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Daniel Malloy
Greg Bluestein

‘Religious liberty’ bill passes during a bathroom break

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 Josh McKoon, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and author of S.B. 129, the religious liberty bill. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com

Josh McKoon, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and author of S.B. 129, the religious liberty bill. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com

Whether you call it the Motorman’s Friend or Stadium Pal, if you’re a Senate Democrat in the state Capitol, you might consider ordering one.

On Monday, Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, had sat through an hour-long education committee meeting, followed by a 90-minute hearing on his no-knock-warrant bill. Assisted by a few bottles of water.

Your daily jolt on politics from the AJC's Political insider blogSo after he quickly checked in with chairman Josh McKoon at his Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, Fort made a dash for the bathroom. By the time he got back, S.B. 129, the stalled religious liberty bill authored by McKoon, had been pulled off the table and voted through by his committee. Which at the time, consisted only of Republicans.

“When I got back, it was gone. [McKoon] knew I was going to come back,” Fort said. “It seems to me the right thing would have been to delay the vote until all the members who had appeared at the committee were in the room.”

Alerted by a staffer in the audience, other Senate Democrats rushed to the scene, but were too late.

The committee passage of S.B. 129 was a dramatic turnaround for Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, who had been targeted by religious conservatives after leading the effort to stall the bill.

According to our AJC colleague Kristina Torres:

The new version is sparser and hews to federal language already on the books. It does not, however, include an anti-discrimination amendment first proposed by Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, to state clearly that the government had a compelling interest to act against religious beliefs if it prevented child abuse or protected individuals from discrimination.

On Monday, Cowsert said he was satisfied without it. Cowsert took care to praise McKoon, saying he had been “unfairly attacked in the press and some groups trying to make an argument that it’s a pretext for religious discrimination.”

Supporters of S.B. 129 and H.B. 218, the House version, will hold a 2:30 p.m. rally today at the state Capitol. But don’t expect a speedy vote for McKoon’s bill. His vote may be needed on some tough issues, including a transportation funding bill and Gov. Nathan Deal’s school-rescue program.

***

Jeb Bush is returning to Atlanta on March 19, as he continues stockpiling money in anticipation of a presidential bid.

Eric Tanenblatt, the Republican rainmaker who has worked for Bushes 41 and 43, will squire the former Florida governor around Atlanta for fundraisers and meetings.

“He knew a lot of people since being governor and in his business dealings, so he’s got a lot of friends here,” Tanenblatt said of Bush’s first visit as a prospective presidential candidate in January.

“I feel really good about the way he’s been received. He’s not an official candidate yet, and I hope he decides at some point he want to be one.”

The big-money types are not the only Georgians that Bush is interested in. Conservative media personality Erick Erickson reports on RedState that he met with Bush at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington — and he was impressed:

He struck me as far more polished than many of the other candidates and he clearly recognizes the quality, however superficial it might be to some, of looking the part.

More interesting, I have a ton of friends who like him. They all have one thing in common. They are Christians. They appreciated the sincerity of his brother’s faith and they appreciate his as they perceive it reflected in his demeanor, his soft language on immigration, and his position of Schiavo back in the day.

Don’t shoot the messenger. I’m just telling you. At the same time, a lot of major donors tell me that they think we do not need another Bush and they view him as the second coming of Romney. Major donors who I thought would go in early with Bush are looking instead at Scott Walker.

That leads me to Walker and a problem. He is not polished yet.

Erickson goes on to give his thoughts on the entire GOP field’s CPAC performances, closing with this:

If conservatives rally by December, Jeb Bush will not be the nominee. But if conservatives fracture headed into Iowa and New Hampshire, the nominee will be Bush. He will have the fundraising ties even without a lot of the major donors. After all, his last name is Bush. Conservatives are on notice.

***

Gov. Nathan Deal and his Republican allies have staked this legislative session on transportation and education. Next year it could very well hinge on healthcare.

The Supreme Court hears arguments tomorrow in a case that could invalidate a key provision of Obamacare insurance coverage for as many as 8 million people, including hundreds of thousands in Georgia.

King v. Burwell will decide on the legality of the Affordable Care Act’s subsidy payments for Georgia and 33 other states that refused to set up their own healthcare exchanges. Some 537,000 Georgians have signed up for coverage under the federal exchange, and the Obama administration has no contingency plan in case the law is struck down.

Deal said in an interview Monday that he believes the law will be struck down, and that the burden of finding a solution to restore their coverage could shift to the states even if Congress can reach a compromise with the White House over its future.

“It’s an issue that hopefully Congress will look at, if the ruling goes as many of us anticipate it will – throwing out that portion of Obamacare as unconstitutional,” said Deal, adding: “It will be an issue that will come to the states in very rapid order.”

***

On the premium site we have a look at how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress (11 a.m. today) is dividing Georgia’s U.S. House Democrats, and the Atlanta-area Jewish community.

Your final whip count: U.S. Reps. John Lewis, D-Atlanta; and Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, do not plan to be there. U.S. Reps. David Scott, D-Atlanta; and Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, will attend.

The biggest-name Democrat speech-skipper is Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., lays into all of the Democrats who won’t be there in a statement this morning:

“I welcome Prime Minister Netanyahu to the United States, and strongly urge my colleagues in both the House and Senate to ignore the political theatre and pay attention to the serious concerns of the Israeli Prime Minister. Members should focus on the substance of the Prime Minister’s concerns, not the venue of their delivery. It is irresponsible for any Member of Congress to refuse to even listen to the Prime Minister and turn their back on our ally, Israel, at such a critical time.”

Perdue met Netanyahu on his first overseas trip as a senator last month.

***

The U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill Monday to award the Congressional Gold Medal — the highest honor Congress can bestow — to the “foot soldiers” of Selma, Ala., ahead of the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday on Saturday. The House did the same last month.

Nearly 100 House members and senators are set to head to Alabama on Friday for a three-day civil rights pilgrimage led by Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta. It offers additional incentive to quickly resolve the Department of Homeland Security funding impasse, as funding runs out at midnight Friday. From Politico:

Speaker John Boehner announced that the House will vote Tuesday on the Senate’s bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security, a move that could enrage a small pocket of conservatives but will end the impasse over the agency’s funding.

“I am as outraged and frustrated as you at the lawless and unconstitutional actions of this president,” Boehner said to a closed meeting Republicans, in reference to President Barack Obama’s changes to the enforcement of immigration laws, according to a source in the room.

“I believe this decision – considering where we are – is the right one for this team, and the right one for this country. The good news is that the president’s executive action has been stopped, for now. This matter will continue to be litigated in the courts, where we have our best chance of winning this fight.”

***

We haven’t yet heard from the Georgia chapter, but lawmakers may want to take note that Washington-based Americans For Prosperity are on the move against a hike in the federal gas tax. From a petition the group is circulating:

Just when we thought we had some relief at the gas pump, some lawmakers on Capitol Hill have begun to call for an increase in the nation’s gas tax. This is a misguided proposal that will hurt the economy and make life more difficult for millions of Americans who have benefitted significantly from the sharp drop in prices.

***

State Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, says he’ll support the LaVista Hills/Tucker citification bill dropped by state Rep. Tom Taylor, R-Dunwoody. From Holcomb’s newsletter to constituents:

“I have knocked on many doors in my community and spoken with my neighbors and I believe that residents of the area that I represent want to have the opportunity to vote. While sentiment is not unanimously in favor of new cities, nor unanimously in favor of the boundaries that were drawn, it is evident to me that a majority of my constituents do want the opportunity to vote in a referendum.”

***

The Marietta Daily Journal reports that Joyette Holmes, a Cobb assistant district attorney, has been named by that circuit’s superior court judges as chief magistrate judge. She’s the first African-American and the first woman to hold the position.

***

Your outrage of the day, from the New York Times:

BEIRUT, Lebanon — He has publicly declared that “the Jews” control America, that apostates can be killed, that the United States is the world’s “biggest terrorist” and that the Sept. 11 attacks were an “inside job” by President George W. Bush.

But last weekend, Dr. Zakir Naik, a prominent Muslim televangelist from India, appeared at an elaborate ceremony at a luxury hotel in Saudi Arabia, where the new monarch, King Salman, gave him one of the country’s highest honors.

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