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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

Schisms are emerging within the Republican Party after President Obama's announcement last Friday that he would tweak his contraception mandate to ensure that religious nonprofits aren't forced to pay for an employee's birth control coverage. And as GOP leaders push to repeal the requirement entirely, the White House is welcoming that battle.

The shift is looking like an act of political jujitsu as Obama has not only unified his base but splintered the GOP coalition, which initially appeared united against the President's rule. Obama won over the Democrats and moderate Catholics who criticized him, while maintaining the support of those who backed the original rule. As an added bonus, he has turned some Republicans who initially opposed his policy against their own leaders.

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The office of House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (MI), the GOP's lead negotiator in conference committee, sent TPM this statement following news Monday that House Republican leaders were set to introduce a bill extending the payroll tax cut without offsets.

Says Camp:

"I have spoken with my fellow House Republican conferees and we are committed to resolving the differences between the House and Senate.  While we will continue our negotiations in good faith and remain hopeful that a deal will come together, we also recognize that the clock is ticking.  As such, I fully support and think it is prudent for our leadership to take whatever action is necessary to ensure American workers are not hit with a tax increase on March 1."

Even if the backup plan passes, the conference negotiators would still have to work out how to offset extensions of unemployment insurance and Medicare physician reimbursement rates, which expire at the end of February.

President Obama's birth control accommodation for religious nonprofits is splintering the GOP tent, with Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins praising it as a good move.

The Portland Press Herald's Jonathan Riskind reports:

But Obama’s revised rule appears to have won over Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine. Both had called for changes to the original rule despite their support in the past for a bill with a similar objective.

“It appears that changes have been made that provide women’s health services without compelling Catholic organizations in particular to violate the beliefs and tenets of their faith,” Snowe said in a statement. “According to the Catholic Health Association, the administration ‘responded to the issues [they] identified that needed to be fixed,’ which is what I urged the president to do in addressing this situation.

“While I will carefully review the details of the president’s revised proposal, it appears to be a step in the right direction,” Collins said in a statement. “The administration’s original plan was deeply flawed and clearly would have posed a threat to religious freedom.  It presented the Catholic Church with its wide-ranging social, educational, and health care services, and many other faith-based organizations, with an impossible choice between violating their religious beliefs or violating federal regulations. The administration has finally listened to the concerns raised by many and appears to be seeking to avoid the threat to religious liberties posed by its original plan."

House and Senate Republican leaders say the shift is not good enough and intend to move forward with legislation to repeal the rule entirely. TPM reported earlier that the GOP was ripe for splits on the issue, given members' prior support for contraception mandate, and that moderate Republicans are wary of a culture war over contraception.

(h/t Igor Volsky)

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said in a statement Monday that they'll introduce a bill extending the payroll tax cut for the rest of the year without pay-fors. The statement in full:

“We support the work of our conference negotiators and continue to support a responsible resolution that extends current payroll tax relief, reforms and extends unemployment insurance, and includes a Medicare ‘doc fix.’  Republicans have attempted to reach an agreement and negotiated in good faith for months, and we will continue to do so.  Unfortunately, to date, Democrats have refused virtually every spending cut proposed – insisting instead on job-threatening tax hikes on small business job creators – and with respect to the need for an extension of the payroll tax cut, time is running short.

“Because the president and Senate Democratic leaders have not allowed their conferees to support a responsible bipartisan agreement, today House Republicans will introduce a backup plan that would simply extend the payroll tax holiday for the remainder of the year while the conference negotiations continue regarding offsets, unemployment insurance, and the ‘doc fix.’  If Democrats continue to refuse to negotiate in good faith, Republicans may schedule this measure for House consideration later this week pending a conversation with our members.  Democrats’ refusal to agree to any spending cuts in the conference committee has made it necessary for us to prepare this fallback option to protect small business job creators and ensure taxes don’t go up on middle class workers. 

“This is not our first choice.  Our goal is to reach a responsible agreement in conference.  But in the face of the Democrats’ stonewalling and obstructionism, we are prepared to act to protect small businesses and our economy from the consequences of Washington Democrats’ political games.”

 

Senate Republican Conference Vice Chair Roy Blunt (MO) took to the Heritage Foundation on Monday to reaffirm the party's message that its ongoing battle against the Obama administration's tweaked birth control rule is about religious liberty and nothing else.

"What has to be protected here is the faith-based rights of conscience," the senator said, warning the friendly audience that supporters of the policy will try to narrow the debate. "Let's not let that happen," he told them. "Let's make sure the subject continues to be the First Amendment to the Constitution."

Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) made the same argument yesterday.

The policy shift, announced Friday, allows religious nonprofits to opt out of paying for an employee's birth control coverage and pass the cost on to the insurance company instead.

Blunt dismissed it as an "accounting trick" that ignores the problem. "It's not even a distinction without a difference. There is no difference," he said. "[The President] still doesn't understand that this mandate isn't about cost -- it's about who controls the religious views of faith-based institutions."

Senate Republicans say they'll push legislation to repeal the mandate entirely and let any employer with a moral or religious objection deny birth control coverage in their health insurance plan. Blunt is the author of the bill.

Blunt said the battle will go on "unless the president totally changes his position," although he added that if the GOP override passes and Obama vetos it, "I'm pretty sure the two-thirds needed to override a veto is not there."

Republicans are doubling down in their assault on President Obama's birth control requirement, insisting that his accommodation of religious nonprofits does not address religious concerns. But by attempting to keep the heat on Obama, the GOP might be diving head-first into a culture war over contraception that social conservatives lost long ago in the minds of the public.

Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said the House will push to repeal the rule entirely, while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said Republicans will force a vote on legislation permitting any employer to deny birth control coverage in their health insurance plan by claiming a moral or religious objection. "This issue will not go away until the administration simply backs down," McConnell said Sunday on CBS' Face The Nation.

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Not satisfied with President Obama's new religious accommodation, Republicans will move forward with legislation by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) that permits any employer to deny birth control coverage in their health insurance plans, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said Sunday.

"If we end up having to try to overcome the President's opposition by legislation, of course I'd be happy to support it, and intend to support it," McConnell said. "We'll be voting on that in the Senate and you can anticipate that that would happen as soon as possible."

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ABC's Jake Tapper catches White House chief of staff Jack Lew making an inaccurate statement on Senate budget procedure as he toured the Sunday shows previewing the President's budget:

"You can’t pass a budget in the Senate of the United States without 60 votes and you can’t get 60 votes without bipartisan support," Lew said. “So unless… unless Republicans are willing to work with Democrats in the Senate, [Majority Leader] Harry Reid is not going to be able to get a budget passed."

That’s not accurate. Budgets only require 51 Senate votes for passage, as Lew — former director of the Office of Management and Budget — surely must know.

Rick Santorum toured the Sunday shows aiming to reframe the GOP presidential primaries as a two-person race between him and Mitt Romney.

"I feel very good that this is a two-person race right now," Santorum said on MSNBC's "Meet The Press."

"We think this is a two-person race right now," he said on CNN's "State of the Union."

"I think we can do reasonably well in Arizona and, you know, really make this, you know, a two-person race," he said on ABC's "This Week."

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, suggested that the U.S. should financially assist the Syrian opposition to help resolve the bloody conflict.

"I think it's time to try to help the brave Syrian freedom fighters to carry out a fair fight," Lieberman said Sunday on CNN's State of the Union. "And I think it's time to give them help. Medical help first, and then I'd give them training, I'd give them communications equipment, and then ultimately I'd give them weapons."

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