WASHINGTON -- Here's what happened in Congress on Thursday: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) presided over a hearing on women's health, featuring all Democratic lawmakers who support President Barack Obama's contraception rule and testimony from one witness who also supports the rule.
In other words, nothing happened. But Democrats, perhaps hoping to exact a bit of revenge after their views were excluded from the last such hearing, sure liked it.
When it comes to firing up their base ahead of the November elections, House Democrats are finding that women's health is a winning ticket. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already collected nearly half a million signatures -- and earned a tweet from Barbra Streisand -- on a petition it began circulating less than a week ago that featured a note from Pelosi urging supporters to press House Republicans to include women in Hill discussions on women's health issues. The DCCC followed with another petition blasting Republicans for preventing Democrats from using House resources to televise Thursday's hearing -- a move Democrats say was politically driven. C-SPAN ended up bringing in their own equipment to air the hearing.
Pelosi also appealed to supporters by bringing in Sandra Fluke as the lone witness for Thursday's hearing. Fluke, a Georgetown University law student, made national news last week when Republicans turned her away as a witness in a House Oversight and Government Reform hearing on birth control and religious liberty. Fluke's rejection sparked outcry among Democrats, who were already peeved at the make-up of that hearing: nearly all male witnesses and no supporters of Obama's new contraception rule, which requires religiously-affiliated institutions to provide birth control coverage to their employees.
Thursday's hearing of the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee was something of a payback for that. Fluke got the stage all to herself and was hailed as a hero by the crowd and Democratic lawmakers on the panel, all of whom rushed to appear on camera with her at the end. "Excuse me. I'd love to get a picture with our star," Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said as she pushed her way through the packed room to Fluke.
The reality, though, is that Obama's new rule doesn't require Congressional approval. In fact, the main thing Thursday's hearing did is the same thing that the Republicans' one-sided hearing on the same subject did last week: give one party the chance to fire up their supporters on their side of a contentious issue.
Fluke, whose submitted testimony offers personal stories in making the case for Obama's contraception rule, said after Thursday's hearing that she doesn't feel like she is functioning as a pawn for Democrats as they ramp up their political messaging in the months ahead of a crucial election.
"I don't believe I am a pawn," Fluke told The Huffington Post. "I believe that women's health was being treated as a political football prior to the last week when women weren't being heard. So I'm happy to try to speak on behalf of women and I appreciate the opportunity to do so."
Asked what good it does to testify in support of Obama's contraception rule before an all-Democratic panel that already supports it, Fluke said the fact that she is testifying at all is the point.
"It means women's voices have been heard in the hall of their government," she said. "How can that not be a good thing?"
To be fair, Democrats likely wouldn't have held their own hearing if Republicans had held a fair hearing last week. But Democratic lawmakers on Thursday's panel dismissed the idea that they held their forum on birth control for political reasons.
"It's a big, big deal," Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said of the Democrats' hearing. "To me, there's definitely a pushback on women with regard to contraceptives and this puts it out there. ... It causes women to say, 'We're not going to have it. Don't mess with it.'"
Asked what happened to Congress being focused on jobs and the economy, Cummings said, "We can certainly do more than one thing at one time."
"I think when you have more than half of your population being dissed, you've got to stand up," he said, adding, "I'm talking about women."
Maloney also said politics wasn't driving Democrats' decision to hold their own hearing. "This is about policy. We want women to have access to a whole range of insurance coverage for reproductive rights, including contraceptives," she said.
As for attention to jobs and the economy over politics, Maloney cited a meeting she had this week with Treasury Department officials to discuss legislation she is working on that would provide small loans to small businesses.
"I'm focused on that," she said.
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