What's on Congress' agenda in the final weeks before the August recess? Our panel takes a look at what needs to happen, and what can realistically get done.
The Senate rejected an effort to let employers deny health-care coverage on religious grounds. Senator Olympia Snowe was the only Republican to vote against the measure. The Maine centrist announced her retirement from the Senate, citing growing partisanship. Fed chair Bernanke took a cautious stance on the future of the economy. President Obama urged Congress to repeal oil industry subsidies. And the GOP presidential fight shifted to super Tuesday battlegrounds. Naftali Bendavid of The Wall Street Journal, Shawna Thomas of NBC News and David Welna of NPR join Diane for analysis of the week’s top national news stories.
- Naftali Bendavid national correspondent, The Wall Street Journal.
- Shawna Thomas White House producer, NBC News.
- David Welna congressional correspondent, NPR.
Friday News Roundup Video
The panelists discuss U.S. District Judge Richard F. Cebull’s inflammatory email that some view as racist and highly insulting to President Obama:
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The Senate rejects a measure that would have allowed employers to opt out of birth control coverage on moral grounds. GOP presidential candidates jostle for advantage ahead in Super Tuesday. And Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe says she won't run for a fourth term. Joining me in the studio to talk about this week's top domestic stories: David Welna of NPR, Shawna Thomas of NBC News, and Naftali Bendavid of The Wall Street Journal.
MS. DIANE REHMI hope you'll join us with questions, comments, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to all of you.
MR. NAFTALI BENDAVIDGood morning, Diane.
MR. DAVID WELNAGood morning, Diane.
MS. SHAWNA THOMASGood morning.
REHMAnd, Shawna, welcome.
REHMGlad to have you with us. David Welna, let's talk about the Senate's defeated this proposal aimed at rolling back President Obama's policy on birth control.
WELNAYes. This was an initiative pushed forward by Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri and Marco Rubio of Florida. And it was in response to the Obama administration's policy decision to require that insurance companies provide contraceptive coverage for women. And his amendment actually broadened the objection to that so that it really allowed not just insurance companies or the companies or the churches that may have employed them or use their services, but any employer to object to anything if it conflicted with moral or religious beliefs and...
REHMAnd who would define that?
WELNAWell, it wasn't defined.
WELNAAnd that was one of the main reasons why Olympia Snowe was, as the only Republican to vote against this amendment, said it is just way too broad.
REHMAnd, Shawna, that, perhaps, signaled to Olympia Snowe the end was there.
THOMASI think so. Olympia Snowe was, you know, on MSNBC yesterday, and she talked, really, about that this is a politically diverse world and that the only way to get anything done is to work together. And this was a big example of how that just isn't happening in this United States Congress right now. And she -- it looks like she wants to go ahead and, maybe outside of Congress, work towards finding a middle ground, but it's not going to happen right now.
REHMIt's interesting, Naftali, because you had Sen. Roy Blunt say that this amendment was necessary to protect the First Amendment.
BENDAVIDWell, that's one of the things that was really interesting about this, was the completely different frames that the two sides saw in this debate. For Republicans, it was all about religious freedom and that people who didn't want to provide contraception shouldn't have to. For Democrats and liberals, it was all about women's rights and the, I think, well-established right to access to birth control. And so you have the two sides really talking past each other.
BENDAVIDIt's also remarkable because the political dialogue really had been focusing, I think, on jobs and the economy for a long time. And we've seen recently, in a number of ways, this explosion of social issues back into the discussion. And I think, ultimately, you had Republicans feeling like this wasn't necessarily working to their benefit, and a lot of them you saw very frustrated yesterday, that what had started out as a discussion in religious freedom had become a discussion of women's rights.
REHMSo, going back to what you said, David, and the breadth of what this could have become, you're talking about employers who could reject coverage for smokers, for example, or people who were overweight or people who drove too fast.
BENDAVIDAs House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi pointed out, say, a Christian scientist, who don't follow most medical procedures that everyone else does, could be denying their employees practically all health coverage if this law were to go into effect.
REHMBut, Shawna, it was clearly a very close vote.
THOMASIt was a very close vote, but it gave an opportunity for -- and we saw this on the floor before with Democrats, like Sen. Gillibrand from New York -- to get out there and make these speeches about women's rights that allowed them to get a lot of play on TV, get their quotes in the newspaper. And I think the Democrats think they are winning this argument. They are winning this argument getting it back to women's rights.
REHMNaftali, are they winning?
BENDAVIDWell, there are certainly some polls that suggest that they are. And the truth is some Republicans are suggesting that they are as well and sort of admitting that the Democrats did what they would call a sales job or a marketing job to really change the nature of the conversation from one that was about Obama's health care law. Because, remember, this rule was part of this new healthcare law. And they saw this is an example of how it's overreaching and so forth. But by the end of this debate, it really was much more of a discussion about contraception and women's rights.
BENDAVIDYou know, in our paper, we had a headline that referred to what, I think, is a contraception measure or something like that. We got all these emails and calls from angry conservatives who said, this isn't about contraception, it's about religious freedom.
WELNAIt was interesting on Tuesday after the Republicans' policy luncheon in the Senate, five of their leaders came to the microphones outside the Senate chamber. And they each spoke, but not one of them mentioned the Blunt amendment. And there was only one question at the end, which leader Mitch McConnell hurriedly disposed of -- about that. They were not pumping up this issue. On the other hand, Democrats -- Senate Democrats were holding news conferences. They were making floor speeches. They really seized on this issue and made the most of it.
REHMAnd what happened to Mitt Romney, Shawna?
THOMASWell, Mitt Romney flubbed the answer on this. Democrats had been calling around. They really wanted to get Mitt Romney on the record about this Blunt-Rubio bill. He finally got the question from a reporter. And he either didn't understand what the question was, or he didn't really want to answer what the question was, so they spent a lot of time this week going back and saying, you know what, of course, Mitt Romney supports this bill. Of course, he supports Blunt and Rubio. And that allowed other Republican candidates -- Rick Santorum -- to take advantage of that.
REHMNaftali, I heard the question as posed. I heard the response from Mitt Romney. What was your reaction to both the question and the response? Was the question clear?
BENDAVIDI mean, I thought the question was clear. I mean, I've -- but I've been covering it, and I'm sort of familiar with the issue. And, to me, I thought it was straightforward, what he was talking about. You know, Mitt Romney says it was confusing. You know, it's not -- I don't feel like it's for me to second-guess whether he was confused or wasn't confused. But it plays into this. I mean, this is the problem for Romney.
BENDAVIDI think it plays directly into the criticism of conservatives, that he's not really a serious conservative, that he goes back and forth, that he doesn't have deeply health convictions, that he didn't have a ready-made, automatic, impassioned answer to this, I think, is going to play into those questions.
REHMHe said very clearly, I don't want to get between a man, a wife, his family.
WELNAHe was unequivocal in his initial response, thus saying, I would not support that bill. And he made it clear that he did not want to go there. And it was only when the blowback began, when he went on a Boston radio station and claimed that he had misunderstood the question. But I thought his answer was -- the question was pretty clear, and his answer was pretty clear. It was surprising. But, at the same time, you might understand somebody who wants to appeal to independence, to the political center, might not want to have this being used as a campaign ad later on against him.
THOMASBut I think the Democrats, especially, the White House, Obama's campaign, wanted to hear Mitt Romney's answer on this. And they almost got a twofer. They got him sort of saying, I don't understand the question, or flubbing the answer, coming out in -- against the bill and then having to backtrack. So supporting that bill, in their eyes, being against women's rights and also maybe looking like a flip-flopper again?
REHMBut nobody put words into Mitt Romney's mouth.
BENDAVIDYou know, when I first heard it, I -- my actual thought was, OK, he's won Arizona. He's won Michigan. Now, he's starting to tack to the middle. I thought it was a strategic move, that he was feeling comfortable now, and he -- and so when he very quickly started backpedaling and taking it back, I think that just sent a very different message. And I think it -- you know, it is an isolated event.
BENDAVIDMaybe it's not a huge problem for him, but it's one of a series of things where he seems to go back and forth, particularly on issues that are very important to conservatives. I think it's part of an ongoing pattern.
REHMWe talked about the fact that Sen. Snowe has said she is going to resign. How surprised were you, Shawna?
THOMASYou know, not that surprised. I covered Congress before. I got over to the White House, and it feels pretty corrosive. Nothing seems to be getting done, though there are some movements going on this week about a jobs bill. And she, I think, was just tired of it.
BENDAVIDI was surprised at the timing, though, because it's only a couple of weeks before the filing deadline. And I know that a lot of Republicans privately are seething. First of all, it's funny, you know, the farewell statements that came out of everybody. They were much warmer, the ones from her Democratic colleagues, I thought, than the ones from her Republican colleagues because they see her as somebody who's not a team player, who's often joining with Democrats on a series of issues.
BENDAVIDBut also she didn't leave them a lot of time to recruit a replacement in Maine, which is a Democratic-leaning state. And I think they felt like, gosh, who's going to do this? She should've done it a few months ago. And so, you know, like Shawna, I wasn't surprised necessarily that she would decide to retire but that she would do it so late. I guess that did take me by surprise.
REHMWhat does her retirement mean for GOP hopes to recapture the Senate, David?
WELNAI think this was a huge boost to the Democrats' aim to retain control of the Senate.
WELNANot only do they have several strong possibilities for candidates in the state of Maine, while the Republicans really don't have somebody who stands out as an obvious candidate on their side, they also got a big boost this week when former Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska -- a Democrat who has been the president of The New School in New York City for a number of years -- after initially saying that he would not jump in to seek the seat currently held by Ben Nelson -- a moderate Democrat who is retiring -- decided that he would after all.
WELNAAnd, suddenly, the prospects for Democrats in Nebraska are looking better.
REHMDavid Welna, congressional correspondent for NPR. Short break here. And when we come back, we'll talk about the fact that Rep. David Dreier has announced he will not run again.
REHMAnd welcome come back to this week's Friday News Roundup focusing on our national issues. Shawna Thomas is here. She is White House producer for NBC News. Naftali Bendavid, national correspondent at The Wall Street Journal. NPR's David Welna is congressional correspondent. Here's an email from Melanie in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. She says, "I'm curious about the few Democrats, including Bob Casey and Ben Nelson, who voted with Republicans for the amendment, the Blunt amendment. I wonder if your panel has any information on why they voted for it." David Welna.
WELNAWell, the other Democrat who voted for the Blunt amendment, in effect, was Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who is up for re-election this fall, as is Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. As I said before, Ben Nelson is retiring. But Ben Nelson is a rather conservative Democrat, and his vote probably was very much in line with the sentiment in his state. In the case of Casey, he comes from a state that is probably disproportionately Catholic, although there are many Catholics who disagree with the Blunt amendment.
WELNABut I think that he was playing it pretty carefully there. And Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, said that he didn't mind that some of his fellow Democrats voted their conscience...
REHMAs long as they won.
WELNAAs long as they got to that 51-vote threshold.
REHMYeah. Here's an email sorry, a posting on Facebook from Deb, who says, "If men use prescriptive contraception, this would not be an issue." Naftali.
BENDAVIDWell, that's a point that a lot of, particularly, Democratic women senators made repeatedly over the past few days. And there was also a -- what's becoming a well-known picture of -- there was a hearing on this issue in the House. And the House Oversight Committee had five men testifying about this because they saw it as a religious freedom issue, so they had five male leaders of religious organizations.
BENDAVIDAnd a lot of women senators, particularly Barbara Boxer, have been holding up this photo to show what they call the insensitivity of the other side regarding women's health. And they have made this point that if, you know, the issue were for Viagra or something like that, you know, that we wouldn't be talking about this. And so, you know, there's been a real effort, I think, and somewhat successful, on the part of the Democratic side to hold this up as a women's rights issue.
REHMWhat about this young woman from Georgetown University who they refused to allow to testify, Shawna?
THOMASI think that that was probably somewhat of a mistake. I mean, there had been, in this case, no women talking about it. And they really needed to hear from a woman on this to deflect exactly what happened, exactly Barbara Boxer holding up this picture, exactly everybody being able to talk about how they're not focusing on the women's part of it, which just rolls it back to the women's rights issue instead of talking about religious freedom. Or some would say, in the original health care law, there was a very sort of broad idea of what would be considered religion.
THOMASThis wasn't a really well-thought-out part of the health care law, and a lot was left to Health and Human Services to decide that. And even the original final rule or the proposed rule, it was still very broad how you would define what a religious institution was. So we're also, in some ways, getting away from this conversation about how we are writing the regulations of the health care law.
WELNAYeah, you know, this is something that Rush Limbaugh, on his radio show this week, made a lot of waves about by going after this woman and calling her a slut and a prostitute and, by inference, implying that that all women who want contraceptive coverage in their insurance were that way. In fact, I heard Barbara Boxer reacting to the news of what Limbaugh had said, saying, well, that makes 99 percent of the women in this country sluts and prostitutes in Limbaugh's eyes.
WELNAAnd, in fact, Limbaugh followed it up yesterday by suggesting that this woman posts every occasion that she had sex online. I mean, it really seems likes it's something that's become kind of a fringe and strange response.
REHMIt's an ugly, ugly part of the debate. He ended yesterday by saying he would be happy to finance aspirin -- and we know that quote -- aspirin for every young woman at Georgetown University out of his own pocket. Too bad it's come down to that. Here is a comment from Russell, who says, "It saddens me to see moderate senators leaving because it can only mean more partisanship."
BENDAVIDWell, that's the interesting thing in a way is that Olympia Snowe wasn't the first moderate or centrist to leave this Congress. You also had Ben Nelson. You had Joe Lieberman. Depending on how you want to evaluate it, Ken Conrad and Jeff Bingaman. And there's a feeling that there's a little bit of a dwindling center in the Senate. And the reason that's important is because the Senate is supposed to be the one place in Washington where the parties have to get together.
BENDAVIDThe rules force them to do so. Each of them represents an entire state instead of a heavily gerrymandered district. This is supposed to be the place where they come together. And to the extent that that is going to happen less and less, and it's harder and harder to achieve, I think it's something that a lot of traditionalists are going to regret.
REHMAnd let's hear about Congressman David Dreier's decision to retire, David.
WELNAYes. Congressman David Dreier is a powerful Republican in the House. He's the chairman of the Rules Committee, which has a lot of sway over how legislation is debated and voted on. And he said, as he announced his decision to retire, that he thought that the institution of Congress was very strong. However, there was redistricting in California, and he found that he'd been left without any possibility of running in the fall without being in heavily Democratic districts. And so, I think, he just faced reality and decided not to go ahead.
BENDAVIDYeah, I mean, to the extent that Olympia Snowe tells us something about the Senate, David Dreier tells us something about redistricting. I mean, you know, this is a redistricting year. It's been turbulent, like they often are. You have incumbents running against incumbents. You have incumbents moving it to other's district, and then you have some retiring. And I think, you know, California, even though it was not redistricted by a party but by a citizen's commission, nonetheless, Democrats look like they're going to gain a few seats there. And David Dreier, I think, just felt like he had no option.
REHMIs there going to be any compromise between the White House and the Congress on jobs and energy, Shawna?
THOMASMajority leader Eric Cantor has brought out this bill that has multiple sort of small business provisions, little things that can be done, incremental moves. And the White House has said that they're willing to support it. They're willing to talk about this. They're willing to move ahead. And that looks like something that could get done. Now, does that mean huge moves on a jobs bill, like the one the president introduced last year or anything like that, are going to happen? Still, probably not.
THOMASBut Congress is faced with being this organization that apparently is the most hated one in Washington, D.C., and the White House...
REHMIn the country.
THOMASIn the country.
THOMASAnd the White House has been able to play off that, so Congress wants to figure out, especially Majority Leader Cantor, who is sort of the face of the part of the Republican House that has stalled things -- they want to figure out a way to get past that imagery. And while the general consensus is that nothing happens in an election year, if they can do these little things and try to bring the president on board and move forward, maybe they can change the narrative a little bit.
WELNAThey're going to have to get Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on board. He was asked about this jobs package yesterday. And he feigned ignorance of it saying, what House Republican jobs bill? I have yet to hear about this. He was not part of the negotiations to work this out. This was something that House Republicans put together, with the support of some House Democrats as well, and the White House has given a green light to this project.
WELNABut I think Reid wants to exact something from his fellow Senate Republicans before he is going to get on board with this. There are many things that he'd like to do in the Senate that Republicans aren't letting him do. This is one thing that Republicans want to do, and he is probably going to require some concessions on their part to let it go forward.
BENDAVIDWell, I mean, I think it's -- you know, mostly the political incentive is for the twp parties to beat each other over the head. And every once in a while, public disgust wells up, and they feel a little bit of pressure to alter their rhetoric and sound a little bit more cooperative. And I think that's part of what happened. And this measure, even if it passes, I mean, it's very, very modest. It's bipartisan already.
BENDAVIDIt's not like anybody is making a huge compromise. It would provide more access to capital and things like that for small businesses and startups. And so I wouldn't read too much into this. I think this comes from -- again, from the pressure that some people are feeling to sound bipartisan rather from any huge movement in that direction.
WELNAThere's another element, too, which is that, all this year, Democrats have been portraying Republicans as obstructionists, as keeping anything from getting done. And for this to go forward would dilute that argument. And I think that's another reason why we see hesitation on the part of Reid, who very much wants to hang on to majority control of the Senate to go along with this.
REHMWell, and for him to do that, certainly, you have a White House interested in portraying that the economy is improving. Things are moving forward. Does recent economic data support that message, Shawna?
THOMASRecent economic data does support that message. We've seen better jobs numbers, but -- and the president is certainly running on that, multiple speeches given in the last couple of weeks. He has put out manufacturing is coming back. Everything is coming back. He's very careful to say we have to do more. But they seem to be saying if we have a cautious tone about the economy getting better, but we don't get too far ahead of ourselves, the president can run on that.
THOMASHe can sort of try to pivot a little bit back to the idea of hope and America getting better and everybody working together for America to get better.
REHMWhat about gas prices, Naftali?
BENDAVIDWell, that's a real potential problem. I mean, obviously, there's tensions with Iran that are feeding into this, and whenever that happens there's sort of speculation or risk premium that gets added to the prices. We're heading into the summer when prices often go up again because of increased demand. And it's, right now, you'd have to say, sort of the one dark spot on the economy, or potential dark spot.
REHMBut what can the president do about it?
BENDAVIDWell, that's a good question, and I don't think he can do that much, certainly not in the near term. And he's -- and President Obama has tried to inoculate himself by making that exact point. But, you know, this is a perennial of American politics. I mean, I remember in 2000, there was a question about whether Clinton and Gore should open up the strategic petroleum reserve. In 2006, Democrats were posing at gas stations because they were blaming Republicans for high gas prices. It's almost -- you know, gas prices go up in the summer, elections are in the fall, and this is pretty predictable.
WELNABut I think that Americans are not buying these explanations as much as they used to. A poll that came out yesterday showed that only 18 percent thought that President Obama had anything to do with the rising gas prices. So I think there's more skepticism about this. And it's something that the president was out yesterday saying. What we want is for members of Congress to say we're with the oil companies or we're with the American people by voting on taking away a $4 billion subsidy to the oil industry.
REHMDavid Welna of NPR, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." So Mitt Romney won in Arizona and Michigan. Does he have the momentum going forward to Super Tuesday, Naftali?
BENDAVIDWell, I actually think he does. And -- but it's interesting the way Super Tuesday is kind of coming to us because you have some states that Romney is almost certainly going to win. You know, in Virginia, Santorum and Gingrich couldn't even get on the ballot because it has pretty onerous requirements. Another state is Massachusetts, where Romney was governor. Vermont is next to Massachusetts. Idaho has a lot of Mormons. So there's some states that are really in his corner.
BENDAVIDThen there's the other states, which are Tennessee, Georgia, Oklahoma, where one of the more conservative candidates might have a shot. I think a lot of this is going to come down to Ohio. That's kind of the state right in the middle. It's a big industrial Midwestern state that's absolutely crucial to Republican hopes, and there's a battle going on there. You know, in fact, we're seeing a little bit of a replay of what we saw in Michigan, where Santorum had a lead. Then there was a poll this morning that shows the race tightening, which is exactly what happened in Michigan.
BENDAVIDAnd I do think that if Romney can pull off a win in Michigan, he's going to be in pretty strong shape.
THOMASI think, in Michigan, what Santorum learned -- or what the campaign is saying he learned -- is that you have to have someone who understands how to count delegates. And Super Tuesday is a big day when that is going to be necessary because these states have different rules, and understanding how to pick delegates away from Romney is going to be a big deal for him.
WELNAYes. Now, one thing that's very, very different from the last time we had a Super Tuesday, which happened in early February in 2008 -- and I think there were 23 states that took part then -- was that most of those states had winner-take-all. This time, none of the 10 states on Super Tuesday have winner-take-all. And so it's sort of diluting any victories that you have there. At the same time, the absolute number of delegates at stake, after Super Tuesday has taken place, would still be only about 37 percent of the delegates. So it's hard for somebody to establish himself as the clear frontrunner.
WELNASo I think Romney -- he may win these states that Naftali mentioned. But I think that if -- especially if Santorum wins in Ohio, there are going to be continued doubts about whether Romney is the inevitable frontrunner.
REHMAnd what about Newt Gingrich? What about Ron Paul, Naftali?
BENDAVIDWell, Newt Gingrich has staked his whole campaign on Georgia. You know, it's his home state, and he's said explicitly that he's got to win Georgia in order to continue. And, you know, he well may. I don't think it's guaranteed that he's going to win Georgia, actually. But he's really running pretty far behind. It took a long time, but, finally, the race has, to some degree, resolved to what people thought it would be from the beginning, which is Mitt Romney versus a conservative challenger.
BENDAVIDIt's just that that challenger is Rick Santorum, to the surprise of a lot of people, not Newt Gingrich or somebody else.
REHMI want to ask you all about a somewhat racially-charged email sent by a Montana judge. David, tell me about it.
WELNAYes. This was a joke that this U.S. District Court judge, who was appointed by George W. Bush in 2001, forwarded to some friends and family, half a dozen of them or so. And it essentially was about a little boy, who is black, asking his white mother about his father, and the mother...
REHMHe asked, why am I black and you're white?
WELNAExactly, yes. And the mother says, well, you know, if -- you're lucky that, you know, you're not a dog after the party that I went to. I mean, this is, you know, an outrageous kind of thing to think that a federal judge would be forwarding this.
REHMIt's outrageous from anybody, but to think that a federal judge, Shawna, would send this out...
THOMASIt just highlights that this is not necessarily the post-racial society people would like it to be post-President Obama being elected. And, you know, the thing that we didn't say about the joke is that the mother says, Barack, you're lucky that you don't bark, which is why everyone's up in arms. Apparently, the judge is going to apologize, or has apologized. And that's fine, but there's a larger conversation about racism in this country that is going to continue. And things like this keep bringing it back up.
REHMShawna Thomas, White House producer for NBC News. Short break, and your calls when we come back.
REHMOne last comment on that email sent by the Montana Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull. He did apologize, David Welna. What did that apology say?
WELNAWell, he acknowledged that this was a racist joke that he sent out, and he apologized for it. At the same time, he said that he opposes President Obama, and, in a sense, without his actually saying it, it was sort of saying, well, if you're against this president, you know, these kinds of things get done. And, I mean, it didn't quite sound like a full apology in the sense that he was qualifying it that he was against the president.
BENDAVIDAnd, you know, there's this feeling, I know, and among some of the African-American community, that people get away with things regarding this president that they don't get -- that they have not and don't get away with with any other president. I mean, you could debate that. Certainly, Bill Clinton and George Bush came in for their share of contempt.
BENDAVIDBut that's a very strong feeling, and something like this really feeds into it, as does, by the way, recent comments by Rev. Franklin Graham, who sort of questioned the president's Christianity and suggested he would be seen as a son of Islam by Muslims. And then he also apologized. But, nonetheless, there's a little bit of a sense that there are certain comments that are out there, and there's a question about whether or not that would happen with other presidents.
THOMASAnd yesterday, we had Sheriff Joe Arpaio out talking about the president's birth certificate again. And this is something that won't go away, no matter how much we deal with it, and that just plays into this idea that they wouldn't be asking these questions if he were white.
REHMAll right. To Roanoke, Va., good morning, Rob.
ROBGood morning. Good morning, Diane. It is such an honor to talk with you again.
ROBRush Limbaugh, all I can say is my level of disgust is beyond anything I can imagine. But in relation to the joke that now even your panelists are describing as a racist joke -- hear this for a moment: A boy says to his mother, Mother, how come you have black hair and I have red hair? And she says, well, Red, given all the dogs that were at that party, you're lucky you don't bark. Seems to me -- again, the joke, while it may have racial tinges, the slam at Obama's mother, which no one has commented on, is much stronger than the slam at Obama in that joke.
THOMASI think that that is an interesting point, and that -- and this plays into sort of racism fears in this country and that she was a white woman who slept with a black man, Barack Obama's father. And that is something that some people in some areas still see as taboo.
REHMAbsolutely. To Kalamazoo, Mich. Good morning, Jeanne. (sp?)
JEANNEHi. I just -- Diane, I'm very pleased to be on your show.
JEANNEI listen all the time. I wish people would understand that religious liberty, religious freedom means, in this country, that you can practice any religion that you want. But it doesn't mean that you can dictate to other people and impose upon them your beliefs.
BENDAVIDWell that's the big question that came up here. You know, is telling an employer that they have to provide an array of coverage that might include contraception or other things they might object to, is that just decent human rights and access to health care? Or is that infringing in their religious liberties?
REHMAll right. To Durham, N.C. Good morning, Fred.
FREDGood morning, Diane. Thank you for letting me ask a question today.
REHMSure. Go right ahead.
FREDI wonder, when people are talking about the polarization in the country, whether or not the panel feels the news media actually contributes to it in the sense that the -- let the administration regulation about contraception. In fact, was the law -- the original one was the law, I believe, in 18 states, and the modified version was already in the law in 26 states.
FREDAnd yet it's portrayed as being a conflict between Obamacare and religious liberty rather than being, in fact, a political issue that has been resolved in the state of New York where Timothy Dolan, the archbishop, has become the most virulent opponent of this regulation.
WELNAWell, the difference is that this would be a federal law that would apply to all 50 states, and it would apply to all the provisions of the Affordable Care Act. And in that sense, I think, it is a big difference from the fact that you do have a precedent for this in those 18 states. But it is not the law of the land yet.
REHMAnd here's a comment on Facebook from Catherine, who says, "Employer provided health insurance is part of compensation. We're getting into an area where, not only our women paid less, they're restricted on how they can use that compensation." Shawna.
THOMASAnd it is those issues that are going to keep turning this back to being a woman's issue instead of a religious freedom issue, that this health care package, everything that goes into it, is how people get paid in this country.
REHMAll right. To Warner, N.H. Good morning, Mary.
MARYGood morning. Thanks for taking my call.
MARYI just wanted to bounce back to the (unintelligible) conversation. Bernie Sanders made a wonderful comment on the floor Senate yesterday, and he stated that if the Senate percentages were flip flopped from -- to women that this -- the issues that we're discussing, Virginia, Alabama, requiring ultrasounds for women that want to pursue abortion, et cetera, we wouldn't be looking at these issues anymore. It seems like we've just taken a massive step backwards in women's health, in women's issues. And I don't understand it. And I really kind of wanted to get comments on that.
MARYAnd I was also appreciating the discussion you were just having about that "joke" that the Montana judge, and I was absolutely appalled. I'd also like to (word?) the other person's comment that there was really more insult to Barack Obama's mother. It was just -- it was appalling. And he -- you know, in my opinion, he should be just removed from...
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling, Mary. Naftali.
BENDAVIDWell, to the initial point, the Democrats are actually trying to make the case that we should elect more women to the Senate. And they have a lot of candidates, and they have a lot of women incumbents. And they're trying to, you know, use this contraception issue in order to make that point. And I know that there are a lot of people who feel like this is turning back the clock. And, you know, we're talking about something that we thought we had resolved decades ago.
BENDAVIDWell, I think, in fairness to the Republicans, they would say, you know, the Obama health law is a huge government overreach, and it's imposing things on millions of Americans. And it's telling you what you can buy and, you know, what insurance you can have. And so they obviously see it very differently.
REHMHere's a tweet from Jen: "Is the center dwindling in the U.S. Congress? If so, expect news from D.C. to get more weird. Voter's fault?" David.
WELNAWell, I don't think that we -- we don't have a national vote on the makeup of the Senate. It's state by state. And, you know, when people say that voters decided they wanted divided government, that's not really the case. I mean, it just happens that we get a divided government when you have as much difference of opinion around the country as we have right now. But I think the prospect of having an even more narrowly divided Senate, especially after November's election, is pretty great.
WELNAI mean, we could even be back to what we had in 2001, a 50-50 Senate, whose ties would be broken by the vice president, which would make the outcome of the White House race very relevant to Congress as well.
REHMAll right. To Cincinnati, Ohio. Good morning, Greg.
GREGGood morning, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
GREGMy comment is that it just seems to me that Congress spends so much time on the little things. To me, they're little when we have the economic problems that we have with the deficit, so forth, so on. Who are the congressmen, the senators and the representatives that voted to give tax credits to companies to close here and open in other countries and deplete our job base here? That's what I want to know. I mean, who would vote for that? I mean, whose side are they on?
BENDAVIDWell, you know, the tax code has been riddled with things like that for a very long time. And, often, these things come up in bigger bills. And there are -- these are smaller elements of bigger bills, and it's very important to a certain industry and, therefore, to a certain group of lawmakers. And so these things end up in the tax code. And tax reform, I think, is one of the big things that the caller is talking about. Both parties say they know they need to tackle it. They probably can't do it in an election year.
BENDAVIDBut one reason Congress deals with the little things is because they can't deal with the big things. They tried to solve the deficit problem all of last year. And they brought us to the brink of default and the brink of shutdown, and there was a super committee and everything else and a Gang of Six. And they couldn't solve the problem. And so they try to solve the big problems, but, at least recently, they don't seem to be succeeding.
REHMIt's interesting. Here's an email from Tom, who says, "Wasn't the reason Republicans shift to cultural issues, such as abortion, contraceptives, gay marriage away from jobs, bank bailouts, et cetera, to be anticipated with the gradually improving economic reports, stealing what they thought would be their number one issue this election year?" David.
WELNAYes. In fact, you don't hear Republicans talking about jobs and the economy that much on Capitol Hill. They're talking about these other issues. And I think gas prices is one issue that they've been talking about almost incessantly over the past two weeks. That's one thing that they are pretty certain is going to work against President Obama. But these other issues -- in some ways, I guess the whole discussion of contraceptives and women's rights may have been touched off by the Obama administration's announcement on Jan. 20 that they had decided on this policy of requiring free contraceptive coverage.
WELNAThe fact, though, that it was picked up by so many people on the Republican side, I think, is a reflection of -- that the other issues that they had been going after...
WELNAYes. We're not as potent possibly and...
WELNA...in fact, it could backfire if the economy continues to get better over the year.
THOMASBy going back to tax reform and bigger issues, you had -- the White House want to get through the payroll tax cut last month, as well as the unemployment insurance. And the only way everyone was able to make the deal was to not pay for it really. And what we're going to see is -- while in an election year, not much is going to get done -- we're going to get to the end of the year after November.
THOMASAnd there is going to be this question of the Bush tax cuts and what are we going to do about it. And that is a huge chunk of change. And will that play into a larger tax code reformation, or will that be something that gets punted?
REHMGood question. Naftali.
BENDAVIDWell, it's a very good question. Actually, two things are going to happen at the end of the year: first, the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, but also a $1.2 trillion automatic spending cut that's a result of this deficit deal that the two sides negotiated. And so I think what's going to happen is, after the election in November, whatever the outcome, there's going to a lame duck session of Congress. And there's going to be an enormous amount of pressure on those lawmakers to deal with both of those things: this huge tax cut, this huge spending cut and some kind of a way that doesn't blow off the deficit.
REHMNaftali Bendavid of The Wall Street Journal. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." David, do you want to add to that?
WELNAYes. I think there's been a debate, ever since President Obama came to office, about how much attention should be paid to reducing deficits and the debt and how much effort should be made to reviving the economy. And, so far, the Obama administration has tended to the side of reviving the economy, even though they paid a lot of lip service last summer to dealing with the deficit.
WELNAWhat I don't see is any kind of a metric on the part of the Obama administration about at what point do you start scaling back your government stimulus efforts and paying more attention to reducing the deficit -- any certain level of unemployment being reached, any certain level of tax revenues being reached? Those kinds of things we don't know, and that's why we're facing this cliff at the end of the year, which includes, also, the end of the payroll tax cut. And we don't really know what direction the Obama administration might go in after that.
REHMExactly. To Carey (sp?) in South Bend, Ind. Hi, there. Carey?
CAREYHi. Good morning.
CAREYYes. Hi. I just wanted to call from South Bend because I am an employee of Notre Dame. I'm also a Notre Dame alumna. And I don't think that the Catholic Church is really representing the women very well in opposing birth control. They do not cover birth control for those of us on staff, nor do the students get birth control at our local health center. And I attend a local Planned Parenthood to purchase my birth control at a reduced rate, and, oftentimes, I will see my co-workers there, who are also Catholic women working for the university, buying their birth control.
CAREYAnd I'll also see students there buying their birth control. So it seems to me that the Catholic Church, you know, while they may continue to preach family planning, those of us who are very much still Catholic, but liberal Catholic, feel like we're being denied this type of health care. So I think they're a bit out of touch.
BENDAVIDWell, yeah, the debate surrounded institutions like Notre Dame University. In other words, churches and other religious -- you know, actual houses of worship were exempted. But what wasn't exempted was Catholic charities, Catholic universities, Catholic hospitals, as well as those, you know, sponsored by other religious organizations or denominations. And so this compromise that President Obama has proposed would allow people who work there to purchase that, but it would be paid for and supplied directly by the insurer and these sort of employer...
REHMSo it wouldn't be out-of-pocket for either the employer or the employee?
BENDAVIDExactly. Now, one of the arguments of people on the other side is that a lot of organizations -- actually, I thought Notre Dame might have been one of them -- is self-insured, and, therefore, there is no insurer. There's just the employer and the employee. But that -- but the argument that this caller is making is that a lot of the people that these organizations serve and employ are not necessarily members of that same faith. And that's why this has been such a vexing issue.
REHMAny other comment? This is one tough issue that, I think, is going to go on for a while, David.
WELNAIt is. And I think that one of the problems that we -- we're seeing here is that the employer-based insurance system -- health insurance system, that we have in this country, which was really a fluke of price controls and wage controls of the 1940s and being offered as an incentive to hire more people, is now becoming something where you have the federal government with health care laws getting into the area between employers and their employees.
REHMDavid Welna, congressional correspondent for NPR, Shawna Thomas for NBC News, Naftali Bendavid of The Wall Street Journal. Thank you all so much.
THOMASThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. Have a great weekend. I'm Diane Rehm.
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