleagues to switch their votes. And Dingell has vowed to "defeat" his protege. On Sunday, we'll find out who won.

Kildee vs. Stupak and Health Care's Final Countdown

| Fri Mar. 19, 2010 7:20 PM EDT

UPDATED, 11:00 AM EST Saturday

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) wants pro-life Dems to join him in voting against the Democrats' health care bill unless there are significant abortion restrictions. But Stupak has a surprising obstacle in his path: his old friend Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.). Kildee isn't just opting out of his pal's voting bloc: He told reporters on Friday that he's been working hard to convince other anti-abortion Democrats to abandon Stupak's effort. As the final hours before the vote tick down, the battle between these two Democrats could determine the fate of the party's biggest legislative priority.

Kildee and Stupak have much in common. They're both pro-life Democrats from Michigan. They're been social and political comrades for years. Kildee, who's 81, knew the 58-year-old Stupak when Stupak was a young Michigan state trooper. But for now, at least, the two lawmakers are on opposite sides of the dramatic health care tussle.

Stupak, who sponsored a strict anti-abortion amendment that was added to the House version of the health care reform bill, maintains that the Senate's plan (which doesn't contain his amendment) allows for federal funding of abortions. Kildee disagrees. Neither doubts the sincerity of the others' beliefs—at least according to Kildee. But while Stupak is trying to hold together a bloc of pro-life Dems that he claims will join him in voting against the Senate bill, Kildee has been pressing other members to accept his position that the Senate bill is "without any question" pro-life.

"I've always been pro-life," Kildee said, adding, "I'm 81 years old and I'm not going to change my mind now. I'm not going to jeopardize my eternal soul." Confidence in his own position has allowed Kildee to lobby "a number" of other anti-abortion Democrats to vote for the legislation, which is scheduled to come up for a vote on Sunday afternoon. "God willing, I've changed a few votes," Kildee remarked.

But he hasn't convinced Stupak. "We've agreed to disagree," Kildee said. Recently, Stupak has been making noise about a possible compromise (perhaps his friend's arguments are having an impact), and multiple outlets reported on Friday night that Speaker Nancy Pelosi had struck a deal with Stupak to allow a vote on a "concurrent resolution." The New York Times explained how this might work:

[The deal] would add tougher abortion restrictions to the bill after it is approved but before it is sent to the president — a technique typically used to make minor or technical changes with the consent of both chambers, an unlikely prospect.

But the House pro-choice caucus threatened to bolt en masse, and Stupak later cancelled a press conference he had planned for Saturday morning. That was probably a smart strategic move. Holding a last-minute presser would mean Stupak would face put-up-or-shut-up time. If he can produce at a press conference—or any other time—the 11 or 12 House Democrats he has claimed are with him, health care reform could be in serious trouble. If his allies are much less than that, the bill's passage could become a foregone conclusion. Half-dozen or so House Democrats who voted against the bill in November have announced they will vote for the Senate bill on Sunday, and that spell problems for Stupak. If his gang is much smaller than the group of no-to-yes switchers, Stupak will be irrelevant. (I'm on the Hill Saturday to count Stupak's allies, so stay tuned.)

Stupak's public waffling about what once seemed to be an unshakeable stand has lcaused some vote-counters to wonder whether the congressman wants to vote for health care reform, realizing he's wrong about the bill funding abortion, but has backed himself into a corner. With that in mind, I asked Kildee about Stupak's statement that he relies on groups like the National Right to Life Committee and Focus on the Family (groups that have generally opposed the Democrats' health care reform plans) for guidance. Kildee questioned the wisdom of depending on these outfits. Members of Congress have to be wary of groups that "start out with a premise and only seek out facts that support their premise," Kildee warned. He added, "You have to know where they come from. You have to know what their purpose is—they gather information that supports their purpose."

Some of the individuals and groups that have endorsed Kildee's argument that the Senate bill is sufficiently anti-abortion came to the Hill on Friday to back Kildee. These pro-lifers included nuns who signed a letter supporting the bill; Professor Tim Jost, an expert on health law who has written detailed analyses of the Senate health care bill's abortion provisions; and other academic and faith leaders. After the press conference, several of the attendees, including Jost, headed over to the office of Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.). Ellsworth, who had been considered a potential member of Stupak's bloc, announced on Friday afternoon that he would vote for the Senate bill. He cited the nuns' letter as evidence that the bill doesn't fund abortion.

President Barack Obama talks to a Member of Congress. | White House photo/Pete Souza (Government Work).President Barack Obama talks to a Member of Congress. | White House photo/Pete Souza (Government Work).There's one more factor that could influence Stupak and other wavering House Dems: President Barack Obama. The White House has been eagerly telling reporters that the president is working the phones, trying to get members of Congress on board with his plan. (He's apparently had 64 meetings or phone calls will members of Congress on health care reform during this week.) They even went so far as to release the photo to the right, of Obama making a call during his trip back to the White House after a health care rally Friday.

On Saturday, the president will continue his pitch in person. He and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will address a meeting of House Democrats at 3 p.m. We'll be there to let you know how it goes.

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Student Loan Reform Tied to Health Care

| Fri Mar. 19, 2010 5:30 PM EDT

The House won't just be voting on health care this weekend. Packaged with it is a bill that cuts funding for private college loan lenders and redirects the billions saved to cash-strapped students.

If it's successful, the reforms will end a program started 50 years ago whereby banks receive government subsidies to lend students money for college. The federal government, meanwhile, assumes nearly all the risk of default. Thanks to the recession, that default rate has continued to rise. Under the new plan, the government will loan to student borrowers directly, a policy already in place at more than 2,000 colleges.

The money saved will finance a $36 billion expansion of the federal Pell Grant program. Each student who qualifies currently receives $5,550, but that number will increase to nearly $6,000 with the infusion of this new funding. And private finance companies will stop profiting off the loans because they will no longer be getting big government subsidies.

"This legislation offers the most sweeping changes to the federal student loan program in a generation," California Representative and House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller said in a statement. "This is really about making a simple choice. Congress can either continue the longstanding boondoggle that rewards banks with tens of billions of dollars in subsidies at the expense of families and taxpayers—or we can invest that money directly in students and America's world economic leadership."

In a conference call with reporters yesterday Iowa Senator Tom Harkin confirmed that the student loan reform was packaged with health care reform at the last minute to help it meet the cost-savings requirements of reconciliation, the legislative procedure House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is using to get the Senate's version through the House. Pelsosi decided on reconciliation after floating the unpopular notion of "deem and pass," which Nick Baumann and Kevin Drum reported on earlier this week.

Afghanistan's Boy Sex Slaves

| Fri Mar. 19, 2010 4:49 PM EDT

Say what you will about the Taliban. They're small-minded, repressive, religious zealots who exert their power through fear and intimidation. But certain aspects of Afghan society can make the black turbans look downright righteous. Consider the ancient tradition of Bacha Bazi, which means "boy play." Banned by the Taliban, this illicit activity is on the upswing across Afghanistan. The Guardian reported on it last fall, and on April 20, Frontline is airing a special report with the same title: The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan.

Here's how the Frontline producers describe it:

Hundreds of boys, some as young as eleven, street orphans or boys bought from poor families by former warlords and powerful businessmen, are dressed in woman's clothes, taught to sing and dance for the entertainment of male audiences, and then sold to the highest bidder or traded among the men for sex.

With remarkable access inside a Bacha Bazi ring operating in Northern Afghanistan, Najibullah Quraishi, an Afghan journalist, investigates this practice, still illegal under Afghan law, talking with the boys, their families, and their masters, exposing the sexual abuse and even murders of the boys, and documenting how Afghan authorities responsible for stopping these crimes are sometimes themselves complicit in the practice.

Rep. Ortiz: Wavering and Playing Hard to Get

| Fri Mar. 19, 2010 3:03 PM EDT

Two days before the expected House vote on health care reform, it's proving tough to budge wavering Democrats off the fence. Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-Tex.) says he's "still undecided." Ortiz voted for the House's health care bill last year, but he said couldn't take a leap of faith that the Senate would pass the changes he wants. (The strategy is for the House to pass the Senate bill and then for the Senate to approve a separate package of fixes sought by House Dems.) And even a deal on abortion might not be enough to bring the anti-choice Texas Democrat on board. 

"We don't know what they're going to do, if they're going to include some of the things that we passed here [in the House]," Ortiz tells Mother Jones. "I'm undecided until I see the product."

The fate of the health care bill rests on the votes of wavering House Democrats like Ortiz. But when asked what further assurances he needed to sign onto the bill, he seemed to set up a straw man by blaming the upper house. "Most of the members are waiting to see what's coming from the Senate," he says. "Some of the changes we want to be sure about are pre-existing conditions, are they going to care about young children, up to age 26—there's a lot of stuff like that."

Pelosi's March to the Sea

| Fri Mar. 19, 2010 2:33 PM EDT

Georgia Rep. Paul Broun (R-Oath Keepers), in addition to spelling his name wrong, also is something of a lunatic. In 2008, he compared the Bush-era bank bailout to "a huge cow patty with a piece of marshmallow stuck in the middle," which he was "not going to eat." (Imagine if Eric Cantor had brought one of those to the health care summit!) He was also among the first to warn that then-President-elect Obama might lead us down the slippery slope to a radical socialist dictatorship, using language that would vex even Texas schoolbook purveyors: "That's exactly what Hitler did in Nazi Germany...he's showing me signs of being Marxist." So naturally, when he took to the floor of the House last night to discuss the imminent passage of health care reform, great things were expected. And Broun did not disappoint. In his words: "If ObamaCare passes, that free insurance card that's in people's pockets is gonna be as worthless as a Confederate dollar after the war between the statesthe great war of yankee aggression."

It all depends on how the Congressional Budget Office scores it, of course...But I think the news that the health care bill not only covers millions of uninsured Americans, but also apparently frees the slaves, could be enough to win over on-the-fence Democrats.

Distateful though it may be (Lee Fang calls Broun's language "racial" and "militant"), Broun's analogy is actually a really fun one. Obama is obviously Abraham Lincoln in this scenario, which is pretty neat. Taking it even further, congressional Democrats (pictured above, "jamming the bill through") are the Union Army: Harry Reid is Ulysses S. Grant (minus the drinking, of course); Nancy Pelosi is William Tecumseh Sherman; and Joe Lieberman is, of course, George McClellaninfuriating, backstabbing, and incompetent. Who'd I miss? Let me know in the comments.