Monday, February 9, 2009

The Weekly Strike-2/9-2/15

Good Monday morning and welcome to the Weekly Strike. There is a lot to talk about, so let's get right to it.

BIG WEEK IN CONGRESS: Today, the Senate votes at 5:30pm to end debate on the stimulus compromise agreed to last Friday afternoon. The motion requires 60 votes to pass, which it almost certainly will. My prediction of a 61-37 vote (with Senator Gregg, the Commerce Secretary nominee, abstaining) still stands. All 58 Democrats will likely support the bill, as will Republican Senators Snowe and Collins of Maine and Specter of Pennsylvania. The next key vote will be tomorrow at 12pm to waive the Budget Rules in relation to the bill. This also requires 60 votes to pass, and it will. After these two hurdles are cleared, the bill will be passed (most likely on voice vote since they will have already indicated what the result of a roll call vote would be). The bill then enters a House-Senate conference where intense negotiations will take place. Ronald Reagan, who I don't often quote, once said that if an apple and an orange went into a conference committee, you would get a pear. I don't think that will be the case here. The Senate compromise was reached so delicately, and the Democrats only have a vote or so to spare (the final bill will almost certainly need 60 votes to pass because you can bet the Republicans will filibuster). The House has about 30 votes to spare. The House bill has more direct government spending, and does not have some of the add-ons of the Senate bill like: a temporary fix for the Alternative Minimum Tax, a Housing Tax Credit, and a credit that encourages the purchase of cars. Unfortunately, the final bill won't likely reflect the best policy prescriptions, but rather the political math. Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a key Republican negotiator, has said that she will oppose the bill if it changes too much in conference. Would Arlen Specter or Olympia Snowe do the same? If not, the Democrats could perhaps adopt more of the House language. If so, expect the final bill to be closely aligned with the Senate bill.

The agreement that comes out of this conference (called the "Conference Report") must be approved separately by both houses. It remains to be seen how quickly this can all happen. Usually, conference negotiations take weeks, and even months, but these are extenuating circumstances. We will keep you posted on all the key votes as they happen this week.

The House is in session starting today, waiting for the Senate to act on the stimulus. Meanwhile, they will consider a bill that is a bundle of measures blocked in the last Congress by Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn. (The bill is referred to as the "Tomnibus" bill). Most of the bills in this omnibus were not controversial, but Coburn placed a hold on them because of his concerns about the fiscal impact of these measures. To overcome the hold, Democrats needed 60 votes, which they did not have until the new Congress was sworn in. This package passed the Senate a few weeks ago, so House passage would send it to Obama. The House will also take up a handful of non-controversial measures under suspension of the rules.

THE POLITICS OF IT: A Gallup poll released this morning sharply rebukes critics who claim that the stimulus is losing popularity and that the Republican party's ideas are gaining steam. 67% of respondents support the way Obama has handled the stimulus. 48% approve of how Democrats in Congress have handled the bill, and a whopping 31% approve of how Congressional Republicans have handled the legislation. This should come as a surprise to Republicans, who believed that they were gaining politically by returning to their "fiscal conservative" roots. I think they overstretched their hand on this one by publicly touting their opposition to the new popular President, even as he reached out his hand in cooperation. I'm also still amazed that they cling to the belief that their heavy losses in 2006 and 2008 are due to their supposed abandonment of fiscal conservatism, when there is no evidence that this was the case. I think it is a convenient way to justify the losses without changing an ideological vision that no longer aligns with the American electorate.

To be sure, Obama still has some convincing to do to large swaths of the American electorate. An $800 billion bill is a tough sell, and the same Gallup poll showed that just over half of Americans approve of passage in its current form. To help boost these numbers and sway members of Congress, Obama goes on the road today and tomorrow. He is due to speak today in Elkhart, Indiana, where the unemployment rate is about 15%, twice the national average. As others have pointed out, it's no coincidence that this event is taking place in a school, since the Obama team is not happy about cuts to education spending in the Senate compromise. It will be interesting to see if Obama carries the more aggressive, populist tone he deployed late last week.

He is also scheduled to give a press conference at the White House during prime time, at 8pm EST. This will be his first prime time event as President. We'll see over the next days the extent of which Obama's rhetorical appeal helps shepherd passage of the bill. Clearly, polling data shows that Obama has the upper hand in this struggle, and this week's full court press is aimed to jam the ball into the end zone (there it is, my first football metaphor).

LATER IN THE WEEK: As most of the focus stays on the stimulus fight, Obama's Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will be giving a major address tomorrow unveiling new regulatory policies for banks and credit agencies. This marks another dramatic departure from the previous administration. We'll update you on the details of this proposal as it is unveiled tomorrow.

It also remains to be seen whether there will be any progress on nominees this week. Hilda Solis remains bottled up in committee due to Republican objections to her pro-labor views. Obama also has yet to name a replacement Secretary of Health and Human Services. I would doubt that he'd do that this week, as he wants to devote 100% of his attention the stimulus bill.

Stay tuned for details of all stimulus-related developments this week. Also, read some great posts below from Sister Strike and the Big Picture, and make sure to offer your comments. We really appreciate your feedback and involvement.

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