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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

President Obama signed the payroll tax cut package into law late Wednesday night, capping off a months-long saga that might prove to be Congress's last major battle before the 2012 election. So just what does the final outcome mean for the various political players? Here's how things broadly broke down.

Winners


President Obama is the obvious winner, having portrayed himself throughout the long fight as the champion of middle-class tax cuts and economic security for the long-term unemployed. The payroll battle, which played out alongside a gradually improving economy, helped bump up Obama's approval ratings and gave him an important political weapon for re-election.

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CNN reports:

Seven states filed a lawsuit Thursday against the federal government requirement that religious employers offer health insurance coverage that includes contraceptives and other birth control services.

Attorneys general from Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Florida and Texas filed the lawsuit, along with private plaintiffs including Pius X Catholic High School, Catholic Social Services, The Catholic Mutual Relief Society of America and private citizens Stacy Molai and Sister Mary Catherine.

TPM looked into this case earlier in the week, and experts told us that, barring a departure from judicial precedent, the lawsuits are not likely to go very far.

Newt Gingrich has a wildly ambitious plan to save $500 billion dollars per year by reforming civil service laws. Or it may be closer to impossible.

"I agree generally with the need to reform government," Gingrich said in Wednesday's GOP debate in Arizona. "I think that, if we were prepared to repeal the 130-year-old civil service laws, go to a modern management system, we could save a minimum of $500 billion a year with a better system."

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Republican governors are caught between a rock and a hard place as they grapple with how to handle the state-based insurance marketplaces required by the health care reform law. The Obama administration announced Wednesday that 10 states will be getting federal grants to lay the groundwork for these exchanges -- four of the states have Republican governors, who have apparently decided to bite the bullet and proceed with building them.

Here's the predicament: The Affordable Care Act gives states the option to set up their own exchange by 2014 -- essentially a regulated marketplace where consumers can pool together to buy insurance plans that must provide a package of essential benefits. If states don't set up an exchange, the federal government would be required to take over. From a policy standpoint it's a no-brainer: take the money and use the flexibility to your advantage. But that's politically tedious because as GOP governors or heavily Republican legislatures can't be seen as abetting the law that conservatives hate, even if the fallback option would be less desirable on a substantive level.

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House Republicans have refused to televise a Democratic-led hearing on birth control that features the testimony of a female witness the GOP spurned in a recent hearing, says House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). And Pelosi wants you to know it.

The hearing Thursday is set to have as its sole witness Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown law student whom House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) forbade from testifying at his contraception hearing last week despite requests from Democrats. Issa's hearing instead included an all-male panel of religious authorities, partly in an effort to convey his claim that the issue was solely about religious freedom, and not really about women's rights.

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President Obama's religious accommodation in his rule requiring insurance plans to cover birth control has failed to placate elements of the Catholic community, and, with strong GOP support, they remain determined to sue. But do the lawsuits, the latest of which was filed Tuesday, have much legal merit? Possibly, but if judicial precedent is any indication, probably not.

The tweaked regulation says religious non-profits like universities and hospitals do not need to pay for free birth control coverage in their employee health plans, and can pass the cost on to the insurance company. (Churches and houses of worship are entirely exempt.) But like other entities, Ave Maria University, a Catholic institution, argues in a new legal challenge that affiliating itself with any access to contraception would violate its religious beliefs.

But barring a departure from precedent, the lawsuits aren't set to go very far.

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The Supreme Court is poised to rule this summer on the constitutionality of the health care reform law's requirement that Americans buy insurance or pay a tax penalty. But it has the legal option to delay a decision until at least 2014, and although the possibility has received little attention, new evidence suggests that justices are considering it more strongly.

The temporary escape hatch involves the Anti-Injunction Act, an age-old law that says courts may not halt a tax that isn't yet being collected. (Under the Affordable Care Act, it won't be collected until 2014.) Although the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals last fall tossed out a lawsuit against the mandate on this basis, most courts have decreed that the statute doesn't apply here.

But further evidence that justices may disagree came Tuesday, when the Supreme Court increased the time for next month's oral arguments from 5.5 hours to 6 hours, allotting an extra half hour to discuss the application of the Anti-Injunction Act. That means there will be a full hour and a half to discuss whether the court has the authority to rule on the health law this year.

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Climate change denial has become a litmus test for modern Republicans, but Rick Santorum, in his fondness for melding faith and government, has become one of the precious few to cite the Bible as evidence that the science-accepting crowd has it all wrong -- and apparently the first to bring that thinking to the presidential stage.

"We were put on this Earth as creatures of God to have dominion over the Earth, to use it wisely and steward it wisely, but for our benefit not for the Earth's benefit," Santorum told a Colorado crowd earlier this month.

He went on to call climate change "an absolute travesty of scientific research that was motivated by those who, in my opinion, saw this as an opportunity to create a panic and a crisis for government to be able to step in and even more greatly control your life."

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A New York Times profile of White House senior adviser David Plouffe has a telling quote from former chief of staff Bill Daley regarding his unique relationship with President Obama.

“The president probably took David’s opinion with more certitude than he did anybody else’s,” said William M. Daley, who left as chief of staff last month after a year in the White House. “If David said X, I think the president would more often believe X than challenge it.”

Plouffe, the Times reports, was an important part of the President's decisions to become more combative with congressional Republicans -- a shift that has coincided with Obama's uptick in job approval -- and pushed for an "aggressive early tack" against Mitt Romney. 

Plouffe was an instrumental part of Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. The Times describes him as "fiercely unsentimental," "intense and self-contained," and a "temperament alter ego to a president who has always been drawn to loyal fixer types."

Newt Gingrich said losing one's home state is a bad omen for a presidential candidate -- a clear reference to the troubles Mitt Romney faces in the upcoming primary in his Michigan, where he was born and has family roots.

"I think you'd have a very -- if any of the three loses our home state, if Santorum loses Pennsylvania, Romney loses Michigan, or I lose Georgia, you have, I think, a very, very badly weakened candidacy," Gingrich said on Fox News Sunday.

He refused to say he'll drop out of the race if he loses his home state of Georgia but said, "I'm certainly willing to say I think it's extraordinarily important to carry your home state. And also has an underlying impact if you don't."

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