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Sahil Kapur

Sahil Kapur is TPM's senior congressional reporter and Supreme Court correspondent. His articles have been published in the Huffington Post, The Guardian and The New Republic. Email him at sahil@talkingpointsmemo.com and follow him on Twitter at @sahilkapur.

Articles by Sahil

Moments before he officially announced Thursday he won't seek reelection in 2014, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) spoke with TPM about his central role in stopping filibuster reform early this year.

His message? No regrets.

"We did the right thing," Levin said shortly after the resolution of a 13-hour talking filibuster mounted by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), which supporters of reforming the filibuster want to require for all filibusters.

Levin's remarks came in the wake of a series of high-profile Republican filibusters on legislation and nominees that have left key Democrats deeply frustrated and threatening to revisit reform. They expressed high hopes that the bipartisan rules change enacted in January -- which was constructed around an alternative proposal written by Levin and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) -- would usher in a new era of comity in the Senate.

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House GOP leaders say they want to help people with preexisting conditions, and now.

After years of scorched-earth opposition to the Affordable Care Act, they recognize that appearing opposed to the law's well-liked coverage guarantee for sick people -- around which much of the rest of "Obamacare" is built -- is a political vulnerability.

So this week, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and five others wrote a letter calling on President Obama to support the transfer of money from Obamacare's prevention and wellness fund to a temporary program designed to protect sick people before the law's preexisting condition guarantee takes effect in 2014.

"We believe allowing those with pre-existing conditions access to health insurance is another worthy reason to reprogram these funds," the GOP lawmakers wrote. "With your support, we could help these Americans get the care they need."

Three weeks ago, the Department of Health and Human Services closed the law's state-based high risk pools to new applicants after deciding that it was too costly and underfunded. HHS said it was "the most prudent step" given the program's $5 billion spending limit and need to ensure coverage for existing enrollees.

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Sen. Rand Paul's (R-KY) epic 13-hour filibuster of John Brennan for CIA director finally came to an amicable resolution Thursday, but not before sparking a battle within the Republican Party hierarchy -- the latest in a series of internal struggles the party has faced since the election.

On Paul's side is the right-wing apparatus and their darlings in Congress -- notably Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Ted Cruz (R-TX), who joined the filibuster. They were delighted by Paul's highly public confrontation with the White House and cheered him on until the very end.

On the other side are the GOP foreign policy hawks, led by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who are Washington's chief guardians of broad executive power when it comes to dealing with the country's enemies.

They were furious with Paul's attacks on President Obama's drone policy.

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The National Republican Senatorial Commmittee declared late Thrsday that the news of longtime Sen. Carl Levin's (D-MI) retirement improves the 2014 map for the GOP and offers the party "a real pick up opportunity."

"Over the last few months, the 2014 map has gone from sorta difficult to really tough for Senate Democrats," said NRSC spokesman Brad Dayspring. "Carl Levin's retirement puts a Democratic party already on defense far back on their heels and offers a real pick up opportunity for Republicans.  We have been speaking to people on the ground in Michigan, from local officials to grassroots organizations and residents, in the event that Mr. Levin would decide to retire and now that groundwork will begin to pay off."

Like many of his GOP colleagues, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) won't comment on whether he believes the Voting Rights Act -- a centerpiece of which is in the Supreme Court's crosshairs -- is constitutional.

"I'm not a judge, you know," he told TPM on Thursday, in response to a question in the Capitol.

The challenger, Shelby County of Alabama, argues that part of the 1965 law that requires specific state and local governments to pre-clear changes to their voting laws is unfair and outdated.

"I just follow it and read about it. I'm not a party to it," Shelby said. "On that we are all promoting peoples' right to vote -- access and all this. But some people argue that 'enough is enough' and that's the issue."

Sen. Rand Paul's (R-KY) nearly 13-hour long talking filibuster in protest of the Obama administration's drone policy instantly made him a folk hero with the right. But the spectacle also provided a healthy dose of oxygen to reignite the cause of filibuster reform.

On the Senate floor Thursday, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) capitalized on Paul's talkathon to invoke the importance of a traditional filibuster where obstructing senators occupy the floor and speak until one side gives in.

"We should all reflect on what happened yesterday as we proceed with other nominations, including a number of judicial nominations," Reid said. "This can be a Senate where ideas are debated in full public view -- and obstruction happens in full public view as well. Or it can be a Senate where a small minority obstructs from behind closed doors, without ever coming to the Senate floor."

Ironically, on the same day as Paul's talking filibuster, Senate Republicans quietly filibustered the judicial nomination of Caitlin Halligan to the coveted D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, by withholding the votes to let her move forward. Reid used the juxtaposition to go after the GOP's practice of filibustering in the dark.

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Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) on Thursday excoriated Sen. Rand Paul's (R-KY) filibuster talkathon the previous day both for its substance and the fear that the spectacle could embolden the cause of reforming the filibuster.

"What we saw yesterday is going to give ammunition to those critics who say that the rules of the Senate are being abused," he said on the floor. "I hope that my colleagues on this side of the aisle will take that in information."

McCain co-authored a scaled-back rules change that preserved the filibuster and became the basis for the bipartisan deal, defeating a more far-reaching reform proposal.

"We were able to put a side of the there was another effort just at the beginning of this Senate to do away with 60 votes and [go] back down to 51, which in my view would have destroyed the Senate," he said Thursday. 'A group of us worked very hard for a long time to come up with some compromises that would allow the Senate to move more rapidly ... and efficiently, but at the same time preserve a 60-vote majority requirement on some pieces of legislation."

The Senate's leading champion of filibuster reform called for renewing the effort to weaken the minority's obstruction power, concluding that a modest rules change enacted in January has failed to discourage Republicans from grinding the chamber to a halt.

In an interview on Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), the author of a proposal to place more of the burden of sustaining a filibuster on the minority party, including forcing filibustering senators to speak on the floor, echoed remarks by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) earlier in the day about the need to revisit filibuster reform.

"Senate Republicans have demonstrated that they have absolutely no intention of ending their assault on the ability of the U.S. Senate to function," Merkley told TPM, saying he had hoped the bipartisan rules change would ease gridlock. "Many of my colleagues are absolutely beside themselves with frustration, and that frustration is rapidly turning to fury."

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No decision is final yet, but there are growing signs that this year's House Republican Medicare voucher plan won't be adjusted to affect Americans older than age 55.

Under pressure to produce a balanced budget within 10 years, Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) was considering revamping his Medicare privatization plan to hit Americans even closer to retirement. That would have have violated Ryan's previous pledge, oft-repeated during his vice presidential run last year, that his controversial plan would preserve Medicare's promise of guaranteed insurance coverage to everyone over 55.

Republican Rep. Charlie Dent (PA) told TPM on Wednesday that the proposal has been under consideration, but according to his discussions with Ryan, he believes the Wisconsinite's budget plan will align federal spending and revenues in 10 years without implementing any Medicare changes for those above 55.

"I've had discussions with Paul Ryan and others and it appears -- it's likely that the Medicare age will not change," Dent said in an interview. "So in other words we would like to remain at 55. Now I can't speak for the Budget Committee or Chairman Ryan but I believe that's where this is heading."

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President Obama is circumventing Republican leaders and reaching out directly to rank-and-file Senate GOP lawmakers in an early effort to build momentum for a grand bargain to avert sequestration and reduce the long-term deficit.

"He wants to do the big deal," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

Graham told reporters Tuesday afternoon that Obama had just called him and the two spoke for 10 minutes about fiscal issues. He said the conversation was "incredibly encouraging."

"I'm very encouraged by what I see from the president in terms of what I see in terms of substance and tone," Graham said. "He's calling people -- this is how you solve our problems. He's working the phones, talking about ... how can we get more people in the mix."

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