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

Updated 6:38pm

One day before a critical Senate vote that could loom large as a 2012 election issue, Mitt Romney came out for a congressional Republican measure designed to roll back the Obama administration's requirement that employer health plans cover birth control.

"Governor Romney supports the Blunt Bill because he believes in a conscience exemption in health care for religious institutions and people of faith," Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul told TPM.

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Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) announced Wednesday he will split with his party and vote for the GOP Blunt amendment that would let any employer deny contraceptive or other health services in their insurance plans.

Manchin said in a statement:

"While I would have preferred that both sides would have come together around a solution like we had in West Virginia, I am voting in favor of this measure to protect the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. Well-intentioned people on both sides of this issue can respectfully disagree, but for me this comes down to our religious liberties. I truly believe that we must safeguard Americans’ right to exercise their sincerely held religious views, and I support this measure to protect that freedom of conscience."

The vote is scheduled for Thursday.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) emphatically called on Republicans Wednesday to stop invoking the late Ted Kennedy to justify their support for the Blunt contraception amendment. She said he was a great champion of women's health.

"So I ask my colleagues here in this debate. Come here and state your views," Boxer said on the Senate floor. "But don't misstake the views of a dear departed colleague, who for 12 years supported a women's right to have access to contraception."

President Obama met with congressional leaders today, and if a readout from House Speaker John Boehner's (R-OH) office is any indication, some modest bipartisan agreements may be in the cards.

A Boehner aide emails:

Speaker Boehner met this afternoon with the President, the Vice President, Leader Reid, Leader McConnell, and Leader Pelosi, and left the meeting hopeful that the Democratic leaders may finally consider some of the bipartisan energy and jobs bills passed by the House.  During the meeting, the group discussed a host of issues, including opportunities to advance bipartisan solutions to help struggling American families.  The Speaker identified a number of areas in which he believes there is the basis for common ground to help create jobs and address rising gas prices.  He encouraged the President and Democratic leaders to embrace the JOBS Act, the House’s package of bipartisan bills to make it easier for small businesses to grow and hire more workers.  The Speaker was encouraged by what the President had to say about the JOBS Act.

Don't expect retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) to vote for the GOP's Blunt amendment on Thursday, which permits employers to deny contraception or any other service in their health plan.

"With respect to the Blunt amendment, I think it's much broader than I could support," Snowe told Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC Wednesday.

Snowe, who rocked the political world by announcing her retirement yesterday, added: "I support the Marco Rubio approach in that regard. I do think that there should be a valid conscience clause and I didn't agree with what President Obama had done with respect to that mandatory requirement."

The Rubio bill would permit any employer to deny birth control coverage -- but not other services.

A Senate vote Thursday on the Blunt Amendment could solidify the culture war over contraception in this election year. And Sen. Chuck Schumer (NY), the Democrats' top message man, just offered a glimpse of how his party intends to frame the issue.

Some excerpts from Schumer's floor speech today:

There’s no good answer about where the other side is going with this issue—except, perhaps, back to the 19th century.

This whole debate is an anachronism. Our country progressed beyond the issue of whether or not to allow birth control a long time ago. Yet here we are in 2012, and the Republican Party suddenly wants to turn back the clock and take away contraception from women. ...

This measure would force women to surrender control of their own health decisions to their bosses. ...

So let’s admit what this debate is really and what Republicans really want to take away from millions of American women. It is contraception.

We should instead call this amendment for what it really is: for millions of women whose boss may have a personal objection, it is a contraception ban.

Republicans are working hard to make the issue about religious freedom, not contraception. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), whose amendment permits any employer to deny a service in their health care plan if they deem it morally objectionable, wrote an op-ed ths weekend offering a preview of how Republicans plan to debate this issue.

As expected, the House Energy & Commerce health subcommittee on Wednesday approved a GOP bill by a 17-5 margin to repeal the health care reform law's Independent Payment Advisory Board.

Rep. Frank Pallone (NJ), the top Democrat on the subcommittee, voted with Republicans after expressing his opposition to IPAB, but also said he was disenchanted with the GOP's broad motive to derail the Affordable Care Act. Democratic Rep. Ed Towns (NY) joined Pallone in voting for repeal.

They aren't the only House Dems to back repeal of the panel, which is designed to rein in Medicare spending over time by holding down reimbursements to providers. It does not have the authority to cut payments to beneficiaries.

All the Republicans on the panel voted to repeal IPAB. The White House defended the provisions in a blog post hours before the vote.

Rep. David Dreier (R-CA), the Rules Committee chairman who has served in the House since 1981, will not seek reelection this year, he announced Wednesday in a floor speech.

Republicans are poised to advance repeal Wednesday of a critical provision in the health care reform law designed to preserve traditional Medicare -- and they've enlisted a number of key House Democrats for the cause. Victory isn't imminent, as Senate Dems aren't biting, but the growing defections help the GOP's long-term push to privatize Medicare.

With Medicare's trust fund set to be empty by about 2024, dramatic cost-cutting measures will ultimately be required. Republicans want to achieve this by transforming Medicare into a "premium support" program in which seniors are given a voucher to buy their own private insurance. President Obama has a different idea, and has already enacted the framework for it: a panel called the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), set to take effect in 2014, comprising 15 appointed experts tasked with holding down Medicare payments to providers -- without cutting benefits.

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On the day that IPAB repeal is set to clear the House Energy & Commerce Committee, the White House defending the provision and contrasting it with the GOP's Paul Ryan plan as a way to save Medicare.

An excerpt from Nancy-Ann DeParle's post at the White House blog:

Today, Congressional Republicans are working to repeal and dismantle the Independent Advisory Board before it even gets started even though experts like former Bush Administration Medicare Official Mark McClellan called for “[strengthening] and [clarifying] the authority and capacity of the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB).”  And a coalition of economists including Nobel Prize Winners said “…the Affordable Care Act contains essentially every cost-containment provision policy analysts have considered effective in reducing the rate of medical spending. These provisions include…An Independent Payment Advisory Board with authority to make recommendations to reduce cost growth and improve quality within both Medicare and the health system as a whole”

At the same time, House Republicans passed a plan for Medicare last year that does nothing to reduce overall health care costs.  Instead, the Republican plan shifts costs to seniors and empowers insurance companies.

The post includes a chart drawing out the differences between IPAB and the Ryan plan, essentially the two options on the table for keeping Medicare solvent in the long run.