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

Does the Senate's passage of the STOCK bill suggest the Republicans have lost their obstructionist mojo? Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) seems to think so.

The third-ranked Senate Democrat made the taunt hours before the chamber's overwhelming 96-3 approval of the President Obama-backed STOCK Act Thursday, which aims to crack down on congressional insider trading. He accused GOP lawmakers of inelegantly dragging their feet on STOCK as well as the payroll tax cut in an effort to sink the measures.

"Haven't they learned the lesson?" Schumer told reporters. "Their obstruction, which they did more artfully last year, is now becoming clear to the public. Their idea of blocking bills with no fingerprints on them is gone. Everyone sees loud and clear what they're doing."

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The Senate reacted Thursday to a public uproar over the awkward reality that insider trading laws don't already apply to members of Congress. With lawmakers fearful of being painted on the wrong side of the issue, the STOCK Act passed 96-3. Senators from both sides of the aisle practically fell over themselves to herald the bill's passage and tout the importance of restoring the public's trust in Congress.

But does this bill really help with that? Critics say it's heavy on grandstanding, but short on substance.

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As religious groups freak out over the Obama administration's contraception mandate, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) piled on by claiming that the policy is unconstitutional.

The mandate, authorized under the Affordable Care Act, holds that employer-provided health insurance plans must provide birth control to women without co-pays. Houses of worship are exempt, and religious nonprofits are allowed an additional year before they begin complying. But conservative religious organizations and their allies on Capitol Hill say that's not enough.

"I think this mandate violates our constitution," Boehner told reporters on Thursday. "I think it violates the right of these religious organizations. And I would hope that the administration would back up and take another look."

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Democrats believe they finally have a cudgel strong enough to force Republicans to relent on their absolutist opposition to tax increases: the $500-$600 billion in across-the-board military spending cuts due to kick in next year as part of the self-inflicted "punishment" for Congress's inability to battle the debt with savings elsewhere. Republicans are eager to reverse course on that and shift the cuts to non-defense programs, but even top military Democrats say they won't let that happen -- unless the GOP budges on its identity-defining resistance to new taxes.

The defense cuts -- along with an additional $600 billion in reductions to domestic spending -- were part of the "sequestration" that was meant to encourage the Deficit Super Committee to strike a deal on cutting by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years. It failed. And Republicans, after initially signing off on the cuts, now say they're unacceptable.

Not so fast, say Dems.

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"Where is your heart?" cried Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ). "Have you no heart?"

Despite the congressman's plaintive objections during Wednesday's House debate, his Republican colleagues passed a bill 267-159 to repeal the ill-fated CLASS Act. The Community Living Assistance Services and Supports program, championed by the late Ted Kennedy, aimed to provide a long-term care insurance program. Wednesday's party-line vote deepens a partisan stalemate over how to fill that major hole in the U.S. health care system, as the legislation now goes to the Senate where it's expected to perish.

The impasse in a nutshell: The Obama administration conceded last October that it saw no viable path to implement CLASS within its statute, citing financial solvency problems. But the President and his Democratic allies oppose repealing the program and would rather repair it. Republicans, who decry CLASS as costly, unworkable and predicated on a budget gimmick, have no intention of letting that happen. They're insisting on outright repeal and say Congress must start from scratch on the long-term care problem -- although they haven't yet offered an alternative.

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The Obama administration announced Wednesday that the Medicare Advantage program, which allows seniors to receive health coverage through a private insurer, is enjoying lower costs and more customers as a result of the health care reform law.

Medicare Advantage enrollment has risen 10 percent over the last year while average premiums have fallen by 7 percent, said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. She also pointed out that similar improvements were seen the previous year.

The figures bolster President Obama's defense of his signature achievement, and for Democrats it has the added bonus of refuting earlier Republican warnings that "Obamacare" would gravely undermine the choice provisions in Medicare.

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The U.S. economy will suffer over the next few years as a result of fiscal austerity measures including the recent spate of spending cuts, according to the Congressional Budget Office's latest forecast issued Tuesday.

Economic growth and the employment rate will be reduced for many years to come as a result of the August debt limit law's steep $2.4 trillion in spending cuts and expiration of expiring tax provisions including the Bush-era tax cuts, the budget office report concluded.

To illustrate this point, CBO made separate projections pegged to two baselines -- current law, in which the spending cuts and tax increases go into effect, and an alternative fiscal scenario in which these fiscal policy changes are voided.

Without the austerity measures, deficits are higher, but real GDP growth is projected to be as much as 0.8 percent higher this year and up to 2.9 percent higher next year, when the debt limit law's sequestration cuts kick in and the Bush-era tax breaks expire. The baselines even out after a decade but the near term hit to the economy is salient.

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has embraced the argument that President Obama was able to pass every bit of his legislative agenda in his first two years thanks to large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. It's intended as a counterpoint to the President's re-election strategy of attacking the congressional GOP as do-nothing obstructionists. But it's also a revisionist history of the 111th Congress, during which McConnell more than any other Republican in Washington stood athwart Obama's agenda to great effect.

The White House has "been trying to pretend like the President just showed up yesterday, just got sworn in and started fresh," McConnell declared Sunday on CNN's State of the Union. "In fact, he's been in office for three years. He got everything he wanted from a completely compliant Congress for two of those three years... We are living in the Obama economy."

This isn't a new claim for McConnell, but it's audacious even by Washington's lax standards. It was McConnell, after all, who led Senate Republicans in serial filibusters -- a record-setting number -- successfully thwarting large chunks of Obama's agenda.

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Republicans are pushing full speed ahead to authorize the Keystone XL pipeline via congressional action after President Obama rejected it on the grounds that the narrow time window he had was insufficient to evaluate the environmental consequences. The strategy is aimed at exploiting Democratic divisions and pushing Obama into a corner politically.

Most Senate Republicans -- along with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (WV) -- are now backing legislation to approve of the Canada-to-Texas pipeline. House Republicans intend to attach it to their upcoming infrastructure bill, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said Sunday.

Even if both chambers of Congress vote to approve the project, Obama can veto the legislation, and it's unlikely he'll get overridden. But that's what Republicans want him to do: repeatedly take a position against the pipeline so they can bludgeon him with it politically.

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The U.S. economy grew at an annualized rate of 2.8 percent in the last three months of 2011, the Commerce Department announced in an advance estimate Friday. The new figures help quell lingering fears of a double-dip recession, but economists say there remains cause for concern.

"At first glance, it looks good, because it's the 10th straight quarter of economic growth," Chad Stone, chief economist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told TPM. "But there's an awful lot to be concerned about when you dig into the numbers."

Stone noted that a large part of the gains came from businesses accumulating inventory -- but much of it wasn't sold. "So the excess capacity gap is not shrinking," he said. This, he argued, reflects that the trajectory of aggregate demand -- the more important indicator of economic strength -- remains problematic.

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