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

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), a leading champion of filibuster reform, told TPMPrime members during a live chat Wednesday that Democrats will have the votes to weaken the minority party's power to obstruct when the Senate returns next week.

"There are a number of folks who are working to get their hands around how these proposed changes would work in practice," he said. "Senator Udall -- my core partner throughout this battle -- and I both believe that when Majority Leader Reid says 'here is my package and I need you all to back it,' he will have 51 votes behind him."

He said the only clear holdout among the 55 Democrats is Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI).

"News reports have had a reasonably accurate list of the Senators who are solidly there and those who are still working out the details," Merkley said. "As of this point, the only person who has said that he will definitely oppose Reid's package if it is to be done with 51 votes is Senator Levin." He added that Levin has held his views for many years.

The Oregon Democrat, who has enlisting outside allies for the cause, said the competing proposal by Levin and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) would be a step backward.

"I don't see Levin/McCain as a step forward because it doesn't address the silent secret filibuster that the minority uses to kill legislation. In addition, it introduces the poison pill problem," Merkley told TPMPrime. "It is important to recognize, however, that Senator Levin is being completely consistent with the position he took in 2005 when the Republicans threatened to change the rules to eliminate the filibuster on judges. The Republicans only agreed to pull back from changing the rules, however, when the Democrats essentially agreed to what the Republicans wanted making changing the rules unnecessary."

The senators from New York and New Jersey praised House passage of the Sandy relief aid Tuesday evening.

Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said in a joint statement:

"It's great news for families, communities and small businesses in our region that the House – after weeks of delay - finally passed an emergency relief bill for Superstorm Sandy.  Our region extends a helping hand any time another community suffers from a major disaster, and we're pleased that the House voted to provide this emergency relief for New Jersey and New York.  As we rebuild, we are committed to making smart investments to ensure that our transportation networks, beach communities, businesses and local neighborhoods can rebuild stronger so that they are better prepared for future storms."

The House voted 241-180 on Tuesday to pass some $50 billion in relief for victims of superstorm Sandy, the second of a two part package after it recently passed the first $10 billion.

Just 49 Republicans voted for it. 179 Republicans and 1 Democrat voted against the bill.

It's the second time this year that Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has brought legislation to the floor without the support of a majority of Republicans -- the so-called Hastert Rule.

The Senate is on board with the full $60 billion. Prior to the vote the House killed an amendment to include offsets in the package.

The Republican-led House defeated an amendment by Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) to offset some $17 billion in aid for victims of superstorm Sandy.

The vote on the amendment was 162-258. Republicans supported it by a 157-71 margin but Democratic opposition helped strike it down. It would have imposed a 1.63 percent across-the-board cut to discretionary spending.

Republican opponents fret that it would cut into defense and veterans' programs.

The vote split GOP leaders: Majority Leader Eric Cantor (VA) and Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA) voted for the amendment, while Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (CA) voted against it.

UPDATE: Via spokeswoman Stephanie Faile, Mulvaney issued a statement following the vote:

“While I certainly hoped my amendment to offset the cost of the Hurricane Sandy Supplemental Relief Bill would have passed, I was very encouraged that 162 Members, including several Democrats, agreed that we should find a way to pay for the relief the folks in the Northeast so desperately need. I believe this bodes well for future discussions about how to deal with emergency spending. I am especially pleased with the atmosphere of the debate, as it was respectful and reasonable on all sides. Even opponents of my amendment recognized that this amendment was not about denying assistance to anyone in need. I hope that we will use this experience to be even better stewards of taxpayer dollars going forward.”

Shortly after Chuck Hagel was nominated to be next secretary of defense, TPM asked a Senate Republican leadership aide what their opposition strategy was going to be.

The aide's response in full: "Schumer."

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, a leadership Democrat, was seen as the GOP's best hope of chipping away at support for Hagel's confirmation, in part because of the former Nebraska senator's occasional critiques of U.S. foreign policy toward Israel. Schumer initially hedged on whether he'd support Hagel but there was no reason to believe he would mount a fight against President Obama over the confirmation.

On Tuesday, Schumer dashed Republican hopes by announcing his intention to support Hagel for the Pentagon's top job. In a statement, the New York Democrat said he was reassured after a 90-minute White House meeting on Monday with Hagel where the two discussed his views regarding Israel and the Middle East, Iran and a past anti-gay slur. Schumer declined an offer last week to speak with Hagel by phone, according to a Senate aide. Instead the two men met in the West Wing, according to the aide. It was Hagel's first in-person meeting with any senator about his nomination, the aide said, noting that Schumer is not even on the Armed Services Committee that has jurisdiction over the confirmation of the secretary of defense.

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Chuck Hagel, President Obama's nominee for secretary of defense, wrote Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) a letter addressing her questions regarding foreign policy toward the Middle East, "don't ask, don't tell" and reproductive rights for female service members.

Boxer received the letter Monday night, her aide told TPM, and subsequently announced her support for Hagel's confirmation.

Chuck Hagel's Letter To Barbara Boxer by

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) still wants filibuster reform. But he's voicing support for a set of changes to the current filibuster rules that would fall short of the more sweeping proposal from leading reformers, and the leading Senate champion of filibuster reform believes Reid's proposed changes are not strong enough.

In a locally aired interview over the weekend on a PBS affiliate in Las Vegas, Reid said he wants to require an obstructing minority of senators to occupy the floor and speak only after cloture has been invoked to begin debate. In other words, 41 senators could silently block debate from beginning, but once 60 senators vote to move to debate, filibustering senators must speak on the floor.

He also said he wants to reduce the current 30-hour delay between cloture and a final vote and shrink the number of votes required to go to conference with the House from a total of three down to one.

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One week before filibuster reform's do-or-die moment, its two chief proponents are escalating their campaign, enlisting Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and the liberal Daily Kos community to help lead the charge.

The Senate returns early next week with a narrow window to either approve or scrap the resolution by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Tom Udall (D-NM) to require an obstructing minority to occupy the floor and speak for the duration of their filibuster.

Three senators and Daily Kos are issuing a new petition Monday that reads: "Just a few days left! Over the next few days, the fate of filibuster reform hangs in the balance. Let's tell the leaders of the U.S. Senate that real reform includes a full talking filibuster."

Meanwhile, the Fix The Senate Now coalition of outside anti-filibuster groups is sounding the alarm with its own drive for reform. The coalition, which is urging supporters to write to their senators in favor of reform, argues that Republican threats to hinder the nominations of Chuck Hagel for the Pentagon and Jack Lew for Treasury enhance the need to curtail the filibuster.

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The White House's weekend ultimatum that Congress either lift the debt ceiling cleanly or take responsibility for default puts Republicans in a bind over their goal of reforming entitlement programs.

In ruling out all executive options, such as minting a high-value platinum coin, the White House put the onus on congressional Republicans to agree to raise the nation's borrowing limit -- without spending cuts or strings attached -- or permit the first ever credit default. President Obama has steadfastly rebuffed their calls to cut social spending in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, and Democratic leaders support his position.

"There are only two options to deal with the debt limit: Congress can pay its bills or it can fail to act and put the nation into default," said Obama's spokesman Jay Carney. "The President and the American people won't tolerate Congressional Republicans holding the American economy hostage again simply so they can force disastrous cuts to Medicare and other programs the middle class depend on while protecting the wealthy."

That leaves Republicans in a difficult position vis-à-vis their promise not to raise the debt ceiling without improving the long-run solvency of programs like Social Security and Medicare.

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