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The House and Senate were both in session this week, the President was traveling overseas. President Obama announced his backing for an overhaul of the NSA bulk phone data collection program, a plan that differs from the proposal drafted by House intelligence leaders by requiring judicial approval for data searches before records are pulled, rather than afterward. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard a case brought by retailer Hobby Lobby debating whether or not companies are entitled to a religious exemption from providing contraception in their employee health plans under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Also Tuesday, the IRS announced it will treat bitcoin and other virtual currencies like property, rather than currency, meaning transactions could be subject to taxes. The Administration announced that new ACA enrollees would have until mid-April to sign up for insurance under the ACA if they simply check a box indicating they had tried or started prior to the March 31 deadline. House leaders passed a one-year ‘doc fix’ patch on a voice vote Thursday morning, quickly avoiding bipartisan opposition but sparking criticism from rank and file members. The Senate continues to push for a permanent solution to the issue and will likely vote on a bill advanced by new Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) next week. At the Vatican Thursday, President Obama met Pope Francis for the first time and expressed his admiration; the visit included a nearly hour-long private audience with the Pope.
During President Obama’s trip to Europe this week, he gave a speech on the US-EU response to Russia and the G-8 became the G-7 after member nations agreed to suspend Russia’s membership. Russian troop movements along the Ukrainian border continue to stoke fears of further Russian aggression, with estimates of the number of troops near the border ranging from 50,000 to 100,000.
The Week's Top 5
Here’s a look at some of the top political stories of the week:
Hard GOP push wins passage of ‘doc fix’—“House Republican leaders found a way Thursday to swiftly circumvent bipartisan opposition to controversial “doc fix” legislation. Stealth. In neck-breaking fashion, GOP leadership took to the House floor in the morning and voice-voted a one-year patch to the Sustainable Growth Rate – a pricey formula that determines how much the government pays doctors who treat Medicare patients. Republican leaders worked with their Democratic counterparts to orchestrate the ploy. As members returned to the floor when the House came into session, they discovered that the bill had already passed. Nearly all of them were surprised… The maneuver came after a long delay amid opposition that threatened to kill the bill and had GOP leaders trying to chart a course to pass it…” (Politico)
Obama: Ignoring Russian Aggression Would Have Global Consequences—“U.S. President Barack Obama said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine represented a challenge to the long-held view that Europe’s borders cannot be redrawn by force, and called for greater sanctions and military preparedness in response. Mr. Obama, in an address Wednesday before 2,000 mostly young people in Brussels, said further U.S. and Western sanctions are forthcoming, even without additional Russian incursions... His speech capped a three-day long trip to the Netherlands and Belgium, where he has met with European leaders on a long-planned visit reshaped by the crisis in Ukraine. The U.S. and European Union agreed Wednesday to pursue ways to reduce Europe’s dependency on Russian energy in the wake of Moscow’s incursion into Ukraine, and vowed to complete a trade agreement they said would ease the flow of natural-gas exports to Europe...” (WSJ)
Obama to Call for End to N.S.A’s Bulk Data Collection—“The Obama administration is preparing to unveil a legislative proposal for a far-reaching overhaul of the National Security Agency’s once-secret bulk phone records program in a way that – if approved by Congress – would end the aspect that has most alarmed privacy advocates since its existence was leaked last year, according to senior administration officials. Under the proposal, they said, the N.S.A. would end its systematic collection of data about Americans’ calling habits. The bulk records would stay in the hands of phone companies, which would not be required to retain the data for any longer than they normally would. And the N.S.A. could obtain specific records only with permission from a judge, using a new kind of court order... The administration’s proposal will join a jumble of bills in Congress ranging from proposals that would authorize the current program with only minor adjustments, to proposals to end it...” (NYT)
More time for health sign-up—The Obama administration has decided to give extra time to Americans who say that they are unable to enroll in health plans through the federal insurance marketplace by the March 31 deadline. Federal officials confirmed Tuesday evening that all consumers who have begun to apply for coverage on HealthCare.gov, but who do not finish by Monday, will have until about mid-April to ask for an extension... [Extension requests] will rely on an honor system; the government will not try to determine whether the person is telling the truth. The rules, which will apply to the federal exchanges operating in three dozen states, will essentially create a large loophole even as White House officials have repeatedly said the March 31 deadline was firm... Although no one will be asked why they need an extension, the idea is to help people whose applications have been held up because of the Web site’s technical problems, or who haven’t been able to get the system to calculate subsidies to help them pay for coverage...” (WaPo)
Supreme Court Debates Contraception Requirement—“The Supreme Court displayed a sharp divide Tuesday on the question of whether companies are entitled to a religious exemption from providing emergency contraceptives in their employee health plans. It was the first time the Affordable Care Act appeared before the high court since it upheld the law in 2012. Under the law, employers must cover contraceptives in workers’ insurance plans without copayments, or face a fine. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., an arts-and-crafts chain owned by an evangelical Christian family, and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., a cabinet maker owned by a Mennonite family, challenged the requirement because it includes the so-called morning-after pill and certain intrauterine devices. They contend those methods amount to abortion which their faiths forbid... At the heart of the case is whether companies are entitled to the same religious-freedom protections as individuals and churches... A decision is expected by June...” (WSJ)
The Week Ahead
The Senate and House are both back in session next week.
The Senate will vote on the House-passed “doc fix” bill Monday. Without a legislative fix, a 24% cut in Medicare payments to physicians would kick after the previous “patch” to the sustainable growth rate (SGR) formula expires Monday, March 31.
The Senate is also expected to vote on legislation authorizing an extension of emergency unemployment insurance benefits.
Monday, March 31 is the official deadline to sign up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Extensions are being offered for those who do not complete their application in time.
Although not yet released at the time of publication, the weekly legislative schedule for the House will be posted here.
The Senate schedule for the week is available here.
Although not yet released at the time of publication, the President’s weekly schedule will be posted here.
With the 2014 mid-term campaign season already underway, here’s a look at some developments in the electoral landscape.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) outraised the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) by more than a million dollars in February. The DCCC raised $6.4 million while NRCC raised $5.1 million.
Nate Silver’s recent 2014 election forecast names the Republican party as the slight favorite to win control of the Senate, with a gain of six seats. The forecast prompted Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) Executive Director Guy Cecil to release a memo highlighting the forecast’s basis in “a scarce supply of public polls” in which the majority is sometimes from GOP pollsters. He also highlights previous candidates who won despite being given small odds by Silver.
Three candidates suffered from unforced errors this week, providing campaign fodder for their opponents: Former Massachusetts Senator and current New Hampshire Senate candidate Scott Brown (R) replied “probably not” when asked if he had the necessary credentials to run in New Hampshire; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had to correct a campaign ad not once, but twice; and Iowa Congressman and Senate contender Bruce Braley (D) had to apologize after calling Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-IA) “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.”
Dubbed the “Sheldon primary”, the annual “spring leadership meeting” of the Republican Jewish Coalition begins in Las Vegas Thursday. The private four day event offers potential 2016 GOP presidential nominees a chance to spend time with top GOP donor Sheldon Adelson, other deep-pocketed donors, and conservative leaders.
With attention already turning to 2016 and no clear frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination, a look at the political operations of leading contenders shows varying levels of preparation for an endeavor that requires a significant organizational infrastructure and donor network. In a Politico analysis, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal appear to have the best infrastructure in place for a presidential bid, followed by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
A CMAG/Kantar Media analysis of ad spending since January 1, 2013 by the conservative group Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and leading Democratic groups House Majority PAC/Senate Majority PAC shows AFP ads appear more frequently in both House and Senate races. See the chart here.
There were no new retirement announcements this week.
U.S. Role in the World: According to a CBS News poll conducted March 20-23:
Should the U.S. Take the Lead Solving International Conflicts?
February 2014 – 31% Yes, 65% No
April 2003 - 48% Yes, 43% No
Does the U.S. Have a Responsibility to do Something About...?
Russia and Ukraine (Now) – 32% Yes, 61% No
The fighting in Syria (9/2013) – 26% Yes, 68% No
Serbia and Kosovo (4/1999) – 54% Yes, 37% No
Serbia and Bosnia (10/1995) – 28% Yes, 65% No
Killing in Rwanda (6/1994) – 34% Yes, 51% No
Compared to 10 Years Ago, as a World Leader U.S. is...
12% - More Powerful
59% - Less Powerful
28% - As Powerful
DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.
© Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP
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