The fizzle of the nuclear option

Deb Fischer reacts to changes in Senate filibuster rules

For some in Republicanland, there is no problem that cannot be connected to Obamacare. Sen. Fischer’s comment about a broken promise is an apparent reference to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s statement in July that he would not pursue the nuclear option. Since then, Senate Republicans have reneged on their  promise not to filibuster President Obama’s judicial nominees.

How upset were Senate Republicans when their Democratic colleagues voted Thursday to upend tradition and lower the threshold for  overcoming filibusters on presidential nominees?

Not very.

Thursday morning, Majority Leader Harry Reid spent 15 minutes laying out the case for dropping the number of votes needed for most executive branch and judicial nominees from 60 to 50.

  • Senate Republicans have filibustered 160 Obama appointees in less than five years.
  • There are now 75 executive branch nominees pending in the Senate. Ten percent of federal judgeships are vacant.
  • Republican filibusters have left important departments leaderless. It was 900 days before the Senate confirmed an EPA administrator. Former Neb. Sen. Chuck Hagel’s nomination was held up 34 days — three times longer than normal for a secretary of Defense nominee, and at a time when the U.S. was actively involved in a ground war. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was leaderless for two years — long enough for the woman largely responsible for its creation, Elizabeth Warren, to get herself elected to the Senate in time to vote for Obama’s pick.

“The American people believe Congress is broken. The American people believe the Senate is broken,” Reid said. “And  I believe the American people are right.”

Then his Republican counterpart, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke for another 15 minutes. Not about Senate tradition, or the importance of a minority voice, or even the filibuster rules. He talked about Obamacare.

“Over the past several weeks, the American people have been witness to one of the most breathtaking — breathtaking — indictments of big-government liberalism in memory, and I’m not just talking about a website,” McConnell started.

“I’m talking about the way in which Obamacare was forced on the public by an administration and a Democratic-led Congress that we now know is willing to do and say anything — anything — to pass the law.”

And that’s the way McConnell continued. Obamacare. Obamacare. Obamacare. Even the vote to change the filibuster rules was, he said, a means of distracting the public from Obamacare. It wasn’t until later — in many cases much later — that the rules change itself got any attention.

Why the lack of concern over the filibuster vote?

First, some Republican senators will be relieved that they don’t have to vote for presidential nominees, no matter how qualified. Scads of conservative groups that give money and other support to Senators also rank members of Congress on their votes — including votes of presidential appointees. In addition to possible concern about future fundraising, the rankings matter because voters use them when deciding which candidates to support.

Heritage Action, the political action arm of the Heritage Foundation, for example, has used six Obama nominations in its scoring of Senators this year. One of them was Hagel’s nomination, on which Nebraska’s Sens. Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer split. Johanns, who is retiring next year, voted for his fellow Nebraskan. Fischer did not.

(Overall, neither Nebraska senator ranks up to par with Heritage Action, which currently rates Johanns at  56 percent and Fischer at 64 percent. This year’s Republican average in the Senate was a 67 percent score on 31 votes.)

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss) is one member of Congress who might be relieved not to have to vote on presidential nominees. Far-right national fundraising groups are so unhappy with Cochran's moderate, traditionalist performance that they have already endorsed a different Republican in Mississippi's 2014 primary. Cochran has not said yet whether he will run for re-election.

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss) is one member of Congress who might be relieved not to have to vote on presidential nominees. Far-right national fundraising groups are so unhappy with Cochran’s moderate, traditionalist performance that they have already endorsed a different Republican in Mississippi’s 2014 primary. Cochran has not said yet whether he will run for re-election.

Second,  blasting Obamacare is the only thing Republicans have going for them. Their approval rating is at rock-bottom, and they aren’t getting anything done. No Farm Bill, no budget, no agreement on immigration reform. By Republican design, it will be one of the least productive years in congressional history.

Anyone who missed the message about obstructionism from the inaugural-night meeting Republicans held in 2009 to plan anti-Obama strategy, got a reminder from  Speaker John Boehner (R-OH)  in July.

“We should not be judged on how many laws we create,” Boehner told CBS News. “We ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal.”

See Thursday morning’s conversation  between Reid and McConnell at C-Span,

Mr. Sasse goes to Washington

Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)

Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)

Midland University President and 2014 Senate hopeful Ben Sasse

Midland University President and 2014 Senate hopeful Ben Sasse

Republican Senate candidate Ben Sasse is reportedly headed to Washington this week to meet with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Oh, to be the fly on the wall during that conversation.

Sasse is the Senate Conservatives Fund’s anointed candidate in the race for Nebraska’s open Senate seat. McConnell and the rest of the GOP in Washington have all but declared war on the SCF and other anti-establishment Republican groups.

SCF is the group that spent $1 million to bring Ted Cruz to the Senate. It claims credit for Deb Fischer’s successful Senate race last year. It not only runs ads attacking current Republican members of the Senate, but it helps their opponents raise money.

So what will McConnell have to say to Sasse?

The Weekly Standard  says McConnell aides are downplaying the significance of the meeting. McConnell tries to meet with all Republican Senate candidates, they say, so the Sasse meeting is just another day at the office for McConnell.

And that may very well be.

McConnell is 71.  Sasse is 42. McConnell has been in the Senate since Sasse was in middle school.   Sasse spent a few years in Washington working for Rep. Jeff Fortenberry or in the Department of Health and Human Services. McConnell has served about as many terms in the Senate as Sasse has years in Washington.

The naturally soft-spoken McConnell may have little to say to Sasse. His beef is with  Sasse’s benefactors at the SCF and the other groups that back Republicans so extreme in their conservatism that they lose in the general election. Among the SCF’s most notable failures are Todd “legitimate rape” Akin in Missouri, Christine “I am not a witch” O’Donnell in Delaware, and Sharron “Second Amendment remedies” Angle in Nevada.

Sasse’s prospects in the May primary are uncertain.  Sasse has the SCF and Club for Growth endorsements, but former State Treasurer Shane Oborn is the establishment’s candidate.  Sasse’s campaign has thus far centered on abolishing the Affordable Care Act, an odd choice considering that Obamacare will have been fully implemented for more than a year by the time Nebraska’s new senator even takes office.

McConnell told the Wall Street Journal that if Republicans are going to regain control of the Senate, they must back candidates “that don’t scare the general public, [and] convey the impression that we could actually be responsible for governing, you can trust us — we’re adults here, we’re grown-ups.”

He said the Senate Conservatives Fund “has elected more democrats than the Democratic Senatorial Committee over the past three cycles.”

What’s worse, SCF and tea party groups raise money from unsuspecting Americans after giving them unrealistic expectations of what Republicans can accomplish in the Senate with a 10-seat disadvantage to the Democratic majority.

“They’ve been told the reason we can’t get better outcomes than we’ve gotten is not because the Democrats control the Senate and the White House but because Republicans have been insufficiently feisty. Well, that’s just not true,” McConnell told the WSJ‘s Peggy Noonan.

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ENDA finds no support among Nebraska senators

Debate continues in the Senate this week on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act  — the first major gay rights legislation considered in Washington during the past three years.

Six Republicans joined all 55 members of the Democratic caucus to remove a procedural hurdle and allow debate to continue.

Nebraska Sens. Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer were not among the handful of Republicans who supported the measure. Johanns has a long history of being non-gay friendly while in the Senate, as mayor of Lincoln and governor of Nebraska.

Voting with the Democratic majority were Republican Sens. Ayotte of New Hampshire, Collins of Maine, Hatch of Utah, Heller of Nevada, Kirk of Illinois, and Toomey of Pennsylvania.

Exempted from ENDA are religious organizations. It also would not apply to businesses with less than 15 employees.

ENDA could pass the Senate by the end of the week, but House Speaker John Boehner said Monday he does not support ENDA, so it will face much stiffer opposition in the House.

The last major gay-rights legislation passed by Congress was the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy in 2010. All three of Nebraska’s congressmen, Reps. Terry, Smith and Fortenberry, voted to allow gays to serve openly in the military. Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson also voted in favor of the measure; Sen. Mike Johanns did not.

Only 21 states have laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and Nebraska is not among them.

Neighboring states Colorado and Iowa have employment protections. Kansas and Wyoming have laws or regulations that protect gay public employees.  Missouri offers protection only to gay employees of the state’s executive branch.

It was not immediately clear how ENDA would affect Nebraska because it is an at-will employment state. Employees may be fired for any reason or no reason at all.

Nebraska also doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages, civil partnerships or domestic partnerships because of an amendment to the state constitution voters approved in 2000.

Nonetheless, gay rights issues are heating up in the state as it tries to cope with the realities of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling that threw out parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, clearing the way for same-sex couples to receive federal tax, health, and pension benefits.

Nebraska is also having to deal with a growing number of  same-sex couples wed in one of the 14 states that recognize gay marriage but now live in Nebraska, and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Three gay couples recently sued the state for the right to adopt or become foster parents. Nebraska also prohibits same-sex couples from adopting their partner’s children, and it requires couples legally married in other states to file state income taxes as single people.

State legislators are talking about remedying the matter by allowing civil unions, which would seem to be the most palatable to Nebraska voters.

For the record, Nebraska is not one of the states Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called out last week for refusing to issue ID cards to the spouses and children of gay members of the National Guard. The IDs allow them access to bases and commissaries.

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Update: The Employment Nondiscrimination Act of 2013 passed the Senate on Thursday Nov. 7 on a vote of 64-32. Nebraska Sens. Johanns and Fischer voted against it. The bill now moves to the House, where Speaker John Boehner is not expected to bring it up for debate.

Neither Nebraska senator has posted anything on their Senate website about ENDA or gay rights, but Joe Morton at the Omaha World-Herald caught up with both of them.  (Midlands Republicans in Senate to vote against workplace gay bias bill, published Nov. 7, 2013.)

Johanns said in a statement released after the earlier vote:  “I firmly believe every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, but I have serious concerns about the impact this legislation would have on religious organizations and private business owners with deeply-held religious beliefs.”

Fischer said she would have wanted greater protection for religious organizations, but the rest of her comments were somewhat confusing.

“I don’t like the fact that we carve out all these special privileges. That has always, always bothered me,” Fischer told Morton. “I don’t think anybody, anybody should be discriminated against. As a woman I shouldn’t be discriminated against. I don’t think it’s helpful to always carve this out, though, saying women shouldn’t be discriminated against.”

The confusing aspect of her comment is that women do have legal protections from discrimination in the workplace.

Don’t hate on Obamacare

Why is Obamacare so unpopular with Washington Republicans that they continue their obviously futile maneuvering to kill or delay the Affordable Care Act?

First, some members of Congress hate the President so much that they automatically hate everything he likes.

Second, there are members who oppose Obamacare because of the traditional Republican opposition to  “big government.” (Put it in quotes only because no one has ever defined “too big.” They can’t describe it, but they know it when they see it.)

But there is probably a third, even greater, reason why so many Americans are telling Republican members of  Congress that they don’t want Obamacare. It’s because people  hate insurance in general.

We buy it, but we don’t like buying it. In some cases, it’s money we spend to protect ourselves from catastrophes that aren’t likely to happen. We buy property insurance even though the statistical likelihood that our house will burn down or disappear down a sinkhole is very small.

We buy auto insurance to protect ourselves from our mistakes and the mistakes of others. Logically, we know we need it, but when we cruise down the street we don’t glory in the excellent coverage we have. If we glory it all, it’s because we have a hotter or faster car than the guy in the next lane. No one turns their head to stare when a well-insured driver goes by.

Are you going to wind up wrapped in your deliriously happy spouse’s arms if you beef up your life insurance? Would you get a better response if you brought home  that big-screen TV or a jewel-encrusted necklace?

Who even reads their insurance policies? Most Americans take those over-sized envelopes that comes in the mail and stuff them  into the same drawer where they keep all the other the information they may need someday, but in all likelihood will never again see. Like all those years’ worth of back income tax returns and the warranty for the washer and dryer.

But the much, much bigger reason that people hate insurance because it often sucks — no matter how much we pay for it.

The idea behind insurance is that the carrier pools our money with a lot of other peoples’ money. Not everyone’s house is going to burn down this year. Not everyone is going to be in a car accident or get sick. By pooling money from lots of people, the insurance company can pay claims and still make money.

The reason insurance sucks is that  it doesn’t work that way in reality.  When we turn in a claim on our car, we know that our rates are going to rise until we have paid  back every last nickel the insurance company paid to have our car fixed.  That’s not insurance in the classic sense  — it’s a short-term loan from the insurance company!

Who hasn’t had a bad experience with insurance?  Your rates go up when you do nothing wrong and somebody hits you! Your rate will likely go up if you move into  a zip code where the insurance company thinks the drivers are worse than in your old neighborhood. If your credit rating goes down, your insurance rates go up. You may not think your old bills have anything to do with your driving skills, but the insurance carriers don’t agree.

Even worse are the surprises that come with medical bills. Deductibles, co-pays, lifetime caps that are reached in the midst of cancer treatment. Coverage that is denied due to a pre-existing condition.  Who knew that stomachache you had in 2008 was actually the birth of a gallstone? A $5,000 cap on mental health services? What do you do when your kid needs $30,000 worth of drug rehab?

The problems with pre-existing conditions and lifetime caps will be ended by Obamacare.  The dependence on insurance being provided by your employer goes away too, which means that people who are 10 to 15 years away from Medicare won’t have to hang onto their jobs by their fingernails, just for the  insurance.

What’s wrong with Obamacare? Even most Republicans don’t want to repeal all of it. They want to keep the parts that people already know and like. In addition to the end of pre-existing conditions and lifetime caps, the Affordable Care Act also allows parents to continue paying for their children’s coverage until they are 25, and it eliminates the  “donut hole” in seniors’ prescription drug coverage.

So maybe it’s time for Americans — even Republicans — to ask themselves just what it is about Obamacare that they hate. Could it be that you really don’t hate the Affordable Care Act? Could it really be just the insurance industry that you hate? Isn’t it true that just thinking about insurance gives you a headache?

Everyone past 40 has  had at least one bad experience with the current insurance system, but who’s  had a bad experience with the Affordable Care Act? Why not give it a shot?

We may not like the individual mandate, but Americans deal with mandates all the time. Your mortgage company mandates full coverage on your house.  The state mandates a certain amount of auto insurance even for the safest of drivers.

And who doesn’t burn just a bit over the extra money we have to spend to protect ourselves  from un- and under-insured drivers? Why aren’t those people more responsible?

By making affordable health insurance available to everyone, and by requiring everyone to have it, it makes “those people” more responsible for themselves. How is that bad?

America was built on individual responsibility. Historians called it “rugged individualism.” Isn’t it time to give it a try with health insurance?

Washington in Lockdown

The legislative day came to an early and abrupt end Monday morning after a gunman at the Washington Navy Yard opened fire and killed at least 12 people. It was not immediately known how many more were injured. The gunman is also dead, although it was unclear whether he shot himself or was killed by police.

The Senate was under lock-down for for less than 90 minutes. Confirmation votes on two judicial nominees were rescheduled. The House is on a three-day weekend and not scheduled to meet again until Tuesday.

Monday’s violence was the deadliest mass shooting in the United States since 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.