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Post Politics: Birthers, Senate Influence, More

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Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 28, 2009; 11:00 AM

Discuss the latest news about the Obama administration and the world of politics with Ben Pershing, who writes the daily Rundown for The Post's Political Browser. Pershing was online July 28 at 11 a.m. ET.

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Ben Pershing: Good morning, chatters. The Senate Judiciary Committee is meeting at this very moment to vote on Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court. Health-care meetings are happening all over the Capitol. Dogs and cats are living together. It's craziness. Let's discuss.

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Helena, Montana: Just want to ask you to please put one misconception to rest - Congress does not have FREE health care or FREE health insurance. They are in the same plan as the Federal government workers and pay for themselves and their dependents (if they have dependents) just like Federal workers. So many times in these chats there are questions raising the issue that Congress does not have to pay for their health insurance and that is not the case.

Ben Pershing: This is true. Members of Congress and federal employees pay premiums out of their paychecks, though I gather there is some subsidy by the government, the same way that most private-sector workers get some subsidy from their employers for their insurance.

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Boston: Ben, not to be a conspiracist, but how come "Birthers" and "Vince Foster" conspiracists get play on the real media while "9/11 Truthers" had to settle for posting a billion comments after articles on everything from politics to sports to dog grooming?

Ben Pershing: Perhaps because there is an actual videotape of the planes hitting the World Trade Center that billions of people around the world have seen, while there is no videotape of Obama being born in Hawaii or Vince Foster committing suicide.

Also, for what this is worth, there is no bill in Congress declaring 9/11 to have been a giant conspiracy. But there is a bill in the House calling for presidential candidates to provide proof of citizenship. And there was a congressional investigation of Foster's death.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I read an article about the six Senators who are meeting daily to hammer out a health care deal. It seemed odd to me that these six Senators represent some of the smallest States (population-wise) in the U.S. -- WY, MT, ND, ME, IA, NM. In fact the population of all six States together is less than that of New Jersey. It doesn't seem quite fair for these six Senators representing very small populations should control the fate of health care for the entire country. Does that seem right to you?

Ben Pershing: Doesn't matter whether it's right or wrong to me. That's how the Senate works. Each state gets two votes, regardless of population. Senators move up the committee ladder based strictly on seniority. And it's logical that people like Baucus (a Democrat from a GOP-leaning state) and Snowe (a Republican from a Dem-leaning state) would be the sort who would be most interested in cutting a bipartisan deal.

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Millbank melting?: Is the heat getting to Millbank? That was a fairly straight article today on Obama. Was he wearing his smoking jacket out in the Rose Garden?

washingtonpost.com: Washington Sketch: Sports-Loving President Finds It's Not Always Fun and Games

Ben Pershing: After this chat, I will check to ensure Milbank has not been abducted and replaced with a more conventional reporter.

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Dale City, Va.: Has anyone looked at whether the fall in Obama's numbers is because he is not pushing hard enough for health care, including a public option? Most articles seem to indicate that the fall is because people don't want health care reform but I believe it is just the opposite. Folks are starting to think we are being ignored yet again.

Ben Pershing: I'm not sure that the decline in Obama's numbers are attributable to either of those theories. It's not that people don't want health-care reform, it's that they haven't been convinced that Obama's plan is the right one.

It's possible the president is suffering because he has only outlined general principles, rather than offering a specific proposal. It's also possible that voters are impatient: Obama has proposed lots of grand things on health care, climate change, financial reform -- but hasn't accomplished much of it quite yet (except for the stimulus, which gets mixed reviews in the polls).

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Re: Helena : True, but the government pays up to 75% of this health care premium, as you hinted at Ben. It may not be free, but it's a heck of lot better than what the rest of us have.

Ben Pershing: Whatever you think of them, you have to admit that federal employee unions are very good at getting benefits for their members.

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Vermonter: I read somewhere recently that, if health-care reform occurs, Blue States will incur most of the costs while reaping the least amount of benefit. Have you heard anything about this?

Ben Pershing: You're probably referring to a study done by the liberal think tank Citizens for Tax Justice. It found that the proposal to impose a health-care "surtax" on the wealthiest taxpayers would hit the Blue States hardest, because those states tend to have larger concentrations of wealthy people. Here's a link to the study.

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Los Angeles.: Isn't it time there was an investigation to find out whether or not Jeff Schrock is a Lectroid from Planet 10? Has anyone seen his birth certificate?

Ben Pershing: You're right, it's time the media stops ignoring that story.

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Just Say Nyet: Evidently the Senate Judiciary committee will vote on a nearly party line basis. And the R's are blocking most Obama justice appointments (US attorneys, judges).

Is this not a pretty important story and indicative of a party that has only one goal, stop the tide (demographic or whatever), rather than help move the country forward?

If Total Obstruction is the strategy I think we have a clue as to which wing of the R's will hold sway in the coming cycles.

Ben Pershing: No, so far Republicans have not been blocking Obama's judicial appointments. A few individual senators have placed holds on other administration nominees for executive branch jobs, but so far there has been no widespread blocking of nominees. Remember, Republicans barely have the votes to filibuster anyone right now.

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re: Whatever you think of them, you have to admit that federal employee unions are very good at getting benefits for their members. : True, but that only partly explains the relatively low cost of health insurance for federal employees. Premiums for federal employees are also lower (including the government's portion) because the government is able to negotiate better deals with the insurance companies. Now, wouldn't it be fabulous if the government could do that on behalf of non-federal workers?

Ben Pershing: Another good point. Not just the unions that get good benefits for their employees, it's the government's negotiating clout with insurance companies.

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Alexandria, Va.: How many members does the leadership need to get Democratic priorities passed? Reid has 60 (58 potentially) and Pelosi has 255(!) yet still can't pass health care! Republicans didn't have these large majorities yet managed to pass their priorities under George W Bush so why can't the Dems?

Ben Pershing: Reid theoretically has 60 votes, but Kennedy isn't around right now and it's not clear whether Byrd can be there for every vote. And Ben Nelson isn't on board with any Democratic proposals yet. So Reid needs at least a couple of Republicans to help out, and that's why Max Baucus is negotiating with GOP members of the Finance Committee.

In the House, Democrats have a huge majority, but there are just enough conservative Blue Dogs (7) on the Energy and Commerce panel to prevent a health-care bill from advancine out of committee if they don't like the bill. Yes, Pelosi could bring a bill straight to the floor and ram it through, but she still has to govern this Caucus after the health-care fight and she doesn't want to create additional bad blood in the process.

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Obama's poll numbers: I agree with some of your reasoning, but not all. True, he hasn't come through on all his promises but it's only been 7 months. The bigger problem (for him) is that Democrats are not as unified as Republicans were under Bush. It was only at the end of his second term that Republicans jumped ship.

Ben Pershing: It's true that it's only been 7 months, but it's also true that Obama's numbers really haven't fallen that far. Democrats point out that his numbers are roughly comparable to what Reagan's were at this point in his first term.

As for unity, I'm not sure if I agree with your point. Democrats have a bigger majority now than Republicans ever did under Bush, and a bigger majority means more ideological diversity. Also, what did Bush try in his first year that was as difficult as health-care reform or climate change? His main focus that first year was tax cuts, which were relatively easy to get Republicans to agree on.

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Wokingham, UK: Do current domestic pressures mean that foreign problems will receive little attention for some months?

Ben Pershing: Yes, Wokingham. The US is gradually handing over control of Iraq to the Iraqis, and the situation has been deteriorating in Afghanistan, and it's likely neither of those stories is getting the attention they really deserve. There's only so much room on the front page, and so many news organizations have cut back on resources that it's hard to juggle several big stories at once.

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Texas: Is there any possibility that Congress could craft a health care solution that would be acceptable by both parties, or are the Republicans determined to oppose anything and everything in hopes of 2010 political gains?

Ben Pershing: It depends on how you define "acceptable." I don't think it's possible that there will be a health-care deal that actually attracts a majority of both parties. I do think it's possible that at least some Republicans will peel off and support a final agreement. The problem for Democrats is that a bill that would attract a large number of Republicans would probably be too weak to keep liberals happy.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: Do you know if there will be any witnesses to the Obama/Gates/Crowley meeting, or will the officer have to fend for himself with people who have called him a racist, a liar and said he acted stupidly?

Ben Pershing: My guess is that there will be some sort of photo-op, or what they call a "pool spray" at the beginning of the meeting, and then the three of them will be alone with their beers. I don't think Obama called this meeting for the purpose of berating Crowley, nor do I think Gates plans to attack him. My guess is that the officer can take care of himself.

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wordsmith: Here's a really off-the-wall question: two phrases I've seen just in the last year that obviously are meant to express something in the political/international sphere are "existential threat" and "Kabuki dance." "Existential" has always had to do with "existentialism" for me, and as an old Theatre historian "Kabuki" is a form of Japanese theatre that means something like "song, dance, acting." I don't really understand how these terms are being used, and I have no idea how they've become disconnected from their original meaning. Can you provide some insight? I'd appreciate even an attempt.

Ben Pershing: Wow, I didn't take my smart pills this morning, but I'll give this a shot. When journalists refer to something as an "existential threat" to, say, Israel, they mean -- you guessed it -- something that is a threat to the very existence of Israel. A nuclear attack from Iran could destroy all of Israel. Therefore, it's an existential threat. That's the first definition of "existential," separate from the philosophical definition.

As for "Kabuki theatre" and "Kabuki dance," those long ago got added to the Big Bag of Journalistic Cliches as a way to describe an entirely predictable or pre-scripted process.

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Foreign Policy "Attention"?: Not that I would accuse you and the press of being self- referential, but I think Wokingham meant the amount of "attention" that the White House and Congress could give to foreign matters, not the amount of attention the press could provide. My sense is that the Obama administration has been heavily involved in foreign affairs across the planet and not only through all these trips by the president. In fact, I've wondered if it might even be a political liability not to be more focused domestically.

Latest example is surely the massive convention of top- level Chinese and American officials in DC this week and in China in six months. I get the impression this is an important reinvention of the Chinese-American relationship to include far more issues than the traditional few.

Ben Pershing: You're right, that could be what Wokingham was asking. And the same answer holds to some extent. Obviously the Obama administration can multitask -- Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates aren't working on health care, so they are perfectly capable of dealing with foreign policy issues while the other half of the White House works on domestic issues. But the focus on health care does mean that there is less room for Obama to give speeches on and try to direct public opinion toward any particular foreign policy initiative.

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Stewart and Kristol: Jon Stewart totally pwned Bill Kristol last night on whether or not the government could provide as good or better health care than private companies. Maybe not enlightening but certainly entertaining. Did you watch?

washingtonpost.com:

Ben Pershing: No, but I'm always happy to embed a good video link.

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New York: "there is no videotape of Obama being born"

Same goes for every single president in the history of this country. Yet Obama is the only one who has been doubted and the only one who has ever been asked to prove his nationality. Wonder why.

Ben Pershing: I agree. Was being facetious.

Also, who'd want to watch a videotape of Obama being born?

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Washington, D.C.: Today's Post has Sen DeMint quotes out the gazoo on "government-run" health care. Somehow the mischaracterizations are echoed again and again without correction.

Does this serve some higher purpose to inform the public? Is this "journalism" or "stenography"? And lastly, why aren't the corrections of the lies and mischaracterization up front on the article?

Do journalists have a responsibility to inform the public? Can you weigh in on the accuracy and import of the Nate Silver (fivethirtyeight.com) post currently on the Political Browser.

washingtonpost.com: S.C. Senator Is a Voice Of Reform Opposition

Ben Pershing: I think The Washington Post, at least, has done a reasonably good job explaining the details of the various policy proposals and has not just done "stenography." As for DeMint, some Republicans believe that if there is a "public option," private-sector insurance plans will eventually be unable to compete with the public insurance plan (which doesn't have to make a profit) and they will go out of business, leaving only the government plan.

Now, lots of experts think Republicans are wrong in their predictions, and I think the Post has covered that debate pretty thoroughly. But if DeMint, a member of the Senate, genuinely believes that, it's worth reporting.

As for the FiveThirtyEight.com post, I haven't double-checked the numbers myself, but I do like that blog and generally trust Nate Silver's reporting.

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Wow, I didn't take my smart pills this morning, but I'll give this a shot.: Bravo, Ben. You now move on to the Lightning Round.

Ben Pershing: Short questions. Short answers. Perfect.

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Princeton, N.J.: I love EJ's idea that those people with concealed weapons permits from any state should be allowed to bring them into the Senate visitor's gallery. That way if a terrorist got in, they could protect our esteemed senators.

washingtonpost.com: Arm the Senate!

Ben Pershing: Right now you're not even allowed to bring a tape recorder into the Senate galleries (even if you're a reporter), so it would be quite a leap if -- as Dionne suggests -- everyone could bring guns. Would certainly raise the stakes during some of the more contentious debates.

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Birther bill: Oh, please. Just because there is a birther bill in Congress supported by Republicans who still can't accept the fact that Obama is President, that automatically makes the issue worthy of media attention?

We all know who is sponsoring the bill, and why it has been introduced. The bread-and-circus aspect of American politics continues....

Ben Pershing: It's a tough balance to strike. I am wary of devoting much media attention to this issue, but I don't think it makes sense to completely ignore it either. I do think the existence of the House bill is worth reporting, as long as you put it in the proper context and don't pretend it should be on the front page.

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Ben Pershing: Thanks, as always, for all the fine questions. Even the one on existentialism that made my head hurt. See you next time.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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