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

The Supreme Court is poised to hear two blockbuster cases on gay rights this week, with historic implications for a cause that is advancing politically at lightning speed.

The cases to be heard on Tuesday and Wednesday involve the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which bars married same sex couples from receiving federal benefits.

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The North Dakota legislature has placed a "personhood" amendment on the ballot in 2014 so voters can decide whether to adopt the most sweeping abortion ban in the country, according to media reports.

The personhood measure, which cleared both houses of the legislature on Friday, would guarantee "the inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected." Opponents say it would prohibit all abortion in the state and may also outlaw birth control.

"The North Dakota legislature has taken historic strides to protect every human being in the state, paving the way for human rights nationwide," said Keith Mason, the president of Personhood USA, which supports the amendment.

Abortion rights groups swiftly criticized the move.

"I am outraged that North Dakota women’s rights and personal health are under attack by extreme politicians. Not only is the Personhood bill extraordinarily dangerous, it’s unconstitutional," said EMILY's List president Stephanie Schriock, predicting that the state's voters will reject the amendment.

"The unprecedented attacks on women’s rights and health across the country are a wakeup call," said Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund. "It is simply not acceptable that women’s standing as free agents and full citizens, able to make their own health care decisions, will depend on where they happen to live."

A majority of Senate Democrats want to eliminate a $29 billion piece of Obamacare.

Thirty-four Democratic senators joined every Republican Thursday night in voting for a nonbinding budget amendment to repeal the law's 2.3 percent sales tax on medical devices. It passed 79-20 -- a victory for the powerful device industry, which has raised hell over the tax.

The Democratic cosponsors for the measure, offered by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), were Sens. Amy Klobuchar (MN), Al Franken (MN), Joe Donnelly (IN) and Bob Casey (PA) -- all of whom are from states with a strong presence among device makers. The No. 2 and No. 3 Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin (IL) and Chuck Schumer (NY) also voted for repeal.

"Today's action shows there is strong bipartisan support for repealing the medical device tax, with Democrats and Republicans uniting behind our effort," Klobuchar said after the vote. "I will continue to work to get rid of this harmful tax so Minnesota's medical device businesses can continue to create good jobs in our state and improve patients' lives."

The tax, which went into effect in January, represents a years-long power struggle between the medical device industry and the upper echelons of the Democratic totem pole. Unlike other industries who came to the negotiating table and made concessions during the health care reform debate, device makers firmly resisted, and ended up taking a hit. Since then they have waged a fierce, relentless campaign to repeal the excise tax.

While opponents of the fee contend that it'll stifle innovation and cost jobs, supporters argue that it'll have a minimal effect on employment or manufacturing, and that the device industry wasn't singled out. They also say losing that revenue would undercut health care reform.

Notably, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senate Finance Chair Max Baucus (D-MT), whose committee has jurisdiction, voted against the repeal measure. That means it'll be a struggle for the proponents to bring it to the floor for an actual vote.

But Thursday's symbolic vote gives Republicans plenty of opportunities to exploit sharp Democratic divisions and advance their longstanding goal of hacking away at Obamacare.

"The importance of this vote cannot be overstated," Hatch said. "For the first time, Democrats and Republicans have come together in recognizing how bad this tax is. We cannot stop here. We must continue the fight to get rid of this tax."

The White House formally withdrew its nominee, Caitlin Halligan, to fill one of four vacancies on the powerful D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals -- a hotbed for future Supreme Court justices. She has been blocked by Republican filibusters for years.

After sending his withdrawal to the Senate, President Obama issued a statement railing against GOP filibusters.

Today, I accepted Caitlin Halligan’s request to withdraw as a nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.  I am deeply disappointed that even after nearly two and a half years, a minority of Senators continued to block a simple up-or-down vote on her nomination.  This unjustified filibuster obstructed the majority of Senators from expressing their support.  I am confident that with Caitlin’s impressive qualifications and reputation, she would have served with distinction.

The D.C. Circuit is considered the Nation’s second-highest court, but it now has more vacancies than any other circuit court.  This is unacceptable.  I remain committed to filling these vacancies, to ensure equal and timely access to justice for all Americans.

Five Republican senators joined a unified Democratic caucus on Thursday night to vote against Paul Ryan's House GOP budget, which unravels the social safety net and lowers taxes dramatically, and was rejected 40-59.

They are Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Dean Heller (R-NV), Mike Lee (R-UT) and Rand Paul (R-KY). Collins and Heller are among the more moderate members of the GOP conference and voted against it last year. Paul voted against it last year and is offering a more right-wing plan. Lee voted for it last year. Cruz wasn't a senator then.

Senate Republicans were not eager to vote on the Ryan budget again this year but Senate Budget Chair Patty Murray (D-WA), the author of the Democrats' first budget resolution in four years, forced a vote on it. Democrats decided it would be a damaging vote for Republicans.

TPM reached out to each of the five senators' offices; only Heller responded.

"Congress should stop playing politics with the budget process, and get serious about bringing Republicans and Democrats together to agree on a long-term plan," he said. "The political gamesmanship going on in the Senate this week is exactly why I introduced an amendment that would require the Senate to debate, amend and vote on the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles proposal. Only by coming together can Congress actually pass a budget resolution into law."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has announced that he will begin to move gun safety legislation Thursday night that includes a variety of items including mandatory background checks, which said will be included in "any bill that passes the Senate."

"Later tonight, I will start the process of bringing a bill to reduce gun violence to the Senate floor," he said in a statement. "This bill will include the provisions on background checks, school safety and gun trafficking reported by the Judiciary Committee."

The move serves to begin the process of debating the legislation, which isn't expected to come up for a vote until after Easter. Earlier this week, Reid decided to eliminate from the bill a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, saying they lacked the votes to pass. But he promises they will also receive votes separately.

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Republican Sens. Mike Lee (UT), Ted Cruz (TX), Dean Heller (NV), Susan Collins (ME) and Rand Paul (KY) joined a unified Democratic caucus in voting against it. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) missed the vote.

Republicans did not offer the Ryan budget; Senate Budget Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) forced the vote by bringing up the plan as a substitute to her own Democratic budget.

"There seemed to be some resistance among my Republican colleagues in bringing up the House Republican budget for a vote. And it's pretty easy to see why that is," she said in a floor speech before the vote. "The House Republican approach has been thoroughly reviewed and just as thoroughly rejected by the American people."

Sen. John Thune (R-SD) urged passage of the Ryan plan prior to the vote, calling it a responsible solution and arguing that it balances federal spending and revenue in 10 years.

The Ryan blueprint passed the House Thursday morning.

Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) said Thursday he voted against the Paul Ryan budget "because it left the enormous Obamacare taxes in place."

Gingrey, the chairman of the GOP Doctors Caucus and a leading health care voice in the conference, was a single-issue voter Thursday, just ahead of the third anniversary of the enactment of the Affordable Care Act. He also voted against the stopgap measure to fund the government, lamenting that it continues to fund the health care reform law.

"Obamacare is bad fiscal policy, a nightmare for patients, and a drag on the economy," Gingrey said in a statement to TPM. "Based on this grim reality, I have opposed the continuing resolution because it does not defund Obamacare and -- consistent with this position -- I voted against the Ryan budget because it left the enormous Obamacare taxes in place."

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The House on Thursday passed a bipartisan measure to continue funding the government through September, averting a shutdown one week before the lights would go out.

The final vote was 318-109 -- 115 Democrats joined 203 Republicans to pass the bill.

The legislation, which passed the Senate by a vote of 73-26 on Wednesday, now goes to President Obama for his signature.

The continuing resolution sustains the lower spending levels under sequestration but provides flexibility to the Pentagon and a handful of domestic programs in an effort to avoid some of the worst impacts of the automatic, indiscriminate spending cuts. It was the product of bipartisan negotiations to address the top priorities of each party.

The passage of the bill, a full week before the deadline, reflects a desire among both sides to avoid a government shutdown. Republicans demanded spending limits but refraining from pushing poison-pill amendments that have previously threatened shutdowns.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) praised House passage of the Paul Ryan budget in a statement Thursday.

“Our goal is to cut spending and balance the budget to help our economy grow. Passing this measure allows us to keep our focus where it belongs: replacing the president’s sequester with smarter cuts that help balance the budget, fixing our broken tax code to create jobs and increase wages, protecting priorities like Medicare, and expanding opportunity for all Americans.”