John DiStaso's Granite Status: Why did you wait, Sen. Shaheen?
By JOHN DiSTASO Senior Political Reporter
US Senator Jeanne Shaheen, speaks during the 2012 Governor's Conference on Tourism. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader File)
WHY DID YOU WAIT, SENATOR? The question remaining after Sen. Jeanne Shaheen finally admitted Friday afternoon she was at a campaign fundraiser rather than a rare closed-door meeting of the full U.S. Senate last Monday on the filibuster rules controversy is simply:
Why did you wait so long, senator, to simply acknowledge it?
The Shaheen brain trust is an accomplished group that usually has a good handle on how to handle political strategy. But the four days of silence they allowed before owning up to the fundraiser just heightened the suspense and gave state Republicans an issue to harp on during a slow, hot summer week.
At the moment, former state Sen. Jim Rubens is the only Republican openly exploring the possibility of a run against Shaheen next year. Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley continues to take a post-legislative session respite and is presumably mulling his plans.
Still, with no candidate, the Republicans are trying early and often to soften up Shaheen for next year, trying to dent her so-far nearly impenetrable armor that has her lifetime record at 4-1 in statewide elections.
So, when word came from Washington that Shaheen was only one of two senators (the other was potential GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio of Florida) to have missed the unusual - some might say historic - session in the Old Senate Chambers, the GOP jumped on it.
And when she did not say where she was right away - citing only a scheduling conflict that the Senate leadership was aware of - she played into the GOP's hands.
When the question did not go away by Friday, this column received acknowledgment from Shaheen's spokesman that she was in New York City at an event for the Friends of Jeanne Shaheen committee, which as of June 30 boasted $2.15 million in cash on hand.
"Senator Shaheen had a fundraiser on Monday and notified Senate leadership in advance that she would miss the meeting," said Shripal Shah, who tried to convey that it was not a huge deal.
"That meeting was designed to allow senators to express their opinions on filibuster reform, and Senator Shaheen's position is well-known by her colleagues on this issue," Shah said.
"In the past, she has signed multiple letters supporting filibuster reform, wrote and distributed an article on the subject, and has attended dozens of meetings and has had numerous discussions with senators from both parties over the years on this issue. She is pleased that a bipartisan agreement was reached to end the current impasse."
Shah pointed out that according to the website Govtrack.us, Shaheen has missed only 19 of 1,362 roll call votes, which is better than 98 percent, since she entered the Senate in 2009.
The meeting Shaheen missed was held as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid threatened to change Senate rules to require only 51 votes for some presidential nominees, which would have eliminated the filibuster as an effective minority tool to question, examine or hold up nominations. The filibuster has been used over the years by Democrats as well as Republicans, depending on who is in the minority at the time.
The threatened rules change, dubbed the "nuclear option" on Capitol Hill, was not invoked because an agreement was reached Tuesday on pending nominees.
Shaheen on Wednesday called for filibuster "rules reform" in a campaign email, which contained a link to an online petition urging permanent change.
After Shah issued the statement Friday, the state Republican Party declared victory and charged it was a "disgrace" that Shaheen had chosen a fundraiser over the meeting. The Democrats countered by calling the Republican push on the issue, and its outrage over the fundraiser, a "clown car, pathetic" stunt.
Overall, it was a tough week for Shaheen. In the midst of the controversy, the Daily Caller website reported that a group of her current and former staffers were among thousands of Capitol Hill workers to have had their email addresses and passwords hacked by "Anonymous," a self-described "Internet gathering" of "hacktivists."
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ABOUT THOSE MANDATES. President Barack Obama has been taking heat not only from Republicans but also from his friends at organized labor over his decision earlier this month to delay the employer mandate provision of the Affordable Care Act - aka "Obamacare" - from Jan. 1, 2014, to Jan. 1, 2015.
The change, being put into effect through a proposed new federal rule, effectively amends a provision of the health care law requiring employers with more than 50 full-time workers to provide health insurance for employees by the start of next year or pay steep fines.
To avoid the fines, companies had threatened to downsize their full-time workforces below the 50-person threshold through layoffs or through reductions of employee hours to part-time status.
Obama's order put the provision off until after the mid-term election. But the President did not change the ACA's mandate that individuals who do not have their insurance provided by employers must obtain health insurance by Jan. 1, 2014. That's unfair, critics charged.
The leaders of three major unions, including Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa, wrote Democratic leaders in Congress an open letter last week, reminding them of organized labor's unflinching support for them in "campaign after campaign" and complaining that their concerns "have been met with a stone wall by the White House."
"Most disconcerting of course is last week's accommodation for the employer community," the labor leaders wrote.
The Republican-led House last Wednesday tried to highlight the discrepancy in Obama's treatment of businesses and individuals. It voted mostly along party lines, 251-174, to grant a similar extension, or grace period, for the individual mandate.
The bill has no chance of getting to the floor of the Democratic-controlled Senate for a vote, but the House vote sent a message and set up an issue for next year's elections.
Thursday, Obama dismissed the House vote as an attempt to "make political hay" and said, "If they have any better ideas" on how to improve his health care law, "I'm happy to hear them.
"What I've heard is the same old song and dance," Obama said. "We're just going to blow through that stuff and keep on doing the right thing for the American people."
How do our senators feel about the Obama extension of the employer mandate while maintaining the individual mandate deadline? Their views are predictably divided along party lines.
Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte said the employer mandate delay "confirms concerns I've heard from New Hampshire business owners who have told me that Obamacare represents a compliance nightmare that will make it harder to create jobs.''
"Individuals and families also need relief from a law that stands to deliver higher premiums, higher taxes and less choice, and that's why I recently signed a letter calling on President Obama to permanently delay implementation of Obamacare for everyone," Ayotte said.
On the Fox News Channel Friday morning, Ayotte said Obama "is just blowing through what's right for the American people. If this was so right for the American people, why did he have to delay the employer mandate until after the 2014 elections?"
She called the labor unions' letter of complaint about the ACA "extraordinary."
Democrat Shaheen defended Obama.
"Senator Shaheen believes the delay will give businesses the extra time they need to properly comply with the new law," said spokesman Shah. "She has always wanted to make sure the law is implemented correctly and thinks this will help.
"Unfortunately, Republicans, particularly in the House, have little interest in implementing the law, let alone expanding access to health care and making it more affordable," Shah said. "In fact, since the health care discussion started in 2009, they've been solely interested in using the debate to score political points. The vote in the House to once again try and strike down parts the law, after countless efforts to repeal it entirely, underscores that fact."
The state's two Democratic U.S. House members, Annie Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter, as expected, opposed the House bill delaying the individual mandate, saying it was an attempt to refight the partisan battles of the past.
Bradley, the state Senate majority leader and a potential 2014 U.S. Senate candidate, said, "It's becoming increasingly obvious that the complexity of Obamacare, the exchanges and the employer mandate is overwhelming the ability of the administration to make any of it work."
Obama delayed the employer mandate just before the July 4 holiday, and Bradley said, "I suspect that the Friday before Labor Day is when you'll see the individual mandate postponed, too."
John DiStaso is senior political reporter of the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jdistaso.