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

Lawmakers sealed the deal late Wednesday night on yearlong extensions of the payroll tax cut, unemployment compensation and Medicare physician payment rates. It's a political victory for President Obama and the conclusion of a no-win situation for Republicans that they were eager to move past.

The agreement was announced by Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) and Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), the two lead negotiators in conference committee. Final votes are expected by the end of this weekend.

The conclusion comes at the end of a grueling series of negotiations that spilled over from last year. That led House Republicans to this week drop their demand that the payroll tax cut be offset with spending cuts elsewhere, paving the way for the agreement as the two sides had been deadlocked on pay-fors.

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Count Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) as a likely "no" vote on the payroll tax cut package.

"If it's not paid for I won't vote for it," Coburn told reporters. "Period." He added that he hasn't seen the conference report yet, and TPM noted that the payroll tax cut is not expected to be funded (although the other provisions are.)

"I'm not going to vote for it," Coburn continued. "We're going to have a $1.3 trillion deficit this year. I can show you $350 billion worth of waste or fraud in our present federal government, and we don't have the gonads to stand up and find some of that to pay for this? Instead our easy way out is we're going to charge it to our children? That's immoral to me. It's absolutely immoral."

What do you do if your party's marching behind an issue that your likely nominee for president has a spotty record on?

That conundrum faces most congressional Republicans right now. When it comes to their push to reverse the White House's mandate to expand access to birth control -- which they argue violates religious freedom -- Mitt Romney's record is unfortunate. As governor of Massachusetts, he presided over the same policy critics are now assailing President Obama for: obliging most employers to provide health insurance that includes birth control for their female employees, even if the employer belongs to a religion that opposes those services. Indeed, because of the White House's compromise, which would allow religious nonprofits to opt out of paying the insurer for those services and demand that the insurer offer them to the female employee directly, Romney's law was arguably even stronger.

On Wednesday more than two-dozen Republican lawmakers ran into this issue head-on. They gathered together in the Capitol to fulminate against President Obama's egregious violation of religious freedom. But none of them would rule out supporting a presidential candidate who had enacted a virtually identical mandate.

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Democrats opened Chairman Darrell Issa's (R-CA) House oversight committee hearing on President Obama's birth control rule by criticizing the GOP majority for deying a minority-invited female witness the opportunity to testify.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) made the charge, which TPM reported earlier, when Ranking Dem Elijah Cummings turned part of his opening statement to her Thursday morning.

Issa responded, "It is a tradition, not a rule of the committee, that the minority have a witness." He argued that the witness was not "appropriate or qualified," saying she couldn't be fully vetted by his staff in a timely and appeared not to have the "appropriate credentials."

While Democrats will claim victory in the impending deal to extend the payroll tax cut through 2012, Republicans have also won some fodder for their base on a key issue: They've managed to slice off a piece of the health care reform law -- albeit a fairly small piece.

A summary of the deal circulated to allies and insiders by House GOP leadership boasts that they've extracted concessions worth $11.6 billion from the Affordable Care Act in negotiations with Democrats. The cuts hit the prevention fund and provider reimbursements -- it's not a big chunk of the nearly $1 trillion law, but it's a salient political win for Republicans after Democrats repeatedly resisted efforts to cut the ACA in the Super Committee and December deal.

The Republicans may also have won on what could become an important matter of principle: whether savings from the projected wind-down of war spending could count as offsets. Democrats had wanted the cutbacks from the "Overseas Contingency Operation" (basically, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) to be able to be used as offsets for the so-called "doc fix." Republicans had been under immense pressure to cave on that as well. However, many argued that since these operations had been scheduled to wind down anyway, then they did not count as real savings. Furthermore, some feared that if they allowed this maneuver for the "doc fix" then Dems would try to use it to bankroll their pet infrastructure projects.

Here's the relevant except from the GOP-written Wednesday document, obtained by TPM and the numbers confirmed by Democratic and Republican leadership aides:

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After indicating that they were placated by President Obama's tweaked birth control regulation, Maine Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins appear to be hedging on it, speaking late Tuesday to Jonathan Riskind of the home-state Portland Press Herald.

They appeared to dance around the issue, not taking a stance but saying they aren't fully with Obama.

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After indicating that they were placated by President Obama's tweaked birth control regulation, Maine Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins appear to be hedging on it, speaking late Tuesday to Jonathan Riskind of the home-state Portland Press Herald.

They appeared to dance around the issue, not taking a stance but saying they aren't fully with Obama.


Snowe said today that the White House “certainly has made some critical adjustments, but we haven’t seen the final rule so I think it is important to see the final rule to make sure that we understand exactly what it will do. I see there are still some concerns within the Catholic Church, and hopefully the president can continue to work through those issues.”


“I thought that the president’s announcement on Friday was a step in the right direction, but as I indicated at that time, I needed more information about the details,” Collins said today. “A very important issue is how the administration would treat self-insured Catholic institutions. And I haven’t been able to get an answer from the administration on that issue. They have ducked the issue and said that it remains to be seen, that they are working on it and that it could take as long as a year to come up with an answer. That’s very disappointing and undermines what I thought was a sincere attempt initially to deal with the issues that have been raised not only by the Catholic Church but by other faith-based organizations.”

The two senators told Riskind they support the bill by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) that would permit any employer to deny contraceptive services in their health plans, but neither are backing the measure by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) that would let any employer deny any service they morally object to.

It's an awkward issue for Snowe and Collins, who in 2001 championed legislation that would have established a very similar mandate as Obama's. The context of their hedging is a concerted GOP push to roll back the regulation in its entirety, an affort that isn't helped by divisions within the party.

Negotiators on the payroll tax cut package are mulling a range of cuts to Medicare providers and some reductions to Affordable Care Act spending to override the reimbursement cuts to Medicare doctors set to take effect March 1.

The deal isn't finalized yet but negotiators struck an accord on the broad parameters Tuesday night. The following are the proposed health care cuts in the mix, according to multiple sources familiar with the discussions.

--Cuts to the Affordable Care Act's prevention fund totaling up to $5 billion

--Cuts to Medicare bad debt payments for hospitals and some nursing homes

--Cuts in Medicaid reimbursements to hospitals with a high percentage of low-income patients

--Coding changes to Medicare reimbursements for clinical laboratories and home health services

The policies have all been floated in earlier deficit-reduction efforts, although House Dems aren't happy about the cuts to the health law.

According to The Hill, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) told his GOP members Wednesday that he will delay a House vote on his transportation and infrastructure bill that was originally slated for this week.

Keith Laing and Ian Swanson report:

"Given the volume of amendments and the need for a full, fair, open and transparent process, we may not finish energy/infrastructure this week," Boehner told his conference, according to a source in the room. "If we need more time to debate and consider amendments, that's perfectly fine with me. It's more important that we do it right than that we do it fast." 

The GOP bill would pay for road and transit projects over the next five years and reauthorize the collection of the federal gas tax. It also authorizes expanded domestic oil and gas drilling, and projects revenue would be used to pay for some of the projects.  

Boehner has reportedly had trouble gathering the votes for the measure, which has been criticized by Republicans as a spending bill and by Democrats as a giveaway to the fossil fuel industry.