Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Daily Strike-2/3/09-Obama's Tough Day

Today was the most difficult so far in the Obama Presidency. Let's run down what happened. Also, we're continuing to follow Senate amendments to the stimulus bill and will keep you updated as more votes become available.

DASCHLE GONE: The big news of the day was former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's decision to withdraw his name from consideration to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. He claimed that he didn't want his tax problems to be a distraction to President Obama's effort to cure the economy and enact health care reform. Fair enough. I question what the long term impact of Daschle's withdrawal is. The Bush administration is certainly not remembered for Linda Chavez or Bernard Kerik (two other tax cheats who had to withdraw their nominations), but Daschle, to me, seems more significant. Part of it is that it helps extinguish the Obama glow, still shining from the inauguration. He seemed so unstoppable two weeks ago, like a transformative political leader. Can anything be more "politics as usual" than a former politician failing to report income from a private limo? It really reeks to me, as an Obama supporter, to have a powerful elite not pay his fair share in taxes, especially considering how people are suffering economically. Also, Obama has set high standards for himself. He shouldn't have allowed the vetting process to continue if he knew Daschle had tax problems of this magnitude. Obama admitted as much tonight in various TV interviews, in which he said, "I consider this a mistake on my part and one I intend to fix and correct and make sure we don’t screw it up again.”

So what are the short term effects? First, we need a new nominee. The options are pretty limited at this point. If I were Obama, I would not want to deal with taking another sitting Senator out of the upper chamber and dealing with another awkward gubenatorial appointment. I wouldn't want to nominate a House member either, seeing that Senator Gillibrand's former seat in upstate New York looks like it has already opened up a huge opportunity for a Republican pickup. Who is left? Former Vermont Governor and DNC chairman Howard Dean's name has surfaced, but there are rumors that Obama is not a big fan of Dean. Another option is former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber. He seems like the likeliest choice to me.

There are other short-term effects Daschle's withdrawal. First, what happens to the stimulus? Even though Daschle's new role wouldn't have related directly to the stimulus, his withdrawal does contribute to a growing, nebulous Republican narrative, which goes something like this: Democrats are corrupt, they won't pay taxes themselves, but want to raise your taxes (at least in the long run) and spend your money irresponsibly. How can we trust the party of Geithner and Daschle? I don't think it will have too big of an impact because lest we forget, people are hurting, and the majority of Congress understands the urgency. What I'm more worried about is health Care reform. Daschle's withdrawal restarts the clock on a concentrated, coherent, political push to get health care reform done this year. This is one of Obama's top priorities, and our best political opportunity in a generation to get it done. Now, Obama will have to find a new face of the health care reform effort, get him through confirmation, and get him settled into HHS. By the time this happens, will the political capital still be there to get universal health care through? It better be.

One thing I do know: it will be unfortunate not to have an HHS nominee on stage as Obama signs the expanded SCHIP bill, most likely later this week.

THAT OTHER NOMINEE: The overshadowed news today was the official nomination of Republican Senator Judd Gregg to be Secretary of Commerce. New Hampshire Governor John Lynch, a Democrat, selected a Republican (as promised), Bonnie Newman, to be Gregg's replacement. Newman promptly announced she would not seek reelection in 2010. This is good news for Democrats. A race against the popular Gregg would have been tough, but now their nominee (most likely Rep. Paul Hodes) will get to compete in an open seat race in an increasingly blue state. As for Newman (I can hear Jerry Seinfeld screaming her name), some clues are emerging that she'll be a moderate-to-liberal Republican.

a) she doesn't have to worry about reelection, so she can vote her conscience
b) she endorsed Democrat Lynch in 2004

We'll closely follow how reliable a vote she is for the Obama team.

In other nominee news, Hilda Solis will get a committee vote as soon as tomorrow, and a vote in front of the full Senate later this week or next week. The Secretary of Labor nominee had been held up by Republican Senators over concerns with her pro-labor views. She will probably pass pretty easily in both the committee and full Senate (75-80 votes?).

STIMULUS UPDATE: The big news of the day should have been the debate over the Stimulus in the Senate. Before we get to today's votes, let's step back a minute. Nate Silver had a good piece today talking about how the stimulus, despite a couple of weeks of heavy pressure from the right, is still pretty popular. In every poll, a plurality supports the stimulus bill, and a strong majority wants the Congress to back some sort of stimulative measure. Republicans today were trumping a Gallup poll that showed support for the current stimulus at 38%. This is misleading, because 75% of voters wanted Congress to take SOME action. Bottom line, people still want something done to help the economy, and they largely trust Obama to carry out a plan.

I do think that the Republicans have effectively streamlined their opposition to the bill (even though I strongly disagree with their arguments). They conveniently pick out the most ridiculous-sounding measures in the bill (like STD prevention, re-sodding of the mall etc.) as evidence that the whole bill is a bunch of pork. Obama has not responded to this charge effectively. He has extraordinary political skills, he needs to use them. His statements of support have focused on the urgency of getting something done considering how dire economic conditions are. I think he needs to use the bully pulpit to talk to people about how the bill will affect them directly. You need to give examples of people who are struggling now, and why they would benefit from the bill. Obama has been too cautious so far in using his political capital. Hopefully, today's TV interviews (he did one on every major network) will be a good start.

Now, on to the Senate. There have been three votes so far today on amendments to the stimulus bill. The dynamic here is interesting. The more amendments the Republicans get passed, the more likely the bill will enjoy broad support, but the bill will be considerably less progressive. Democratic Senators have to delicately balance changing the bill enough to please Republicans, but to keep the important core of the House bill. The first vote today was on waiving Senate budget rules to allow an amendment that would increase infrastructure spending by $30 billion. Waiving budget rules require a 60 vote super-majority. The amendment fell just short 58-39. Every Republican voted against the amendment besides Senators Bond of Missouri (another maverick vote for this retiring Senator) and Specter of Pennsylvania. Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana was the only Democrat voting no. I have some questions about these budget rules. Is ALL of the spending subject to these budget rules, meaning it would require 60 votes to proceed? I'm not sure, quite frankly. I'm trying to find out.

In the meantime, the Senate voted to APPROVE an amendment by the ultraconservative Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. I can't remember the last time that happened. His amendment struck about 200 million in funding for Hollywood Production companies. This seems like one of those items that is just inviting Republican opposition. 52 Senators voted for the amendment, including Democrats Bayh of IN, Bennet of CO, Carper of DE, Casey of PA, Dorgan of ND, Hagan of NC, Johnson of SD, Lieberman of CT (amazingly, this is his first remotely conservative vote in the new Congress), McCaskill of MO, Pryor of AR, Udall of CO, and Webb of VA. 45 Senators voted against the amendment, including Republicans Vitter of LA (are you kidding? maybe he voted this way be accident) and Voinovich of OH.

The latest vote was to waive the budget rules on an amendment by Senator Mikulski of Maryland that would have extended tax breaks to dealers and purchasers of certain vehicles. This time, they got the required 60 votes. The rules were waived by a vote of 71-26, and the amendment was agreed to by voice vote. Interestingly, the vote was not neatly split down party lines. An equal number of Republicans and Democrats opposed the amendment.

More votes coming tonight on various amendments from both parties. I will write a special Late Night Strike to make sure you stay up to date. Passage is still on track for late this week, with a Senate/House conference in the works next week.

THE HOUSE: The House today passed a bunch of bills under suspension of the rules (see previous vocab definition!). One of those bills verbatim: BILL TITLE: Raising awareness and encouraging prevention of stalking by establishing January 2009 as “National Stalking Awareness Month.” Ahh, suspension bills.

Tomorrow, the House has a very busy day. It will debate whether to delay the Digital TV switch from February to June. Then, it will vote on final passage of the State Children's Health Insurance Bill, which was amended by the Senate. Passage tomorrow will clear the way for Obama's signature later this week. Finally, the House will vote on an omnibus budget bill that funds the government through September 30th. Expect Republicans to object to the level of spending in this bill and vote almost unanimously against it. I've already heard complaints from the House's chief earmark hawk, Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona.

MEANWHILE: While everyone was panicking about Daschle, the administration has decided to impose strict new regulations on the financial industry by issuing limits on executive pay on companies that received bailout money. This is a VERY important decision, which hopefully won't be overshadowed by Daschle's shananigans.

Stay tuned for the Late Night Strike...and have a good evening! We welcome your comments!

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