Issa widens probe of Obamacare tech glitches

Rep. Darrell Issa
Rep. Darrell Issa

The Republican chairman of a key congressional oversight committee has asked Google, Microsoft and three other U.S. companies to provide details on their possible involvement in a “tech surge” aimed at fixing a website implementing President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law.

Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, made the request in a letter to Google, Microsoft, Verizon Enterprise Solutions, Oracle and Expedia, committee spokeswoman Caitlin Carroll said.

Issa, a relentless critic of the Obama administration, wants information on contacts the companies may have had with the White House about the Healthcare.gov website by Friday. Carroll called it the first step of a “rolling inquiry” that could include other companies.

The five named companies were selected because of press reports about their potential involvement in fixing the website, Carroll said.

Google, Oracle and Verizon declined to comment on the letter. Microsoft and Expedia could not be immediately reached for comment.

Republicans, long opposed to the 2010 Affordable Care Act, known as “Obamacare,” have started their own congressional investigation about the role of the White House in the October 1 rollout of the website, which serves 36 states and is meant to help the uninsured determine their eligibility for tax credits toward buying private coverage under Obamacare.

Only a trickle of users so far have been able to advance through the enrollment process on the website.

The Department of Health and Human Services said at the weekend it was launching a “tech surge” for the website, but neither it nor the White House has provided details about the cause of the problems, precisely what is being done to fix them and who exactly is doing the fixing.

Obama, who said on Monday that he was frustrated by the website’s problems, turned on Tuesday to trusted adviser Jeffrey Zients to lead the surge.

Zients, who will become head of the National Economic Council in January, will provide short-term management advice and counsel on the project, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a blog posting.

She said a team of experts and specialists drawn from government and industry, “including veterans of top Silicon Valley companies,” also would work to diagnose and repair the website’s problems.

In his letter, a copy of which was provided to Reuters, Issa complained of a dearth of information about the project.

“Despite the President’s assertion that ‘we’re well into a “tech surge”‘ neither the White House nor HHS is providing additional details about which private sector companies have been engaged or whether they are being engaged through the appropriate procurement processes,” Issa said in the letter.

“Your company has, however, been prominently mentioned in public discussion related to HealthCare.gov,” Issa said.

He asked that the companies indicate in writing by Friday what contacts they have had with the administration or “any entity” working on the website project, and for a “specific description of any and all problems brought to your attention.”

At least two other congressional committees are investigating the glitches and whether the administration was forthright about the problems. Several contractors are due to appear at a hearing on Thursday about their work on the website.

___

Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 Thomson Reuters. All rights reserved.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Even with problems, President says ‘stick with Obamacare’

An Obamacare supporter
An Obamacare supporter

The Obama administration is appealing to its allies in Congress, on Wall Street and across the country to stick with President Barack Obama’s health care law even as embarrassing problems with the flagship website continue to mount.

The website’s troubled debut was overshadowed by the partial government shutdown that started the same day the website went live. Last week, Obama and Democrats walked away from a no-holds-barred fight with Republicans over debt and spending with a remarkable degree of unity, made all the more prominent by the deep GOP divisions the standoff revealed.

The debt-and-spending crisis averted for now, the spotlight has shifted to Obama’s health care law and the web-based exchanges, beset by malfunctions, where Americans are supposed to be able to shop for insurance. The intensified focus has increased the pressure on Democrats to distance themselves from Obama’s handling of the website’s rollout as both parties demand to know what went wrong and why.

As the administration races to fix the website, it’s deploying the president and top officials to urge his supporters not to give up.

“By now you have probably heard that the website has not worked as smoothly as it was supposed to,” Obama said Tuesday in a video message recorded for Organizing for America, a nonprofit group whose mission is to support Obama’s agenda. “But we’ve got people working overtime in a tech surge to boost capacity and address the problems. And we are going to get it fixed.”

Whether through the website or other, lower-tech means, the administration needs millions of Americans to sign up through the exchanges for the law to succeed. While the website has become an easily maligned symbol of a law that Republicans despise, Obama said it’s important Americans realize that “Obamacare,” with its various patient protections, is much more.

“That’s why I need your help,” Obama told OFA’s supporters.

The group has been organizing a multitude of events and social media campaigns around the health care law’s implementation. OFA said those efforts will continue, but the group isn’t adjusting its strategy in response to the website’s issues.

Obama has turned to longtime adviser Jeffrey Zients to provide management advice to help fix the system. Zients, a former acting director of the Office of Management and Budget and a veteran management consultant, will be on a short-term assignment at the Health and Human Services Department before he’s due to take over as director of Obama’s National Economic Council next year.

Meanwhile, Vice President Joe Biden and top White House officials held a call with business leaders Tuesday about the health law and other issues. Business Forward, a trade group friendly to the White House, said the administration asked the group to invite leaders to hear directly from Biden.

In Congress, even staunch supporters of the law like House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Steny Hoyer, the Democratic whip, have said the website’s rollout was unacceptable. In a potentially worrying sign for Obama, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., is calling for the White House to extend the open-enrollment period past March 31 in light of the glitches.

On Wednesday, the administration is sending Mike Hash, who runs the health reform office at HHS, to Capitol Hill to brief lawmakers on the law’s implementation.

An invitation to the breakfast meeting obtained by The Associated Press says it’s restricted to members of Congress. But only Democrats were invited to that session, prompting protest from House Speaker John Boehner, whose spokesman called it a “snub” and said the administration should brief House Republicans, too, in the name of transparency and accountability. Joanne Peters, a spokeswoman for HHS, said officials would be happy to honor additional briefing requests.

___

Reach Josh Lederman at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP

___

Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Is Obamacare costing Americans full-time jobs? Not really

People sign up for health insurance information at a Covered California event.  (REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)
People sign up for health insurance information at a Covered California event.
(REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

There is little evidence that employers are sacrificing full-time jobs by hiring more part-timers or reducing existing employee hours because of the costs of providing health coverage under Obamacare.

Conservative Republicans have pointed to the high level of part-time employment as evidence businesses are cutting hours for staff in response to the new healthcare law, which will require them to offer health insurance to full-time workers.

And one in five businesses in the service sector think President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare reform has hurt employment at their firms over the last three months, a National Association of Business Economics survey showed on Monday.

But there is little discernible impact in the employment figures released in recent months, including the September numbers out on Tuesday. The number of people with part-time jobs who want full-time work, for example, was essentially flat in September at 7.9 million.

“We are not seeing any effect in the data,” Jason Furman, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, told Reuters Insider.

Part of the reason may be the White House’s decision to delay the beginning of Obamacare’s so-called “employer mandate” until January 2015. Under the mandate, which was previously due to take effect in January 2014, firms with more than 50 employees must provide reasonable healthcare insurance to employees who work more than 30 hours a week.

Also, the number of part-time workers spiked in 2008, well before Obamacare was enacted, and has been slowly falling as a share of total employment since 2010. In September people working part time because they could not find full-time work made up 5.5 percent of the employed, unchanged from August. The spike in 2008 and the steady drift downward since then suggests the elevated level of part-time workers is more likely due to the economy’s weakness.

The issue is a sensitive one for the administration, which is also on the defensive over a clunky rollout of a website workers use to navigate the new health insurance landscape created by Obamacare.

Many businesses polled by the NABE said they were holding back on hiring due to the costs imposed by the law. The survey also showed 15 percent of service sector firms planned to shift to more part-time workers due to Obamacare. But that may not be translating into hiring decisions.

“Health reform’s employer mandate is likely to have some effect on hours worked, but it hasn’t yet shown up in the data,” Paul Van de Water, an analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, wrote in a report this month.

Ron Axelrad, chief executive of Access Staffing, which places part- and full-time employees across the greater New York City area, said his firm had been getting a lot of calls from companies six months ago about how to prepare for Obamacare.

But the delay of the employer mandate has pushed the issue “out of everyone’s mind,” he said.

“Probably toward the second or third quarter of next year, companies will be very aware again that they have to prepare,” Axelrad added.

___

Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 Thomson Reuters. All rights reserved.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Two states, two different political agendas by Republicans

Terry McAuliffe, Democratic candidate for governor in Virginia, leading in all pre-election polls. (Photo by Doug Thompson)
Terry McAuliffe, Democratic candidate for governor in Virginia, leading in all pre-election polls. (Photo by Doug Thompson)

This fall’s races for governor in Virginia and New Jersey offer a revealing window into the fight for the future of the Republican Party.

Virginia’s illustrates the challenges facing the tea party movement and the fallout from the government shutdown while testing how well the GOP’s conservative wing can compete in a presidential swing-voting state. New Jersey’s highlights how a pragmatic Republican advocating for an inclusive GOP can dominate in Democratic territory.

In Virginia, Republican Ken Cuccinelli — he promotes his role as the first state attorney general to challenge the health care overhaul — is struggling in polls against his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe. The former Democratic Party chairman has tried to link Cuccinelli to tea party luminaries like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and to the 16-day partial government shutdown.

In New Jersey, Republican Gov. Chris Christie — he emphasizes a bipartisan approach — is seeking a second term. He holds a comfortable lead in surveys in the Democratic-leaning state, where he has drawn support from a broad coalition of voters across the political spectrum.

Both states will elect governors Nov. 5 following a showdown in Congress that highlighted a deep division within the Republican Party.

Taken together, the two races show the two sides of a red-hot internal debate in the GOP. Conservatives and the tea party argue that the party needs to hold firm to its principles while moderate, business-friendly Republicans seek a more results-oriented approach that appeals to a diverse electorate.

Judging by history and surveys with two weeks to go, the outcomes could be unusual.

Virginia has elected a governor from the party not occupying the White House in every gubernatorial election since 1977. A McAuliffe victory would break that trend. In New Jersey, Christie is trying to become the first Republican governor to win with more than 50 percent of the vote since Tom Kean in 1985.

Republicans are closely watching the races for clues to help craft the party’s playbook in next year’s midterm elections. Nasty GOP primaries already are shaping up as tea party-backed challengers prepare to take on congressional incumbents with ties to the party establishment. In recent weeks, business-friendly candidates have started to step forward in some districts to challenge tea party lawmakers.

Cuccinelli’s campaign has been hurt by a political scandal involving accusations of lavish gift-giving by a political supporter to Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell and his family. Cuccinelli himself had accepted more than $18,000 worth of gifts from the supporter, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., and his company, nutritional supplements maker Star Scientific Inc., then gave a Richmond charity $18,000 after criticism of McDonnell grew.

But the Virginia attorney general’s aggressive pursuit of conservative voters who comprise the Republican base has irked some party leaders. Those leaders have watched McAuliffe present himself as a business-friendly moderate in a state that Barack Obama carried in 2008 and 2012. At the same time, Christie has competed for women, black and Latino voters in New Jersey — key components of Obama’s coalition — and highlighted endorsements from Democratic officials.

“Beating McAuliffe should not have been hard,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va. “Virginia Republicans decided to go one way and the New Jersey Republicans decided to go another way. It seems to be working in one state and not working in another.”

The off-year gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey often act as early warning signs for the political parties entering midterm elections for the House and Senate. In 2009, victories by Christie and McDonnell a year after Obama’s election served as a precursor to the tea party movement and unrest over the president’s health care plan.

Polls have shown Cuccinelli trailing McAuliffe among women and independents. Some of his defenders say the McDonnell gift scandal has been virtually impossible to escape.

“That scandal and the way it played out over the summer would have badly damaged a Chris Christie-like candidate in Virginia, let alone Ken Cuccinelli,” said Republican strategist Sara Fagen.

Republicans say the government shutdown also has taken a toll.

In Sterling, Va., on Monday, Cuccinelli declined to take a position on the compromise that ended the shutdown. Instead, he has played up his efforts to overturn the national health care law and energize tea party supporters.

“We don’t win every time. But you don’t win any fights you don’t get in,” he said.

In New Jersey, Christie has tried to distance himself from the GOP’s most conservative members as he faces Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono.

The governor was 40 miles away when former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin headlined a tea party rally earlier this month. Instead of joining Palin, Christie addressed Hispanic leaders.

Christie’s advisers say he has governed as a conservative without antagonizing Democrats. His response to Superstorm Sandy remains a constant refrain, allowing him to talk about working with Obama.

While Christie vetoed a bill that would have legalized gay marriage, he dropped his appeal on Monday, saying the court had made clear its views on gay marriage.

“We’re a minority party in this state. … We’re never supposed to win,” Christie told supporters in East Brunswick, N.J. “There will be people from all over the country, Republicans from all over the country, who are going to come here and say, ‘How did this happen? How did you all do it?'”

He continued: “It’s possible for Republicans anywhere in the country to be able to do this.”

___

Peoples reported from Edison, N.J. Associated Press writer Philip Elliott in Sterling, Va., contributed to this report.

___

Follow Ken Thomas: https://twitter.com/AP_Ken_Thomas and Steve Peoples https://twitter.com/sppeoples .

___

Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Lots of red flags during Health Care Exchange web site development

Obamacare's constantly-crashing web site.
Obamacare’s constantly-crashing web site.

Crammed into conference rooms with pizza for dinner, some programmers building the Obama administration’s showcase health insurance website were growing increasingly stressed. Some worked past 10 p.m., energy drinks in hand. Others rewrote computer code over and over to meet what they considered last-minute requests for changes from the government or other contractors.

As questions mount over the website’s failure, insider interviews and a review of technical specifications by The Associated Press found a mind-numbingly complex system put together by harried programmers who pushed out a final product that congressional investigators said was tested by the government and not private developers with more expertise.

Project developers who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity — because they feared they would otherwise be fired — said they raised doubts among themselves whether the website could be ready in time. They complained openly to each other about what they considered tight and unrealistic deadlines. One was nearly brought to tears over the stress of finishing on time, one developer said. Website builders saw red flags for months.

A review of internal architectural diagrams obtained by the AP revealed the system’s complexity. Insurance applicants have a host of personal information verified, including income and immigration status. The system connects to other federal computer networks, including ones at the Social Security Administration, IRS, Veterans Administration, Office of Personnel Management and the Peace Corps.

President Barack Obama on Monday acknowledged technical problems that he described as “kinks in the system.” He also promised a “tech surge” by leading technology talent to repair the painfully slow and often unresponsive website that has frustrated Americans trying to enroll online for insurance plans at the center of Obama’s health care law.

But in remarks at a Rose Garden event, Obama offered no explanation for the failure except to note that high traffic to the website caused some of the slowdowns. He said it had been visited nearly 20 million times — fewer monthly visits so far than many commercial websites, such as PayPal, AOL, Wikipedia or Pinterest.

“The problem has been that the website that’s supposed to make it easy to apply for and purchase the insurance is not working the way it should for everybody,” Obama said. “There’s no sugarcoating it. The website has been too slow. People have been getting stuck during the application process. And I think it’s fair to say that nobody is more frustrated by that than I am.”

The online system was envisioned as a simple way for people without health insurance to comparison-shop among competing plans offered in their state, pick their preferred level of coverage and cost and sign up. For many, it’s not worked out that way so far.

Just weeks before the launch of HealthCare.gov on Oct. 1, one programmer said, colleagues huddled in conference rooms trying to patch “bugs,” or deficiencies in computer code. Unresolved problems led to visitors experiencing cryptic error messages or enduring long waits trying to sign up.

Congressional investigators have concluded that the government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, not private software developers, tested the exchange’s computer systems during the final weeks. That task, known as integration testing, is usually handled by software companies because it ferrets out problems before the public sees the final product.

The government spent at least $394 million in contracts to build the federal health care exchange and the data hub. Those contracts included major awards to Virginia-based CGI Federal Inc., Maryland-based Quality Software Services Inc. and Booz Allen Hamilton Inc.

CGI Federal said in a statement Monday it was working with the government and other contractors “around the clock” to improve the system, which it called “complex, ambitious and unprecedented.”

The schematics from late 2012 show how officials designated a “data services hub” — a traffic cop for managing information — in lieu of a design that would have allowed state exchanges to connect directly to government servers when verifying an applicant’s information. On Sunday, the Health and Human Services Department said the data hub was working but not meeting public expectations: “We are committed to doing better.”

Administration officials so far have refused to say how many people actually have managed to enroll in insurance during the three weeks since the new marketplaces became available. Without enrollment numbers, it’s impossible to know whether the program is on track to reach projections from the Congressional Budget Office that 7 million people would gain coverage during the first year the exchanges were available.

Instead, officials have selectively cited figures that put the insurance exchanges in a positive light. They say more than 19 million people have logged on to the federal website and nearly 500,000 have filled out applications for insurance through both the federal and state-run sites.

The flood of computer problems since the website went online has been deeply embarrassing for the White House. The snags have called into question whether the administration is capable of implementing the complex policy and why senior administration officials — including the president — appear to have been unaware of the scope of the problems when the exchange sites opened.

Even as the president spoke at the Rose Garden, more problems were coming to light. The administration acknowledged that a planned upgrade to the website had been postponed indefinitely and that online Spanish-language signups would remain unavailable, despite a promise to Hispanic groups that the capability would start this week. And the government tweaked the website’s home page so visitors can now view phone numbers to apply the old-fashioned way or window-shop for insurance rates without registering first.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee was expected to conduct an oversight hearing Thursday, probably without Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifying. She could testify on Capitol Hill on the subject as early as next week.

Uninsured Americans have until about mid-February to sign up for coverage if they are to meet the law’s requirement that they be insured by the end of March. If they don’t, they will face a penalty.

On Monday, the White House advised people frustrated by the online tangle that they can enroll by calling 1-800-318-2596 in a process that should take 25 minutes for an individual or 45 minutes for a family. Assistance is also available in communities from helpers who can be found at LocalHelp.HealthCare.gov.

___

Associated Press writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.

___

Follow Jack Gillum on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jackgillum or Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC.

___

Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Merci! France unhappy with American NSA snooping

Secretary of State John Kerry.  (REUTERS/Alastair Grant)
Secretary of State John Kerry. (REUTERS/Alastair Grant)

The sweep and scope of National Security Agency snooping abroad forced President Barack Obama once again to hear complaints from a U.S. ally angry about the surveillance net that has sparked an international debate over the limits of American spying.

France is the latest in a growing list of nations — Germany, Brazil and Mexico included — demanding explanations from Washington. A report published on Monday said the U.S. swept up 70 million French telephone records and text messages and recorded some private conversations.

President Francois Hollande’s office expressed “profound reprobation,” saying the spying violated the privacy of French citizens. The White House said some news reports have distorted the work of U.S. surveillance programs, but said Obama acknowledged to Hollande in a telephone conversation that some reports have raised “legitimate questions for our friends and allies.”

“The president made clear that the United States has begun to review the way that we gather intelligence, so that we properly balance the legitimate security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share,” the White House said.

The report in Le Monde, co-written by Glenn Greenwald, who originally revealed the surveillance program based on leaks from former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden, found that when certain phone numbers were used, conversations were recorded automatically. The surveillance operation also gathered text messages based on key words, Le Monde reported.

Hollande’s office said the French leader asked Obama to make available all information on NSA spying of French communications.

“This sort of practice between partners that invades privacy is totally unacceptable and we have to make sure, very quickly, that this no longer happens,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said. “We fully agree that we cooperate to fight terrorism. It is indispensable. But this does not justify that personal data of millions of our compatriots are snooped on.”

Earlier, the French government summoned U.S. Ambassador Charles Rivkin for answers. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was in Paris on Monday, would not confirm the newspaper account or discuss intelligence-gathering. He told reporters that the U.S. would discuss the NSA surveillance with French officials.

“Lots of countries are engaged in the activity of trying to protect their citizens in the world,” he said.

Le Monde reported that from Dec. 10, 2012, to Jan. 8 of this year, 70.3 million recordings of French citizens’ telephone data were made by the NSA. Intercepts peaked at almost 7 million in Dec. 24 and again on Jan. 7, the newspaper said. The targets were people with suspected links to terrorism and people chosen because of their roles in business, politics or the French government, the report said.

Former CIA officer Bob Baer, who was stationed in Paris for three years, said the French intelligence service regularly spies on Americans — both on U.S. diplomats and business people. The spying has included rifling through possessions of a diplomat, businessman or spy in Paris hotel rooms and installing listening devices in first-class seats of the now-defunct Concord aircraft to record Americans’ conversations, he said.

In another instance, a former French intelligence director stated that the spy agency compiled a detailed secret dossier of the proprietary proposals that U.S. and Soviet companies wrote to compete with a French company for a $1 billion contract to supply fighter jets to India.

But while corporate and spy- vs.-spy espionage may be common, the newspaper report indicated that French citizens were unwittingly drawn into U.S. surveillance, too.

Dennis Blair, a former director of national intelligence, tried to broker a closer intelligence-sharing relationship with France, so the two would simply ask each other to explain political or economic policies directly instead of resorting to snooping.

“The U.S. is overwhelmed by cooperation by France on things like … terrorism and organized crime,” Blair said in an interview Monday. “It dwarfs the amount of time we spend on spying on each other. I’m hoping the day will come when both countries realize they have a lot more to be gained by working with each other, but we’re not quite there yet.”

So far, the strongest objection to the NSA surveillance abroad has come from Brazil.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff canceled a state visit to Washington over a dispute involving Brazil’s desire to question Snowden after information he leaked indicated that the U.S. intercepted Rousseff’s communications with aides, hacked the state-run oil company’s computer network, and snagged data on emails and telephone calls flowing through Brazil.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government canceled a Cold War-era surveillance agreement over reports that NSA snooping swept up communications in Europe.

Mexico has also expressed outrage about an alleged NSA program that the German magazine Der Spiegel said accessed a domain linked to former Mexican President Felipe Calderon and his Cabinet. Also, a document from June 2012 indicated the NSA had read current Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto’s emails before he was elected.

___

Associated Press writers Lara Jakes and Lori Hinnant in Paris, Matthew Lee and Adam Goldman in Washington and Raf Casert in Luxembourg contributed to this report.

___

Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Chris Christie drops gay marriage fight in New Jersey

Gov. Chris Christie
Gov. Chris Christie

Gov. Chris Christie dropped his fight against gay marriage in New Jersey on Monday, framing the decision in a pragmatic way: No point in fighting a losing battle.

Just hours after gay couples began exchanging vows with the blessing of New Jersey’s Supreme Court, Christie announced he was withdrawing his appeal to the high court.

New Jersey is the 14th state to legalize gay marriage.

As the Republican governor seeks re-election two weeks from now and ponders a run for president in 2016, Christie’s decision holds both risks and benefits for him.

It delighted gay rights activists and could enhance Christie’s appeal to independents and moderates of both parties. But it angered members of the GOP’s conservative wing, which already distrusts Christie and wields outsized influence in some state primaries.

Bob McAlister, a veteran Republican strategist in South Carolina, said Christie’s latest move “is absolutely going to hurt him.”

“Abandoning foundational principles that go beyond politics is not the way to get positive attention in South Carolina,” he said.

Brian Brown, president of the conservative National Organization for Marriage, said he was “extremely disappointed” with Christie’s decision, which he portrayed as “effectively throwing in the towel on marriage.”

Last year, the New Jersey Legislature passed a bill to legalize gay marriage, but Christie vetoed it. The issue ended up before Christie again after a trial-level judge ruled last month that the state must allow same-sex couples to wed.

Christie appealed that ruling to the state Supreme Court. The court agreed to take up the case but unanimously refused on Friday to delay the start of gay weddings in the meantime, saying the state had little chance of prevailing in its appeal. Same-sex couples began exchanging vows Monday just after midnight.

Advisers to the governor said that in dropping the appeal, Christie had stayed true to his principles.

“Although the governor strongly disagrees with the court substituting its judgment for the constitutional process of the elected branches or a vote of the people, the court has now spoken clearly as to their view of the New Jersey Constitution and, therefore, same-sex marriage is the law,” Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said in a statement.

“The governor will do his constitutional duty and ensure his administration enforces the law as dictated by the New Jersey Supreme Court.”

Although New Jersey is a Democratic-leaning state, polls show Christie holds a commanding lead against Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono ahead of the Nov. 5 election.

The governor has positioned himself as a straight-talking pragmatist who can win support across the political spectrum.

Even as he has opposed gay marriage, Christie has preached tolerance. He nominated an openly gay judge to the Supreme Court and signed legislation last summer barring therapists from trying to turn gay youngsters straight.

During a debate last week, Christie said if one of his children came out as gay, he would “grab them and hug them and tell them that I love them.”

Many conservatives distrusted Christie at least as far back as a year ago, just before Election Day, when he praised President Barack Obama in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.

When conservatives gathered in Washington recently for the Family Research Council’s annual Value Voters summit, the ballroom heard from such potential presidential candidates as Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Christie was not invited.

But many establishment Republicans contend that social issues ultimately will take a back seat to economic ones as gay marriage becomes more widely accepted in America.

“Opposing the freedom to marry is a loser for our party and serves to drive away a growing number of voters who have turned the page,” said David Kochel, a top adviser to Republican Mitt Romney in Iowa during the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns.

Some Republicans said Christie’s decision won’t hurt him much if he decides to seek the White House, especially in a crowded primary field populated with several conservatives who could end up splitting the vote.

Conservatives “were never going to be his voters anyway,” said John Ullyot, a Republican strategist and former Senate aide.

___=

Thomas reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Angela Delli Santi in Trenton, Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Bill Barrow in Atlanta and Charles Babington in Washington contributed to this report.

___

Follow Mulvihill at https://twitter.com/geoffmulvihill and Thomas at https://twitter.com/AP_Ken_Thomas

___

Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

 

Enhanced by Zemanta

Ohio board hands President a major victory for Obamacare

(REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman)
(REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman)

An Ohio legislative panel on Monday voted in favor of the state expanding its Medicaid program for the poor, in a victory for President Barack Obama’s signature federal health reform law.

The decision permits Governor John Kasich, a Republican who otherwise opposes the reform law known as the Affordable Care Act, to bypass the state’s Republican-dominated legislature to expand Medicaid, a move strongly opposed by many Ohio conservatives.

The Ohio Controlling Board, a special legislative panel composed of six legislators and one Kasich appointee, approved by a 5-2 vote accepting $2.5 billion in federal money, which the governor has said would cover 275,000 additional low-income Ohio residents, starting in January.

Kasich endorsed the expansion last February, raising hopes that Ohio would join 25 states and the District of Columbia in either moving forward with expanding Medicaid or requesting modifications to the plan. Medicaid expansion is a major plank of Obama’s health reform law, which aims to ensure that all Americans have access to affordable health insurance.

Some conservatives are expected to sue over the expansion. Nearly 40 Republican legislators last week formally protested Kasich’s request to the board, which represents a majority of the Republican caucus in the state House.

___

Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 Thomson Reuters. All rights reserved.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Americans want Boehner, Republicans out of control of the House

John Boehner: The unpredictable wild card. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
John Boehner: Time to hit the road?  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

According to an increasing number of polls, Americans — while fed up with Congress — are so mad at Republicans over the government shutdown and debt crisis debacle that they want the GOP out of control of the House of Representatives and Speaker John Boehner out of the Speaker’s chair.

That increasing view of the Republican party is bolstered by a new CNN/ORC poll where 54 percent of Americans say the party of the elephant is bad for the House of Representatives and a disaster for the country.

While anger and distaste for Republicans has been growing, this is the first time a clear majority of Americans have said they are bad for the House and deserve to lose their majority in next year’s next term elections.

Democratic campaign officials say recruiting potential candidates for House seats is suddenly easier than ever and strategists say the job of throwing out Republicans and replacing them with Democrats will be even easier if the right-wing that currently controls the party mounts a number of primary challenges that dumps Republicans and leaves the party with a group of candidates that appeals to a conservative base but not to the electorate at large.

The CNN/ORG poll also shows 63 percent of those surveyed saying Boehner should go as Speaker.

“At the moment, things don’t look too rosy for Republicans,” says a long-time political aide.  “With more than a year to go before the mid-terms, things could change a lot but more and more polls show deep seeded anger towards the GOP and indications now suggest that attitude won’t change anytime soon.”

Republican strategists admit privately that the potential for even more damage exists if their members in the House and Senate handle the next crisis period in January and February of next year badly and, based on past experiences and current statements by conservatives, the potential exists for another bad period.

“As long as people like Ted Cruz are allowed to speak for the Republicans, the potential exists for matters to get far worse,” says a worried GOP house aide.  “The shutdown and debt situation was not our final hour but the worst may be yet to come.”

In the CNN poll, only 12 percent approve of Congress overall — far below President Barack Obama’s 44 percent approval rating.  Obama’s disapproval rating of 52 percent, however, is not that far below the score for the GOP.

______________

Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Enhanced by Zemanta

Obama: ‘There’s no sugar coating’ health care rollout problems

President Barack Obama (AP/Evan Vucci)
President Barack Obama (AP/Evan Vucci)

President Barack Obama on Monday said there was “no excuse” for the cascade of computer problems that have marred the rollout of key elements in his health care law, but declared he was confident the administration would be able to fix the issues.

“There’s no sugarcoating it,” Obama said. “Nobody is more frustrated than I am.”

The president said his administration was doing “everything we can possibly do” to get the federally run websites up and running. And he guaranteed that everyone who wants to get insurance through the new health care exchanges will be able to.

Obama’s event in the White House Rose Garden had the feeling of a health care pep rally, with guests in the Rose Garden applauding as Obama ticked through what the White House sees as benefits of the law. The president was introduced by a woman who had successfully managed to sign up for health insurance through the marketplaces in her home state of Delaware.

The president insisted that his health care law is about more than just a website.

“The essence of the law, the health insurance that’s available to people, is working just fine,” he said.

The White House says more than 19 million people have visited HealthCare.gov since the site went live on Oct. 1. Officials also say a half million people have applied for insurance on the federal- and state-run websites.

Administration officials initially blamed a high volume of interest for the frozen screens that many people encountered when they first logged on to the website. Since then, they have also acknowledged issues with software and some elements of the system’s design.

However, the White House has yet to fully detail exactly what went wrong with the online system consumers were supposed to use to sign up for coverage. And Obama on Monday did not explain how the problems in detail or why they were not fixed before sign-ups opened to the public.

The president did acknowledge that the failures would provide new fodder for opponents of the law, often referred to as “Obamacare.” With the website not working as intended, “that makes a lot of supporters nervous,” he said.

But he said, “it’s time for folks to stop rooting for its failure.”

In an ironic twist, the troubles with the health care rollout were overshadowed at first by Republican efforts to delay or defund the law in exchange for reopening the government during the 16-day shutdown. The bill that eventually reopened the government included no substantive changes to the health care law.

With the shutdown over, GOP lawmakers have been ramping up their criticism of the health care law’s troubles.

______________

Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Enhanced by Zemanta