8 a.m. ET: Quick quiz, what was the most important thing that happened in Washington yesterday? Was it a) Sonia Sotomayor endured her second day of confirmation hearings, with both senators' questions and her answers proceeding mostly free of surprise or controversy? Or was it b) A trio of House committees unveiled a $1.2 trillion health care reform bill that would raise taxes on the wealthy, add millions of people to the insurance rolls and transform a significant chunk of the economy?
Of course, Sotomayor is up for a lifetime appointment to the court, so her confirmation is important by default. But while her hearings draw armies of cameras and reporters, the debate over health care is quietly entering a crucial new phase. As The New York Times notes, "After months of setbacks and uncertainty, House Democrats were jubilant as they introduced their proposal." Jonathan Cohn, a much-cited reform advocate, says that while the House bill isn't perfect, "I gave up on perfect quite a while ago. And I'm sure more flaws will emerge as we all have time to give this more scrutiny. ... But within the existing political constraints, it's hard to do imagine a much better bill than this."
Plenty of hurdles remain: House Democrats still face unease within their conservative Blue Dog caucus over the bill's cost and its tax increases, while Senate Democrats are working to reconcile competing visions of reform. The 1,000-plus page House bill, which the Los Angeles Times calls "among the most liberal of several competing blueprints for revamping the system," has little chance of progressing in the Senate. The Wall Street Journal points out that the bill's penalty on companies that don't provide insurance "triggered the sharpest criticism yet from employer groups, who said the burden on small business is too high and doesn't do enough to help them expand insurance coverage." But despite that and other criticisms, the House measure does lay down an important marker for future conference negotiations, particularly since it includes a public insurance option and the eventual Senate bill may not.
So far, President Obama himself has mostly stayed above the fray, particularly on the thorny question of how the reform package should be funded. Roll Call reports, "White House officials promise that ... Obama will be more engaged than ever with lawmakers and the public on health care this month and next," with a schedule full of public and private events to promote the cause. On the political front, Organizing for America, otherwise known as the remnants of the Obama campaign, will be running ads targeting senators who are wavering on health care.
As for that other little story earning notice here in the nation's capital, Day 3 of Sotomayor's confirmation hearings begins at 9:30 a.m., and it's not clear whether we know much more about her or her views now than we did before the sessions began. Dahlia Lithwick grumbles in Slate that "amid the half-truths and fantasies and dog whistles that compose the bulk of these hearings," she actually finds the anti-abortion protesters "quite refreshing" in their honesty. The news from yesterday, such as it was, centered on Sotomayor's careful walk-back of her famous "Wise Latina" comment (New York Post hed: "SOTO: MY BAD 'WISE' CRACK"). Maureen Dowd says Sotomayor's "full retreat from the notion that a different life experience is valuable was more than necessary and somewhat disappointing." Perhaps most importantly,
Dana Milbank noticed that Sotomayor "knows her nunchucks."
So what does it all mean? The New York Times says Supreme Court confirmation hearings are meant "to determine what sort of justice the nominee would be. But in practice they show something else: what sort of lawyer the nominee is." In that respect, Sotomayor spent Tuesday practicing the art of persuasion, trying to coax the Senate into putting her on the bench just as she vowed --- if confirmed -- to try to talk her fellow justices into allowing cameras in the courtroom. Beyond the narrower question of Sotomayor's fitness for the job, Gerald Seib writes that "Republicans also are using the Sotomayor nomination to advance the broader indictment they are developing against ... Obama, which is that he and his administration are much further to the left than they claim to be."
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