Post Politics: Sotomayor, Health Care, Stimulus, More

Michael Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 16, 2009 11:00 AM

Washington Post White House reporter Michael Shear was online Thursday, July 16 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest news about the Obama administration, Congress and more.


Michael D. Shear: Good morning, everyone.

Got a lot to cover today: the Sotomayor hearings, CIA stuff, health care. I'm sure there's still interest in the various Senate mistresses. We can talk stimulus -- economic stimulus. Really, whatever's on your minds.

Let's get started.



Reston, Va.: This morning on NPR I heard an interview stating the health proposal(s) are unified on the front on requiring all Americans to buy health insurance.

After being downsized, and carefully budgeting very limited resources... I am now going to be required to write a monthly check to an insurance company?

Can Congress force every unemployed American to make monthly payments to the health-care insurance industry?

Michael D. Shear: Let's start with some serious stuff: health care.

It is true that just about all of the proposals going through Congress right now include what's referred to as an "individual mandate" that would require people to have health insurance.

It's actually similar to auto insurance, which is required by law if you want to drive. I'm no legal expert, but I do think Congress can do it if they want.

There is some experience with this in Massachusetts, where they now require everyone to have health insurance or pay a very small fine. They exempt some people who can prove they can't afford it. One thing they have seen is a lot of people who had chosen not to take their employer-sponsored insurance are now signing up.


Arlington, Va.: Are you sensing frustration from the Republicans that their strategy of painting Sotomayor as a liberal activist (whatever that means) judge isn't working? It seems every time they try to claim she's a liberal to the left of Hugo Chavez, she or one of the Democrats on the panel mentions another decision that completely contradicts that charge.

Michael D. Shear: Yes. You could almost see the frustration among the GOP senators as they tried to get Sotomayor to answer their questions or agree to their criticisms. It's not that different, though, from the frustration that you sensed among Democrats during the questioning of John Roberts, Sam Alito or the other conservative justices during the Bush years.


It's actually similar to auto insurance: Nonsense! I have the choice of not having a car.

Michael D. Shear: True enough. That's a difference. That's why I said "similar", not exactly the same.


Washington: Over the past several months, Dick Cheney seemed to emerge as a leading critic of President Obama. Now that the former VP has been linked to a CIA cover-up, does this mean the end for Cheney's very public criticism of the President?

Michael D. Shear: I think CIA coverup maybe overstates what we know at this point. But in any case, I suspect that the former vice president will continue to pursue the line of criticism that he has leveled against this administration. He doesn't seem to be the kind of person who wilts very easily under any kind of publicity.


Saint Paul, Minn. : Hi Michael -- Thanks for taking questions today. What's next for Sen. Ensign? Maybe I just missed it, but it seems like the bombshell that his parents paid nearly $100,000 to members of his mistress's family was met with a collective shrug...maybe nothing surprises us anymore. Even if he doesn't resign, is he going to face some sort of ethics investigation at the very least?

Michael D. Shear: From my astute colleague, Chris "The Fix" Cillizza: He just has to hang on. He's up for reelection in 2012, so there's a lot of time for him to fade into the background and hope there's not another scandal.

If so, perhaps he survives and is reelected. Is that possible? Well, look at Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, who survived the initial publicity of having admitted a "sin" after his name appeared on the list of clients of the D.C. Madam.


Houston: Well then, that's a contradiction to the health care plan President Obama ran on. If I recall correctly, children had to be covered, but adults could make their own choice. It was even an issue in a debate with Hillary Clinton; her plan mandated coverage for all.

Michael D. Shear: Ah, someone has a good memory.

President Obama did in fact attack Sen. Clinton quite aggressively on this very issue, saying that he did not support an individual mandate.

However, he has now admitted that he changed his mind. In an interview last night with one of the networks, he said he has become convinced that an individual mandate is a workable thing.

Look for coverage of all this in the Post soon.


Washington, D.C.: Even if, as expected, the Republicans can't actually prevent the confirmation of Sotomayor, might they not have won a victory by pinning her into an ideological box that will restrict more liberal nominees in the future? By getting her to disavow Obama's comments about empathy, and to openly state that empathy should have no place in a courtroom, are they setting up a test where all future nominees will be unable to claim that empathy is part of judging? In other words, have they defined Sotomayor as the outer limits of what is acceptable in terms of liberal Supreme Court nominees? Or will an easy confirmation embolden Obama to nominate someone more liberal in the future?

Michael D. Shear: There's definitely something to the idea. Much of what's going on is aimed not at the outcome of the confirmation, but on setting the stage for the future. I wrote the following in a story earlier this week:

[T]he historic week-long exchange inside Room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building is only partly about the fate of Sotomayor's nomination, as both sides predict she will win confirmation easily. The battle over President Obama's first court nominee is also likely to have broad and long-lasting political implications for the president and both political parties.

Democrats are betting that an overly zealous assault on Sotomayor by Republican senators could anger Latinos and accelerate the shift of Hispanic voters away from the Republican Party, particularly in the South and West.

Conservatives are hoping to use the Sotomayor hearings as a way to motivate their base if they can successfully portray her as an activist judge whose "empathy" for certain groups guides her rulings more than court precedent or the written law.

And activist groups on both sides have already prepared press releases and statements to argue that the Sotomayor outcome says something about where the country's population is on the issues of guns, abortion, affirmative action, race and gender. Liberals hope an overwhelming vote for her confirmation will encourage Obama to consider even more progressive nominees in the future.


Brookline, Mass.: You are a pretty straight up reporter, but how does it make guys like you feel when you have a week filled with WaPo salons; "The Slate" coverage of sycophantic emails to Sanford; and now the AP inventing a health care cost "number" and running with it (creating a new GOP talking point in the process)?

Michael D. Shear: Well, I haven't seen the slate coverage of the emails or the AP story about health care numbers, but I can tell you I was very upset by the revelation of the "salons" planned by my paper.

At the risk of upsetting my publisher and editor who developed the idea, I believe I speak for all my reporting colleagues in saying that it was a terrible idea that should never have seen the light of day.

I've labored very hard for almost 20 years to make sure that no one can accuse me of taking sides, and certainly not of being financially beholden to anyone. Anything that undermines that credibility is a problem.

Having said that, I believe our editors and our publisher understand that are are committed to those same ideals. And I'm very proud to be a Post reporter at a time that coverage of national politics is critically important.


New York, NY: Is there anything in the Constitution that permits the impeachment of egregiously pompous senators? (Thanks so much for the chat.)

Michael D. Shear: I'm not sure we'd have any senators left if there was.


New York: Do you think that constant TV coverage of the senate has been a major cause of the erosion in the popularity of that institution in the last few decades? Let's face it, all this droning on and on about themselves and about stupid matters while they're ostensibly supposed to be exercising constitutional oversight doesn't build confidence, particularly during a time of economic downturn. (Wise Latina? Baseball? There just have to have more important problems, aren't there?) Maybe instead of worrying about installing cameras in the Supreme Court, they should think about removing their own.

Michael D. Shear: Interesting point!

As a journalist, I'm always for more openness, and the thought of removing cameras from the Senate just doesn't square with my notion that people should have as much information as possible about their politicians.

And besides, if you don't like the droning on, you can always just fall asleep, er, uh, turn the TV off.


Jersey Shore: I missed Franken's questions yesterday. How did our newest senator compare to his colleagues, and can we expect him to get another turn today?

Michael D. Shear: You know, I only saw a bit of it. It seemed like he was pretty straight -- not the guy you remember from SNL. There was a moment he cracked a bit of a joke about the old Perry Mason TV show, but otherwise, a bit plodding.


New York: Hi, Michael. I've been watching the Sotomayor hearing, and they just ended a short break, during which Sen. Coburn, who has been pretty rough on the judge, was chatting with her and Sen. Leahy. At the end of their chat, which appeared cordial and friendly, Coburn shook hands with Sotomayor, even lightly touching her elbow in a friendly gesture. Now he's back to grilling her like she's the legal devil incarnate. I've seen this with other GOP senators as well. What gives? Thanks.

Michael D. Shear: Well, that's the Senate for you in a nutshell. They often treat each other quite cordially in private, even calling each other friends. And then in public they can have serious fights and seem quite aggressive.


Farragut West: If you opened a hair salon, would you call it "Shear Madness"?

Michael D. Shear: Depending on how newspapers fare, that just could be in my future.

Of course, you should know that as a child, I endured the frequent chants of fellow students referencing a television commercial of the time about pantyhose: "Sheer Energy!"

So I've heard them all.


Northern Virginia: Will someone at the Post let us know at some point how the hearings are playing on Spanish-language media? I understand there are far more Spanish-language reporters and networks there than usual, which certainly makes sense.

I am guessing many of those viewers might be watching out of great pride and perhaps some have not seen the run-of-the-mill partisan ugliness of such hearings before. The media keeps reporting that the questioning is respectful and appropriate, but it's certainly annoying the heck out of me (that's why I stopped watching), and I think it may be having quite a negative effect on those viewers/voters -- or maybe they are fine with it. Either way, it would be great to know. Thanks.

Michael D. Shear: Good idea. It may already be in the works. I'll find out.


Michael D. Shear: Gonna end a few minutes early. Great questions today. See you all soon.



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