Saturday, December 19, 2009

What Changed? White House Now Supports Franken Rape Amendment

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN)

Sen. Al Franken's (D-MN) "rape amendment," which guarantees that rape victims who work for defense contractors can pursue charges against their employers, has been championed by many but opposed by Obama's Department of Defense. The Pentagon initially called the measure unenforceable. But the provision, part of the defense appropriations bill, made it through conference committee and is now supported by the White House.

So what changed?

A senior administration official explains to TPM: The White House was concerned about the original language, which would have prohibited the DoD from using companies whose employment contracts contained an "arbitration clause," which would keep employees from taking the company to court for Title VII offenses, which include rape, sexual assault, harassment and false imprisonment. That language, the official said, may have forced the government to reneg on multi-billion-dollar contracts. Because of a clause in many of those contracts, the government would still have to pay the contractors, even though the work wouldn't be performed.

Another concern: The Pentagon deals with a massive number of contracts and would never be able to make sure the arbitration clauses were stripped in all those contracts.

So White House staff, after a week or so perusing contract and grant law, came up with a "clever construct," the official said. The contractors, in order to stay in the lucrative government contract business, don't have to remove the arbitration clauses. But they can't enforce them.

If it works the way the administration tells us, this is good news for Jamie Leigh Jones, the woman who inspired Franken's amendment. While working for KBR in Iraq, Jones was allegedly drugged, gang-raped and locked in a storage container by her co-workers. She's been fighting, unsuccessfully, to bring her case to court because of the abritration clause in the contract she signed.

It's good news for her even though the new restriction will not be retroactive per se, and even though it doesn't go into effect until 60 days after the President signs the appropriations bill.

But it will affect any company, such as KBR, once it signs a new contract. (And the major contractors sign a lot of contracts.) Here's the real bite to the restriction: It will affect the entire company, and everyone who works for it.

So the second KBR signs a new contract, Jones -- and anyone else with similar claims -- will be able to take her case to court. If KBR tries to enforce their arbitration clause, they could lose millions in future government contracts.

Of course, there is a national security waiver. The secretary of defense can waive the restriction if, say, a contractor is the only one who can provide a certain service or product. But the secretary would have to explain, in detail, why no one else could fulfill the contract. And, according to the official, that explanation would be posted online, in public view. (The idea here being that another company who makes the same product could step forward.)

And the amendment will only apply to companies with contracts worth $1 million or more -- but that will include most contractors.

If the amendment works the way the White House says, it will do what Franken wanted: Give rape victims their day in court.

The appropriations bill still needs to be approved by the Senate, where Republicans are threatening to filibuster in an attempt to stall health care legislation. But it is expected, eventually, to pass, and to be signed by the President.

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Flashback: McCain Refused To Grant 30 Seconds Of Time During Iraq War Debate

mackYesterday, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), acting on the orders of the Senate leadership, refused to grant Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) “an additional moment” to continue speaking on the Senate floor after his 10 minutes expired. Franken’s objection caused Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) to groan about how Franken’s move was unprofessional, unprecedented, and disrespectful:

McCAIN: I’ve been around here 20-some years. First time I’ve ever seen a member denied an extra minute or two to finish his remarks. … I just haven’t seen it before myself. And I don’t like it. And I think it harms the comity of the Senate not to allow one of our members at least a minute. I’m sure that time is urgent here, but I doubt that it would be that urgent.

Unfortunately, McCain’s memory is suffering. In fact, McCain has engaged in the very same behavior that he was criticizing Franken for yesterday.

On October 10, 2002 — just ahead of the looming mid-term elections — the Senate rushed a debate on a war authorization giving President Bush the power to use force against Iraq. The resolution ultimately passed the Senate after midnight on an early Friday morning by a vote of 77-23.

During the course of the frenzied floor debate, then-Sen. Mark Dayton (D-MN) spoke in favor of an amendment offered by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) that would have restricted Bush’s constitutional powers to wage war against Iraq. After a minute and a half, Dayton ran out of time, prompting this exchange:

The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator’s time has expired.

Mr. DAYTON. I ask for unanimous consent that I have 30 seconds more to finish my remarks.

Mr. McCAIN. I object.

Byrd stepped in to grant Dayton time to finish his remarks. But just moments later, Byrd asked for more time to speak for himself. Again, McCain objected, prompting Byrd to chide him for doing so. “This shows the patience of a Senator,” Byrd said. “This clearly demonstrates that the train is coming down on us like a Mack truck, and we are not even going to consider a few extra minutes for this Senator.”

After being publicly shamed, McCain acquiesced to Byrd’s request. But moments later, McCain added this disclaimer: “I wish to say very briefly that I understand people have a desire to speak. We have a number of Senators who have not spoken on this issue. It is already looking as if we may be here well into this evening. From now on, I will be adhering strictly to the rules.” In other words, he acted just like Franken did yesterday.

Original here

Democrats gain 60th vote on health bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Democrats reached a compromise on Saturday with the last holdout senator that secured the 60 votes they need to pass a broad healthcare overhaul sought by President Barack Obama.

Barack Obama | Healthcare Reform

A marathon negotiating session on Friday clinched an agreement with Democrat Ben Nelson ensuring federal funds would not be used to pay for abortions and providing extra Medicaid funds for his home state of Nebraska.

Nelson, a strong abortion rights opponent, had been the elusive 60th vote for the sweeping revamp, Obama's top legislative priority and the subject of intense political brawling for months.

"Today is a major step forward for the American people," Obama said at the White House. "After a nearly century-long struggle we are on the cusp of making healthcare reform a reality in the United States of America."

Nelson's backing should secure victory for Democrats in the first of a series of crucial procedural votes scheduled to begin at 1 a.m. (0600 GMT) on Monday and possibly conclude with final Senate passage on Christmas Eve.

"It seems that way," Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said when asked if Democrats had the 60 votes they need to muscle the bill through the Senate against unified Republican opposition.

If the Senate approves the bill, it must be melded with a version passed on November 7 by the House of Representatives and both chambers must approve it again before sending it to Obama for his signature.

Reid introduced a 383-page amendment on Saturday making changes aimed at securing the last votes, including the abortion compromise and the dropping of a government-run public insurance option to appease moderates like independent Joe Lieberman.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office gave the revised bill a rosy review, saying it would cost $871 billion over 10 years and cut the federal deficit by $132 billion in the same period -- meeting Obama's cost target and goal of deficit reduction.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who has vowed to use every tool possible to delay the bill, forced the public reading of Reid's amendment. That took more than seven hours on Saturday.

Afterward, Reid filed a series of procedural motions to bring debate to a close and set up a string of closing votes to begin early Monday. The moves came during a rare Saturday session as a huge snowstorm slammed the U.S. capital, shutting down traffic.


"If they were proud of the bill they wouldn't be doing it this way," McConnell told reporters. "They wouldn't be jamming it through in the middle of the night on the last weekend before Christmas."

Obama has asked the Senate to finish by year's end to prevent the issue from spilling into the campaign for November 2010 congressional elections. Opinion polls show the bill losing public support, with majorities now opposed to it.

The Senate bill would extend coverage to 30 million uninsured Americans, provide subsidies to help them pay for the coverage and halt industry practices like refusing insurance to people with pre-existing medical conditions.

Reid's amendment incorporates a variety of changes, from dropping the government-run public insurance option to adding non-profit health plans offered by private insurers and administered by a federal agency.

Other revisions take aim at insurance industry margins and taxes, including a cap on profits. Still, insurers would see a delay to the bulk of new taxes and now they would be phased-in over time.

Health insurance plans for large groups would have to spend at least 85 cents of every dollar on medical costs under the revisions, potentially crimping their profits. The amendment dropped the bill's tax on elective cosmetic surgery and added a 10 percent tax on indoor tanning, a potential cause of cancer.

Also included is an increase in the bill's Medicare payroll tax from 0.5 percent to 0.9 percent on income over $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples.

But much of Reid's focus had been on winning Nelson's support. He and other abortion rights opponents feared the federal subsidies could be spent on plans covering abortion.

Nelson said the agreement would allow states to prohibit abortion coverage in the new insurance exchanges created under the bill and mandate that every state exchange include an insurance plan that does not cover abortion.

It would require payments for abortion coverage be made separately with private funds.

"The plan that we've put together here, that we have agreement on, in fact walls off that money in an effective manner," Nelson told reporters. "I would not have voted for this bill without these provisions."

He said he could drop his support if the abortion deal was altered in negotiations with the House of Representatives.

Reid defended the additional federal funds for Nebraska that will permanently pay for the bill's expansion of the Medicaid health program for the poor -- all other states have to start picking up the tab in 2017.

"That's what legislation is all about," Reid said. "It's compromise."

Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, a strong supporter of abortion rights, told reporters she believed the compromise would adequately separate public and private funds for abortion coverage under the bill.

Advocates on both sides condemned the abortion deal.

Planned Parenthood called it "a sad day when women's health is traded away for one vote."

Douglas Johnson, the legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee said, said the compromise "solves none of the fundamental abortion-related problems with the Senate bill."

The House version of the healthcare bill includes stricter anti-abortion language. The Senate rejected an amendment incorporating the language last week.

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, editing by Eric Beech and Jackie Frank)

Original here