By RICK KLEIN Who’s got something new to say? Surely not members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, not four days into hearings that have provided neither light nor heat. Certainly not Judge Sonia Sotomayor, who’s doing her job in not saying much of anything (since it’s no longer even news — or even relevant — that she’s underwhelmed in her debut). And maybe not Democrats on health care, who are marching deeper into legislative weeds, and have the scratches to show for it. Timelines may not be settled, but this is a race against political clocks: the August recess and the election cycle are making the own pace. (The 2009 cycle is already upon us, with President Obama campaigning with Gov. John Corzine, D-N.J., and Vice President Joe Biden appeared with gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds, D-Va., on Thursday.) More broadly, health care reform is shaping up as a race against President Obama’s poll numbers: If he can’t get something done when he’s at 60 percent-plus, will he be able to coax Congress into action at 50? 45? Among the many problems at this stage of hard choices: The stakeholders — those who claimed those seats at the table — are starting to ask for their checks. And the president can’t offer up a bipartisan group — or even a united party — to coax them to stay for another few rounds. “New fault lines are opening up everywhere you look,” Time’s Karen Tumulty writes. “It’s all a sign that the season for hard decisions has arrived. . . . If the President wants to accelerate the process, he may have to abandon his original hands-off strategy and start getting more deeply involved.” Into the danger zone: “A party-line Senate committee vote on legislation to remake the nation’s health care system underscored the absence of political consensus on what would be the biggest changes in social policy in more than 40 years,” Robert Pear and David M. Herszenhorn report in The New York Times. “But the partisan split signified potential trouble ahead. Republicans on the panel, who voted unanimously against the measure, described the idea of a new public insurance option as a deal-breaker.” “Senators said the White House had been sending mixed signals. For months, they said, it emphasized the need for a bipartisan bill. But in the last 10 days, one Democrat said, the message has been: ‘Hurry up. If you have to go without Republicans, it’s not the end of the world.’ ” We’re back to one-on-one White House meetings: President Obama sits down separately with Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, at the White House, before headlining a fundraiser and campaign rally for Corzine, and raising money for the Democratic National Committee. (To pay for more ads that take on Nelson and Snowe?) Thursday night at 7:30 pm ET, the president speaks at the NAACP’s 100th anniversary conference. What to lean on? “Americans are divided over how they want health care fixed and whom they trust most to do it, refusing to forge a consensus for or against President Barack Obama as he and Congress march toward a historic overhaul,” Steven Thomma writes, on the new McClatchy-Ipsos Poll. “The lack of a popular consensus underscores the risks and stakes as Congress rushes toward proposals to provide coverage to the uninsured and rein in soaring costs for those who do have coverage.”
“The number of Americans who approve of the way Obama is doing his job also dropped, to 57 percent, a 7-point decline from early June and the lowest of his presidency that McClatchy-Ipsos has recorded.” Plus: “The Diageo/Hotline Poll of 800 U.S. registered voters conducted by FD from July 9-13, 2009, finds that the percentage of American voters who approve of the job President Obama is doing has dropped nine points to 56%.” As for those with seats at the table: “Democrats ratcheted up an offensive against health insurers Wednesday, proposing $100 billion in new fees on the industry, as health-care legislation took another step forward in the Senate,” Laura Meckler writes in The Wall Street Journal. “That new fee would come on top of reductions the committee already plans in payments to the industry through the Medicare Advantage program, likely to top $100 billion on their own, officials said. The companion House bill introduced this week included $156 billion in Medicare Advantage reductions over a decade.” “There were signs that the debate was moving into a more bruising phase in which insurance companies, hospitals and others fight to shape the details of legislative provisions that affect them,” Noam M. Levey and Peter Nicholas report in the Los Angeles Times. The light hand — still: “On a day when lawmakers battled over competing health care reform bills, President Barack Obama declined to identify the approach he prefers, but insisted significant reform needs to happen quickly,” ABC’s Kate Barrett reports. President Obama, to ABC’s Dr. Tim Johnson: “What we can’t do is pretend that somehow with all the waste that’s in the system — and everybody acknowledges that — that we can just keep on doing business as usual and somehow bend the curve on health care costs in a way that not only provides affordable coverage to families but also makes sure that we don’t have the federal budget blowing up.” As for urgency of action — there’s this timeline on the component of a new primary-care physician network: “We’re not going to solve all of them immediately overnight, and that’s why I think we have to anticipate this program’s not going to start up probably until 2013. That gives us four or five years to start developing programs to solve this problem,” the president said. A tighter pitch for a $1-$1.5 trillion bill: “You’ll save money,” President Obama said Wednesday, per ABC’s Yunji de Nies and Sunlen Miller. How many senators feel this way? “The president agrees with me,” Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., tells Politico’s Carrie Budoff Brown and Patrick O’Connor. “He wants a bipartisan bill.” The sale: “It’s selling that view to the public that’s tough. As the right drums up opposition to the plan, it is competing against an aggressive White House, a still-brawny Obama political operation and well-funded progressive groups that are using the Internet, television and other techniques to mobilize grass-roots support,” the AP’s Alan Fram writes. Picking up the pace: “On the defensive over the economy and health care, the White House is shooting back with a double-barreled message for its critics and skeptics,” Politico’s Jonathan Martin writes. “To Republicans who say the stimulus isn’t working: Back off. To moderate Democrats wary of health care reform: We’re watching you.” Plus: Harry and Louise themselves hit the Hill at 11 am ET Thursday, alongside advocates, activists, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. On the Sotomayor hearings — the last day of questioning from senators Thursday. Time to look to the next nomination already? “After three days of testimony, Judge Sotomayor appeared to have made no major mistakes that would jeopardize her confirmation in a Senate dominated by Democrats. So both sides are trying to use the Judiciary Committee hearings to define the parameters of an acceptable nomination in case another seat opens up during Mr. Obama’s presidency,” Peter Baker and Charlie Savage write in The New York Times. “Several legal experts said Judge Sotomayor’s testimony might make it harder for Mr. Obama to name a more liberal justice next time,” they write. “She repudiated the president’s assertion that ‘what is in a judge’s heart’ should influence rulings and rejected the liberal idea that the Constitution is a ‘living’ document whose meaning evolves with society. . . . And she dismissed any role for foreign law in deciding cases, an influence some liberal legal experts argue should be considered.” “On the third day of her confirmation hearings, Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor today declined to respond to senators’ questions asking her explain her personal views on hot button social issues such as abortion and gun rights hearings,” per ABC’s Ariane de Vogue and Theresa Cook. “If repetition were the qualification for a Supreme Court justice, Sonia Sotomayor would already be on the high court,” Naftali Bendavid writes in The Wall Street Journal. “By midafternoon, even two Democrats on the panel sounded frustrated by her long, elusive replies,” The Washington Post’s Amy Goldstein, Paul Kane and Robert Barnes report. Heard enough about the “wise Latina” comment yet? “I didn’t ask about it because so many other people asked about it and how many times can you beat a dead horse to death,” Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, tells ABC’s Jake Tapper for his ABC News Shuffle podcast. Gail Collins channels Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.: “Judge, to get back to that “wise Latina” speech, I want to know if you think judges should allow their prejudices to impact decision-making. For instance, if I were a plaintiff before your court, would you be less inclined to rule in my favor because my middle name is Beauregard?” And Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa.: “Before we get to my questions, I would like to tell you several anecdotes about my own interesting history. Did I mention that I used to be chairman of this committee?” Bloomberg’s Margaret Carlson charts the day of two women in what’s still a man’s world: “If Sotomayor makes it through her grilling without what Graham called a ‘meltdown,’ a female hazard if ever there was one, she will slip gently into that good quiet that is the Supreme Court, a perfect place for the best student, no worse for the wear and tear. [Hillary] Clinton’s fate will likely be different. Hers may have been a Machiavellian appointment. A potential enemy, she’s been brought far enough inside the tent to be seen as disloyal should she criticize the administration, but kept far enough from the center to be a diplomatic heavyweight.” That CIA program was almost operational: “CIA officials were proposing to activate a plan to train anti-terrorist assassination teams overseas when agency managers brought the secret program to the attention of CIA Director Leon Panetta last month, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the matter,” Joby Warrick reports in The Washington Post. John Woo defends warrantless wiretapping: “As we confront terrorists who remain intent on attacking the U.S., using weapons we cannot anticipate, we should be skeptical of those who insist that we radically change the way this country has always made war,” he writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. Former Treasury secretary Hank Paulson is on the Hill Thursday, in front of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, on the Bank of America deal: “In prepared remarks for a Congressional hearing obtained today by ABC News, former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson admits telling Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis that the Federal Reserve could remove the bank’s board members if they backed out of their proposed merger with Merrill Lynch last December,” ABC’s Matthew Jaffe reports. “However, Paulson emphasizes that Fed Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke never asked him to indicate ‘any specific action the Federal Reserve might take.’ “ This from ranking Republican Darrell Issa, R-Calif., as part of his opening statement Thursday: “Mr. Paulson claims that an attempt by Bank of America to back out of the deal would have ‘threatened the stability of our entire financial system.’ . . . It is a threat to the foundations of our free society when government officials, acting in the midst of a crisis, use dire predictions of imminent disaster to justify their encroachment on our individual liberty and the rule of law.” And with President Obama hitting the Garden State, the first lieutenant governor of New Jersey just might be . . . a reality show winner. (No, seriously.) “With the days dwindling until Gov. Jon Corzine announces a running mate, his short list for lieutenant governor includes a few of the usual Democratic suspects — and one outside-the-box candidate,” per the Star-Ledger’s Claire Heininger and Josh Margolin. “Randal Pinkett, a past winner of the Donald Trump reality show “The Apprentice” who has never held elected office, is being considered by Corzine, who along with his opponents must make a decision by July 27. This is the first year New Jersey voters will elect a lieutenant governor.”
The Kicker: “You’ll have lots of ‘splainin’ to do.” — Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., channeling Ricky Ricardo after Judge Sonia Sotomayor offered a hypothetical about shooting the senator. (Both Coburn and Sotomayor were laughing.) “Didn’t the White House prepare you?” — Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., in mock incredulity that Judge Sotomayor couldn’t recall the episode of “Perry Mason” where the defense attorney lost.
Today on the “Top Line” political Webcast, live at noon ET: Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas; and Politico’s Jonathan Martin. Follow The Note on Twitter: http://twitter.com/thenote For up-to-the-minute political updates check out The Note’s blog . . . all day every day: