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Dems Accuse GOP Of Denying Fair Hearing On Birth Control Rule

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The House Oversight Committee, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), will hold a hearing Thursday on the subject of the new rule. Called "Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?", the hearing will weigh in on the issue Republicans and Democrats are generally fighting over. But Democrats are crying foul over the line-up of witnesses being called. They claim that the Republican majority did not allow Democrats, the minority, to have any witnesses of their own. Republicans dispute that version of the story.

In a letter to Issa, ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), charged that the panel of witnesses was "one of the most one-sided hearings I have ever seen, stacking it only with witnesses who agree with your position." Of the nine witnesses Issa indicated he would invite, the letter said, Republicans failed to invite any women "to testify about the negative impact that restrictive insurance coverage has on them." According to the letter, Democrats were granted one minority witness and they chose a female law student, Sandra Fluke, at Georgetown University Law Center.

However, that witness will not be on the panel Thursday. Cummings' letter quotes Oversight Committee staff rejecting the witness because they see the issue as one of religious freedom, not contraception coverage:

"As the hearing is not about reproductive rights and contraception but instead about the Administration's actions as they relate to freedom of religion and conscience, he believes that Ms. Fluke is not an appropriate witness."

Finally, the letter claims the majority added two new witnesses instead of accepting their witness. According to the witness list online, the hearing currently has eleven witnesses. Moreover, two of the eleven witnesses are women -- the inference from the letter being that Republicans corrected course by adding two women to the line-up.

Republicans on the committee have rejected entirely Cummings' version of what happened. Issa spokesperson Becca Watkins offered the following explanation in a statement to TPM:

"After days of asking the minority for a witness suggestion, at 1:04 pm today the minority requested that two witnesses be invited. Only three hours later, at 4:18 pm the majority staff informed the minority staff that the Chairman was extending an invite to one of the witnesses the minority had requested -- it has long been a common practice at the committee for the minority to recommend a single witness. After the Chairman agreed to issue an invitation, the minority then objected saying the witness they had requested just three hours earlier was no longer their request.

"As part of his efforts to obstruct the committee's oversight, Mr. Cummings continues to press the idea that he is entitled to special treatment that Democrats did not afford to Republicans when they were in the majority. Mr. Cummings' whining is a distortion of the reality that the majority quickly approved and issued an invitation to a witness selected by the minority."

Update: Watkins confirms to TPM that one minority witness, Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, was invited to the hearing and they assume he will attend.

Second Update 12:48pm: Barry Lynn did not appear as a witness. Shortly before he was assumed to appear, he released a statement indicating he had not ultimately been asked to attend. Here is the statement:

I was open to testify at today's hearing, but I understand and support the minority's decision to ask a woman to take part because this issue would affect women's access to contraceptives and the right to conscience. I appreciate that I was given the opportunity to provide written testimony. I am disappointed, however, by the imbalance on the panel and the lack of women's voices on an issue that has terrific impact on them. When the claim of 'conscience' by large religions collides with that of an individual woman, it is her right to make her own moral decision that must be saved.

Third Update 3:20pm: Becca Watkins, spokesperson for Chairman Issa, confirmed to TPM that Lynn was invited. Rob Boston of Americans United also confirmed they received an invitation from the Majority. The reason Lynn did not appear, Boston told TPM, is that Democrats had decided to go with a woman, Sandra Fluke, instead of Lynn if the Minority was only to be allowed one witness. Feeling that his invitation was not very "serious" and that it only came from one party, as the Minority had chosen to go with Fluke, Lynn chose not to attend.

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