Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Daily Strike-3/3/09-Senate Amendments/Brown's Visit/House Inaction

Good Tuesday and welcome to the Daily Strike. The omnibus spending bill, a collection of last year's unfinished appropriations measures, is slowly making its way through the Senate. Let's get to what happened today.

SENATE: The Senate took a few votes today on Republican amendments, all of which were intended to cut funding from the bill. The first amendment was offered by John McCain, and it would have struck the underlying bill in favor of a resolution to continue funding the government at current levels until September 30th. This, in my opinion, would not have been a good idea. Firstly, federal departments have a difficult time managing money when operating on a continuing resolution, but current funding levels often don't meet the departments' growing needs. Secondly, this year's funding levels were enacted in December of 2007. A lot has changed since then, if you didn't notice. Even if the economy didn't collapse, we would still need to account for inflation. The amendment failed by a vote of 63-32. All Democrats voted against it except for Indiana Senator Evan Bayh and Missouri's Claire McCaskill. Both of these members have had independent streaks when it comes to federal spending, so I'm not entirely surprised. Republicans voting no included: Bennett (UT), Bond (MO), Cochran (MS), Collins (ME), Murkowski (AK), Shelby (AL), Snowe (ME) and Specter. What do these Republicans have in common? They're all (except for Snowe) on the Appropriations committee, so they have an enhanced ability to plug in their pet spending items.

Next was an amendment offered by Senator Ensign, Republican of Nevada. The amendment would have called for the bill to be sent back to the appropriations committee with instructions to cut $19 billion worth of spending. This is roughly equal to the amount of spending added to the bill on top of last year's funding levels. The amendment failed by a vote of 61-33. All Democrats including Bayh and McCaskill voted against the amendment. The Republicans mentioned above all voted no again, with the exceptions of Senators Bennett (UT) and Murkowski (AK) (maybe their earmarks weren't the ones getting cut?).

The final vote was offered by Senator Hutchison, Republican of Texas. Her amendment was similar to McCain's, except that instead of cutting funding down to 2008 levels, it cut funding down to 2008 levels + inflation. This would have cut roughly $12 billion from the underlying bill. I guess the idea here was that if the Senate wouldn't accept $19 billion in cuts, they might accept $12 billion. Not so. The amendment failed 55-40. Bayh and McCaskill again joined Republicans in voting for it, while Republican Senators Bond (MO), Shelby (AL), Snowe (ME) and Specter (PA) joined Democrats in voting against it. I'm most surprised by Senator Shelby. He is a former Democrat who switched parties in 1994 and became a very conservative Republican. I guess there must be some important bacon in this bill for his constituents.

The Republicans have offered a slew of additional amendments. Majority Reid might decide in the next day or so that the Republican amendments are barely relevant and are just being introduced to stall time (one of them deals with family planning money). Reid would then file a motion to cut off debate, which would be subject to a 60 vote threshold. It seems like the Democrats have enough votes. The question is whether any of these amendments will be adopted. If they are, the bill will return to the House which must accept the Senate's changes. If not, the bill will go straight to President Obama.

The bill must pass by March 6th, this Friday, when the current continuing resolution expires. If not, Congress must pass another temporary stopgap measure to prevent the government from shutting down. No chance of a shutdown with a Democratic Congress and Democratic President.

THE HOUSE: The House only voted today on a few motions to suspend the rules and agree to some non-controversial bills. The chamber was supposed to consider both a comprehensive housing bill and a bill to grant a U.S. House member to DC. The housing bill is still stalled because of objections from some conservative-leaning Democrats, who think a provision allowing bankruptcy judges to change the terms of mortgages goes too far. I assume they'll have things worked out tomorrow in time for a vote on final passage.

On the DC voting rights bill, I'm going to have to pull a Stephen Colbert and say "I CALLED IT!!!!!!!" It looks like the DC bill is being postponed temporarily because of a controversial amendment added in the Senate that eliminates DC's gun control laws.

Here's the deal. Republicans have said that they'll offer a motion to recommit the bill with instructions to include the gun law measure. The motion would probably pass, because there are a lot of moderate/conservative Democrats who don't want to lose their 100% rating from the NRA. Republicans would need at least 37 Democrats to cross over, which seems entirely plausible. House leaders worry that if the motion is adopted, the underlying bill may not pass. Republicans would probably still vote against the bill because they object to the idea of DC adding a voting member in the House. Liberal Democrats would vote against the bill because of the gun provision. So the Democratic leadership is stuck between a rock and a hard place on this one.

One option would be to adopt a special rule prohibiting the GOP from offering a motion to recommit. Besides the fact that this would violate precedent, a vote on the rule would become the de-facto vote for or against the gun provision. I'm sure the NRA would call members and say that they're gun rights grade will be affected if they vote for the rule. Therefore, those same conservative Democrats would vote against the rule.

Another option would be to allow the gun provision to stay in the bill, but try and strip it out in a conference committee. Although, it would be hard to eliminate a measure in a conference committee after both chambers have approved it.

So Steny Hoyer, the House Majority Leader, and Speaker Pelosi are going to have to find some way around this if they want to get this bill passed. My prediction is that they agree to let their members vote for the gun-rights motion, and hope that enough liberal members will still vote for final passage.

OBAMA: The President had another busy day. He first spoke at the Transportation Department, where he announced the first construction project to be directly funded from the stimulus bill. The project goes to the aptly named "American Infrastructure Group." I can't stress enough how important it is to highlight specific instances where the stimulus package is creating jobs and spurring economic growth. These stories are far more powerful than statistics, especially when the statistics may still be pretty ugly for the next few months.

The President then met with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at the White House, where they discussed the economic crisis and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, among other things. Brown addresses a joint session of Congress tomorrow.

Obama also ventured over to the Interior Department, where he criticized the previous administration for turning a blind eye to science.

That's it for tonight. We'll keep you updated on all the action tomorrow.

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